Bishop Accountability

Secrets, Celibacy and the Church

By Jason Berry
New York Times
April 3, 2002

Jason Berry is the author of "Lead Us Not Into Temptation: Catholic Priests and the Sexual Abuse of Children."

New Orleans - The crisis facing the Catholic Church is a tragedy that has been decades in the making. It was to conceal sexual activity in a culture of celibacy that many cardinals and bishops resorted to deception and dishonesty, even about crimes committed by priests. Only recently has the church been forced by the public and the victims to acknowledge this record of abuse. The larger truth about the sexual revolution tearing at the church, however, has barely begun to unfold.

Celibacy does not cause pedophilia. But celibacy has given rise to a secretive culture in which sexual behavior in any form must be hidden. In such a context, homosexual activity is something to be ashamed of. Under Catholic teachings, it is considered a sin.

The problem, of course, is that pedophilia is not just a sin, it is a crime. But the same secrecy and shame that hides homosexuality in the church produces an atmosphere that has concealed acts of pedophilia. Just as bishops like Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston tolerated pedophiles in their midst, they have largely failed to reckon with the development of a complex culture of gay priests. One narrow strand of this culture consists of those priests who have molested teenage boys.

No reliable survey has been done to determine how many priests are homosexual. But a growing literature on the issue underscores the crisis. The priesthood is becoming a gay profession, the Rev. Donald B. Cozzens, a respected former seminary rector, wrote in his recent book "The Changing Face of the Priesthood." As the Rev. Andrew M. Greeley wrote in 1989: "Blatantly active homosexual priests are appointed, transferred and promoted . . . . National networks of active homosexual priests (many of them church administrators) are tolerated. Pedophiles are reassigned."

Of course, there is a distinction between celibate homosexual priests and sexually active gay priests. But the celibate homosexual priest is made to feel guilt over his sexual orientation because of the official teaching of the church that homosexuality is a "moral disorder." Last month the pope's spokesman, Joaquin Navarro-Valls, voiced his opinion that "people with these inclinations" should not be ordained.

It needn't have turned out this way. The crisis dates to the reform-minded Second Vatican Council of the early 1960's. As priests voiced misgivings about celibacy, the influential Jesuit theologian John Courtney Murray predicted the law would soon be changed. Instead, Pope Paul VI issued his 1967 encyclical upholding celibacy as the church's "brilliant jewel" -- psychologically and clerically.

Soon after, an exodus began. In the last four decades, the number of priests in the United States has dropped from 60,000 to 40,000 (with 7,000 retired), even as the Catholic population has grown to an all-time high of 63 million. Over the last three decades, an average of 1,200 men have left the priesthood annually, most of them to marry. The aging clerical culture has failed to foster a successor generation. Since Vatican II, seminary enrollment has dropped 75 percent.

In this drama of attrition, the proportion of gay priests rose. With the celibacy law restricting the pool of candidates, bishops grew desperate to attract unmarried men. The Catholic News Service, a division of the United States Catholic Conference, reported last month that the Vatican is concerned about "the negative effects of homosexuality within the priesthood." Yet it has taken no action.

The problem is the power structure. Obsessed with secrecy, the bishops have denied the implications of the changes in ecclesiastical culture. In 1992 I published a book on sexual abuse by priests, with a long section on the gay clergy. Much of my research was based on lawsuits filed by abuse victims. In scores of sworn depositions I read, the plaintiffs' legal strategy was clear: to show that a hierarchy that allows priests to break its own ecclesiastical rules would also shelter those who violated state criminal laws.

I interviewed several dozen gay priests across America. With assurances of anonymity (lest their bishops punish them for coming out of the closet), they promptly began discussing their sex lives. I asked why, if they could not practice celibacy, they didn't leave the priesthood. Most saw themselves as leading the church toward the reform of outdated moral teachings -- including celibacy.

Many Catholics believe that some of the church's rules are archaic and should be changed. Yet we also expect priests not to lead closeted lives of sexual activity.

Most liberal Catholics find it difficult to call attention to this situation for fear that criticism of any dimension of gay culture is homophobic. But the issue is hypocrisy, not homophobia. Conservative Catholics, meanwhile, should recognize that celibacy is a failure, practically and morally. They should also acknowledge that homophobia is immoral. Conservatives and liberals alike should acknowledge that sexual secrecy is destroying the church, and one way to save it would be to make celibacy optional.

The requirement of celibacy is not dogma; it is an ecclesiastical law that was adopted in the Middle Ages because Rome was worried that clerics' children would inherit church property and create dynasties. (Now the church is selling property to pay for the abuse scandal.) A history of monastics and desert ascetics provided a celibate spirituality. But the requirement could be changed by a stroke of the papal pen.

Pope John Paul II, so brilliant on the geopolitical stage, so visionary in fostering a dialogue with Jews, has shut off internal reform. His failure to confront the pathology of sexual secrecy is his papacy's deepest flaw.

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