Anti-celibacy Lobby Rout Traditionalists in Cinema Debate

By Simon Parke
Church Times
September 17, 2010

The Odeon cinema in Leicester Square, London, played host on Tues­day night to a debate on the motion: “Celibacy should no longer be a compulsory requirement for the Roman Catholic priesthood.” Among those speaking in favour were Baroness Kennedy QC and the theologian Professor Tina Beattie, while those against were led by the RC Bishop of Nottingham, the Rt Revd Malcolm McMahon, and the comedian Frank Skinner.

Lady Kennedy accused the Church of being “schizophrenic” about human rights: strong in some areas, but weak on sexuality and pro­creation. The insistence on clerical celi­bacy was a 12th-century invention, concerned with property rights, and nothing to do with holiness, she said. “Is Rowan Williams less holy because he is married?” she asked, prompting a loud “No!” from the back.

She did not believe that celibacy led directly to paedophilia, but felt that making people feel guilty about sexuality was not a good starting place. “People imagine their sexuality will be somehow removed if they be­come priests. Fearing adult sexual intimacy, they feel safer with chil­dren. Sexual abuse in the home is almost always with girls; in the priesthood, it’s almost always with boys.”

Bishop McMahon said that to change now would fly in the face of tradition. Celibacy was not an abso-l­ute, but was very close to the heart of the matter. Through holy orders, man was configured to Christ, who was both priest and victim — a vic­tim of sacrifice, the Bishop argued. So Jesus called his apostles to leave every­thing, including marriage.

In reply, Professor Beattie sugges­ted that such thinking defined God incarnate as nothing more than “a man with a penis he didn’t use”.

Frank Skinner was more idealistic: “I want my priest to be a holy man, a step nearer heaven, a little nearer the light.” He feared that the Church was exchanging “poetry for prose by em­bracing the secular agenda. I want women priests; I want gay priests; but not married priests.”

The ensuing debate was lively, causing Mr Skinner to utter a phrase he had never before used on stage: “Don’t heckle the nun!” When heck­led himself, he replied: “I’ve never had a heckler call me Frank. I was hoping to be heckled in Latin.”

Jack Valero, representing Opus Dei, said he believed that celibacy was “like throwing yourself on a grenade to save your friends”.

Fr Stephen Wang spoke of the freedom it gave the priest to be with others, while symbolising “an un­divided heart”.

Many raised questions, however. “Was not the founder of the Church, Simon Peter, married?” asked one. And another: “Is celibacy embraced by priests or endured? It seems most endure it.” Some echoed the asser­tion by the writer and film director John Deery that “celibates are no closer to God than anyone else.” Others felt that it created an un­helpful mystification of the priest­hood, and was rooted in pagan ideas of sex being unclean: “And too much reverence for individuals is a bad thing.”

Lady Kennedy closed by saying that a loving Church in the 21st cen­tury must understand human rights. “Celibate priests are cheap — but the cost is enormous.”

Bishop McMahon, perhaps feeling the mood of the gathering, said he felt that “the 21st-century Church is much humbled and pretty powerless in so many ways.”

The discussion followed a show­ing of Mr Deery’s film from 2002, Conspiracy of Silence (www.conspir­acy­ It was an attack on sexual hypocrisy in the Church, and closed with the observation that “100,000 priests have left the Roman Catholic Church in the last 25 years.”

The motion attacking clerical celibacy was carried by 85 per cent to 15 per cent, but when the audience of 800 was asked whether anyone had changed his or her mind during the debate, one person raised a hand, moving Frank Skinner to comment: “So tonight has not been in vain.”

Is the time ripe for the RC Church to stop requiring priestly celibacy?


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