A Riveting Look at Celibacy and the Catholic Church

By Kay McFadden
The Seattle Times [United States]
June 28, 2004

Eyebrows were raised last week when President Bush for the first time publicly endorsed using condoms. Clearly, the rubber had met the road to the White House.

But Bush's acknowledgment of human behavior has a bigger context. The conservative Republican leader of the West's most religious nation, a man backed by millions of evangelical Christians, now can say he stands to the left of something the Roman Catholic Church.

That position seems secure. As we learn in HBO's terrific documentary "Celibacy: The Devil and the Flesh," airing at 10 tonight, the official Church's rigid perception of sexuality is rooted in a fascinating history of denial and coercion.

The catalyst for filmmaker Anthony Thomas' work was the recent global wave of crimes involving priests who have sexually abused children. He uses this topic to launch an exploration into the psychological and theological origins of the crisis, and it is an incredibly information-packed hour and 15 minutes.

The results aren't just for Catholics. Thomas' inquiry goes into the wider field of sexual identity, from the biochemical nature of pleasure to dominant and submissive role-playing to the status of women in religion. It's a great adult fit for HBO.

The film's thesis is posed as a series of inquiries: "Is sexual denial healthy, or can it sometimes become dangerous?" "Is there any link between enforced celibacy and an apparent epidemic of child abuse by the clergy?" "And why enforced?"

Anyone who's spent a few years in a Catholic school or immersed in church-related activities might see a big "duh" in such questions. You needn't have been a priest or a nun to experience the atmosphere of repression around sexual matters.

But it is one thing to be repressed and another to be oppressed. No other religion has a blanket policy requiring all its religious orders to abstain from sex in thought, word and deed, and Thomas is determined to get to the bottom of this reasoning.

His excursion begins in Ireland, formerly one of the world's most Catholic nations as measured in church attendance and in the power the church exercised.

That influence is waning. At a present-day ceremony where eight young men are preparing to become priests, the film notes the statistical decline in religious orders since the early 1960s.

The film suggests that celibacy is the cause, yet notes that Catholicism is not the only religion to emphasize it. A 10-minute segment, beautifully filmed, examines several Eastern religions where abstention is highly regarded.

We see a young woman, age 13, preparing to become a Buddhist nun. Her hair is shorn and her breasts are bound. Eradication of sexual desire and identity are perceived as necessary steps on the road to higher consciousness.

The film also visits a celibate Hindu order. It follows an ancient Greek concept that sperm is the elixir of life and that to waste it in sex is to sap physical strength. Young men are awakened in the predawn hours to exercise and avoid dangerous dreams.

Watching young Buddhist monks wrestle to redirect their sexual energy, I wondered if the documentary would introduce the aspect of homosexuality in all-male orders.

But that comes later. "Celibacy" is very much theme-oriented, and the theme picked up here is whether sexual desire really can be redirected.

A neuroscientist suggests it can that religious ecstasy is a substitute for physical orgasm and that the same little opiates produced by pleasure can be produced by pain.

Before you can say "St. Sebastian," the film is pouring on images of fleshly mortification from a traditional Catholic community in the Philippines, where flagellation and crucifixion piercings still are practiced. Be prepared for some very vivid images.

We also hear a sexual-behavior expert weigh in on the link between Catholicism and sadomasochism: the reduction in ego, the surrender to a higher authority, the rapt attention and focus.

It's pretty riveting stuff but still something of an aside from the documentary's main focus. At times, "Celibacy" stumbles under the weight of its own diverse curiosity.

More to the point is a practical primer on the Roman Catholic Church's policy of celibacy, which evolved into a full-scale ban in 1139 after centuries of infighting.

The reasons, we are told, were financial and political. Priests without children would leave their property to the church; controlling an individual's sexuality is an ultimate form of power if it works, which nicely brings "Celibacy" back to the current mess.

Here is where the film really excels. Despite treading territory familiar to anyone who's followed the sexual-abuse scandal, the sheer intimacy of the interviews makes it all heartbreakingly fresh without being maudlin or repetitive.

Still, the most engrossing part of "Celibacy" is the last half-hour, where the Roman Catholic clergy speaks for itself about what has happened inside its walls.

Rev. Harry Walsh, a celibate priest with a doctorate in human sexuality, and other clergy say the church betrayed them, too by isolating them from intimacy and love, and by encouraging a state of arrested development.

A pedophile priest talks about how he chose the priesthood because he thought it would help curb his desires. It didn't work. He abused a young boy and, after seeking treatment, eventually resorted to physical castration. He now is in prison.

"Celibacy" also revisits the territory covered in a 1999 TV documentary called "States of Fear," about the systemic abuse of children in homes run by the Catholic Church in Ireland. The degradation and violence rivaled that in a maximum-security prison.

An American husband and wife married 28 years discuss what it was like to leave the priesthood and the convent for each other a formalized love that parish officials actively fought.

"Celibacy" ends on a pointed note. It observes the Catholic Church took 359 years to acknowledge its error in condemning Galileo for saying the Earth moved around the Sun and wonders how long the church will take to reassess human sexuality.

The answer may not matter to Catholics whose faith has less and less to do with self-appointed representatives.

"My faith is my belief in God," says a Philadelphia grandmother whose son was abused. "All my children have maintained that. It's our faith that gets us through all the rough times.

"But as far as the church - I don't know that any of my children will ever go to church again."


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