Will demand grow to end celibacy, as Pope signals zero tolerance on abuse?

Catholic Herald [London, England]

September 6, 2022

Pope Francis says he has taken personal responsibility to rid the Church of sexual abuse. He told CNN Portugal that he was “responsible that it doesn’t happen anymore.” In an interview in Rome, the Pontiff said the Church had “zero tolerance” for abuse, while “a priest cannot remain a priest if he is an abuser.” Francis told CNN Portugal every case of abuse “hurts” him.  This, despite criticism that Francis has been insufficiently firm in some cases.

The Pope has been criticised, for instance, for defending a bishop in Chile accused of covering up a sex scandal in 2018, something he later described as a “grave error”. That said, the Pope abolished Vatican secrecy rules for cases of abuse, and put in place new rules which made it mandatory for all dioceses to set up systems for reporting abuse and cover-ups. This effectively allows the Church to share documents and information with civil authorities, having already shared files with authorities in some countries, like the US. 

According to the Vatican’s top investigator for abuse, Archbishop Charles Scicluna: “Pontifical secret is no longer an excuse.” Scicluna said abolishing the rule “means the question of transparency is now being implemented at the highest level.” The Pope has also said bishops must take action against clerics who abuse minors and vulnerable adults. That revision involved all of section six of the Church’s Code of Canon Law. The Pope has, however, said he does not believe celibacy plays a role in causing abuse, although many Catholics – even many conservatives – would disagree with this, even if such abuse does occur in wider society where celibacy is not practised.

Abuse has been the scourge of the Church and many critics of Catholicism have cited scandals – and the continuation of priestly celibacy – as reasons for attacking the faith, while scandals have caused many Catholics to abandon the faith altogether. Yet, according to data from the Pew Research Center, fewer than three-in-ten former Catholics in the US agree that the abuse scandal played a role in their departure from the Church (27 per cent among the newly unaffiliated and 21 per cent among the newly Protestant).

That said, progressive movements within the Church seem to see a link between celibacy, abuse and Catholics leaving the pews. A majority at a conference of the German Synodal Path in February endorsed not only women’s ordination, but allowing married clerics as well, something which would bring Catholicism into line with most other Christian denominations (under Eastern Orthodox rules, a celibate priest cannot marry after ordination, but married men can be ordained), as well as Judaism and Islam. 

Allowing married priests could also reserve the lack of priests around the world and the general ageing of clergy (the average age of priests is about 70). There are already exceptions anyway, such as married Anglican ministers who convert, and three years ago, bishops voted to allow married men to become priests in the Amazon. There is also a case for saying that celibate and unmarried priests cannot relate to many of their parishioners’ problems, and that marriage would strengthen their bonds to the Church, not weaken them. 

Whatever else, the Pope’s latest move will be widely welcomed as looking to address a major problem within the Church, amid fears that fresh scandals are to emerge in the Global South. The moral authority of the Church has been rocked by scandals and the evil committed against innocent children, as well as the shameful failure to protect so many by merely moving many priests on to other parishes. Whatever their views of Pope Francis on matters of theology, all Catholics should be united in welcoming any move which looks to end the horror of abuse within the Church once and for all.