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What ails the church? Celibacy or secularism? (Or secularity, as they say in the Dakotas)

March 9, 2013

As we await the election of a new pope, I think this may be a good time to start blogging again.

What inspires me today? A group of letters to the editor in response to a recent op-ed by Bret Stephens in the WSJ. You can’t read the piece in the Journal unless you are an online subscriber, but I did find the entire version here. Stephens first acknowledges how risky it is to analyze the problems of a religion not his own. But in his column about Pope Emeritus Benedict’s resignation and the future of the Catholic Church, he rightly calls the church out on its mishandling of the abuse of children. This really nails it:

No institution whose existence rests on moral teachings can be so populated by sexual predators, or so complicit in their predations.

No problem there. But I knew he was poking a hornets’ nest when he wrote the following:

The obvious and needful solution is to abolish the celibacy of the priesthood, a stricture that all but guarantees the sorts of sordid outcomes described above.

Yeeeeikes. No surprise that he got some angry push back on today’s letters page. This letter really struck me because it comes back to what a lot of conservative Catholic clergy and lay people have argued over the last decade. “It’s not celibacy! It’s the culture!” Take a read:

Celibacy isn’t the crisis. It is the wider Western civilization failing to achieve a cultural condition reflecting norms largely accepted and independent of government and the force of law. It is its visible moral decay, its inability to persuade individuals to voluntarily forgo the excesses that human knowledge and organizations make possible.

This one, written by a South Dakota priest, is even more alarming:

The church’s erosion into secularity is confirmed by secular prejudice. Those who want the church to change will never be satisfied until it ceases to be what it was. I have seen with my own eyes that chickens will peck and tear a mouse to pieces if they can catch it; they will not tolerate its presence. Secularists will peck at the church, meek as a mouse (cf. Matthew 5:5), until they have destroyed her. Yet their attitude was expected by Jesus: “As they have persecuted me, so they will persecute you” (John 15:20, NAB).

What the world needs is not an abolition of celibacy, an ancient discipline, but a world where men and women live with great integrity, honesty and humility.

Actually never heard secularity as the noun form of secular. Secularism, but not secularity. But I digress. I agree that Stephens shouldn’t have suggested that celibacy is the root of all the abuse, but the placing the blame on the non-religious? Come on. The gruesome image of the chickens pecking to death the mouse, the suggestion that Jesus was warning his followers about secularists … it’s all a bit much. This is meant to stir fear and hysteria. And it’s a magician’s trick, a distraction from what’s really going on. Look at those secularists! They’re trying to get in and ruin us! But secularists have nothing to do with it. This is the church’s problem. The church created it. The church compounded it.  The church needs to own it.

Thankfully, the last letter was very sensible:

I think Father Richard McBrien got it right several years ago when he sagely observed that those who think celibacy is the whole problem are wrong; but those who think celibacy has nothing to do with it are equally wrong.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. March 9, 2013 2:33 pm

    Glad to read a new post, Eileen.

    While I find celibacy an impractical and largely arbitrary policy that – especially in contemporary times – pretty much guarantees you’re going to have a shortage of priests, I don’t see the connection between celibacy and sexual predation.

    Celibacy doesn’t create sexual predators and monsters, in my opinion. Rather, sexual predators and monsters go where the hunting is easiest.

    The more a faith tradition is shame-based and the less it celebrates or builds (and therefore protects) the individual, the more I believe its young are at risk.

    I’m speaking in generalities here – like most protestant faith traditions, Catholicism has its own spectrum of beliefs and underlying views of reality and the individual’s place in it.

    • eeflynn permalink*
      March 9, 2013 8:04 pm

      Thanks for your comment, Brad. Excellent insight and so well put. I will just have to say amen.

    • Jack Wirtz permalink
      March 11, 2013 4:19 pm

      A worthy observation Brad, thank you…

  2. Francis Philip permalink
    March 9, 2013 6:36 pm

    Both the secular world and the individual(s) who sin are to blame. The Church is not to blame however.

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