Columns Opinion Thomas Reese: Signs of the Times

Priests, celibacy and sex

(RNS) — Recent news stories about financial settlements with adults who had sexual encounters with a bishop show that the issue of sex abuse in the Catholic Church is not limited to the abuse of minors. When Cardinal Theodore McCarrick was suspended from the priesthood after being credibly accused of abusing an altar boy, it was also revealed that financial settlements for his actions had been made earlier with two adults.

The church has adopted a zero tolerance for the sexual abuse of minors, but how should it deal with other sexual activity by priests?

The requirement of celibacy for priests in the Catholic Church is a topic of debate in the church today. Many, myself included, think that priestly celibacy should be optional, as it is in other Christian churches. Pope Francis has signaled that he is open to considering the ordination of married men but wants the request to come from national bishops’ conferences.

But Francis is also very strong is stating that in the meantime, celibacy must be observed. He would not throw out every priest who violated celibacy; individual lapses can be forgiven. But a priest who is incapable of observing celibacy should return to the lay state, Francis wrote before he became pope, especially if there is a child who has a right to a father.

Not everyone agrees with Francis. Some are less forgiving and would expel from the priesthood anyone who even once violates his promise of celibacy. Others argue that celibacy has never been universally observed and bad laws should not be enforced. In some cultures, bishops know that many of their priests do not observe celibacy and simply ignore it as long as it does not become public or as long as the parishioners don’t complain.

It is unknown how widespread are violations of celibacy. There are lots of anecdotes, but little data. I personally believe that most priests, especially in the United States, observe celibacy. But how are we to think about those who do not?

There is universal agreement that those who have sex with minors should be prosecuted as criminals and expelled from the priesthood. But what about violations with adults? Are there other sexual violations that should be treated by the church with zero tolerance?

Rape or other criminal violations should, of course, receive zero tolerance. These violations should be reported to the police and prosecuted under the law. There is no place in the priesthood for such criminals.

But what about other cases of sex with adults? Many Americans don’t think sex between consenting adults is an issue. But they and the church need to learn from feminists and the #MeToo movement. They have taught us about the danger of sex between adults who are not in positions of equal power.

For the church, this would clearly be the case of a bishop or priest having sex with a seminarian or a bishop having sex with a priest. The relationship here is even greater than that between an employer and employee. A bishop is supposed to be a father to his priests and seminarians. The church needs a zero-tolerance policy toward such abuse. Any bishop having sex with a seminarian or priest should lose his office, as should any priest having sex with a seminarian.

There also are many lay people employed by the church. Surely, the church should follow the highest standards in protecting lay employees from sexual harassment from their supervisors, whether priests or lay. Here the church should adopt best practices developed in the secular world.

There are also pastoral relationships that need to be examined since often the people a priest deals with are very vulnerable.

For centuries, the church has recognized this problem with regard to confessors and penitents. As a result, priests are excommunicated if they absolve their sexual partners.

Secular professionals, such as psychologists, recognize these dangers as well. Clients can be very vulnerable and dependent on their therapist. The feelings and emotions that come up in counseling can be exploited. The church can learn from other professions about best practices.

And what about sex with an ordinary parishioner?

The church needs a frank discussion of these issues with input from the laity. Sex between a priest and adult can be more than simply a violation of celibacy. It can also be a violation of professional ethics. With the advice of laity with expertise in these areas, the church needs to adopt best practices and hold itself to the highest standards. The church needs the help of laity not only in developing standards but also in enforcing them. No profession, including the clergy, is good at policing itself.

(The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of Religion News Service.)

About the author

Thomas Reese

The Rev. Thomas J. Reese, a Jesuit priest, is a Senior Analyst at RNS. Previously he was a columnist at the National Catholic Reporter (2015-17) and an associate editor (1978-85) and editor in chief (1998-2005) at America magazine. He was also a senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University (1985-98 & 2006-15) where he wrote Archbishop, A Flock of Shepherds, and Inside the Vatican. Earlier he worked as a lobbyist for tax reform. He has a doctorate in political science from the University of California Berkeley. He entered the Jesuits in 1962 and was ordained a priest in 1974 after receiving a M.Div from the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley.

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  • “There is universal agreement that those who have sex with minors should be prosecuted as criminals and expelled from the priesthood.”

    Rug sweeping?

    how about

    “There is almost universal agreement, both within and without the RCC, that those who have sex with minors should be prosecuted as criminals and expelled from the priesthood.”

    True paedophiles often actually believe that they and their victims are in a special, and superior, kind of loving relationship. They cannot agree “that those who have sex with minors should be prosecuted as criminals”

    The article at https://www.independent.co.uk/news/paedophilia-sexual-orientation-straight-gay-criminal-psychologist-child-sex-abuse-a6965956.html is worth reading.

  • “He would not throw out every priest who violated celibacy; individual lapses can be forgiven.” So you make a promise to god, and you don’t keep it– hey, could happen to anyone.

    “There is universal agreement that those who have sex with minors should be prosecuted as criminals and expelled from the priesthood.” Oh, really? And exactly how many have ended up in jail in any country?

    “Any bishop having sex with a seminarian or priest should lose his office, as should any priest having sex with a seminarian.” CAUGHT is the missing word here. McCarrick, Caridnal O’Brien, a former Archbishop of Santa Rosa got a pass. As will hetrosexuals.

    “There also are many lay people employed by the church. Surely, the church should follow the highest standards in protecting lay employees from sexual harassment from their supervisors, whether priests or lay. ” Even I can resist the opoportunity to avoid the inherent puns there.

  • “I personally believe that most priests, especially in the United States, observe celibacy.”
    ______________

    Based on what information?

  • I guess it goes without saying in Catholicism that priests are not supposed to do private (private) solo sex, right? Too bad they are supposedly shut out of the only sexual solution which really fits their vocation—-unless they are someday allowed to marry. OF COURSE you can’t entertain the idea of these men doing sexual stuff with minors, seminarians, lay church members, lay employees or any other “consenting adults”. Good grief. Since the obvious private solution is thought to be virtually unspeakable, the needed “frank discussion” probably will never happen. Maybe that means the frank discussion isn’t really “needed” after all. Maybe silence for the unspeakable is better and the “position” is that no one should ever be asked by a priest to do a priest—–for the sake of leaving behind no religious malpractice by a priest in the memory of any persons. Now, if you want to marry off the priests to one woman each for life, fine. That’s a different discussion.

  • If the RCC wants any chance of holding on to celibacy they need to offer more support. The church’s record on sex or no sex is abysmal. Considering it is a hard wired behavior, and one is suppose to deny that behavior, what does the church do to help them, support them, in remaining faithful to that vow? Nothing and that is where the problem lies.

  • Just what we need, moral lessons from an atheist homosexual.

    Canon Law REQUIRES that every priest who has violated celibacy be thrown out.

    The Catholic Church does not run the jails.

    McCarrick has not gotten a pass yet. Let’s see what happens.

  • Would you like to talk about substance abuse in the Episcopal Church.

    Future Church is an ultra-left wing organization which has the credibility of the Jack Chick comics.

    It is inhabited by ex-Catholics with axes to grind.

  • “The church needs a frank discussion of these issues with input from the laity.”

    The laity are agin’ it.

    “With the advice of laity with expertise in these areas, the church needs to adopt best practices and hold itself to the highest standards.”

    Already done.

    http://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG1104/_INDEX.HTM

    http://www.scborromeo.org/ccc/ccc_toc.htm

    “The church needs the help of laity not only in developing standards but also in enforcing them.”

    Just follow the simple directions:

    http://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG1104/_INDEX.HTM

    Thomas Reese continues to be a tower of Jello and a chaser of butterflies in the secular milieu.

  • “the church needs to adopt best practices and hold itself to the highest standards”

    This would be the standards set by Pope Alexander VI? Or perhaps the standards set by the bishops in some of those fine portraits of themselves with their nephews?

  • Think what you like about Future Church – it matters not. The facts presented remain the same.

  • My understanding is that celibacy, like the call to the priesthood itself, is a charisma, a gift from God. My guess is that the real investigation should start there.
    Of course, The World’s Most Perfect Catholic will probably disagree with a bluntly honed ad hominem attack on that.

  • There’s not much basis for a “bluntly honed” (contradiction in terms) when you use “charisma” for “charism”.

    charisma – noun – Compelling attractiveness or charm that can inspire devotion in others.

    charism – noun – Literally “gifts of grace” (charismata), described by St. Paul as gratuitous blessings of an extraordinary and transitory nature conferred directly through the Holy Spirit for the good of others.

    The longest single enumeration is in St. Paul (I Corinthians 12:1-14, 40).

    You’re your own best ad hominem.

  • For every Jude there was a Saint Peter.

    That’s why it’s called the Pilgrim Church.

    Stick to what you know. Surely there is something.

  • Ex, “Please be aware that by becoming a priest there is no sexual interactions” “Thank you and see you next year.”

  • “Since the obvious private solution is thought to be virtually unspeakable, the needed “frank discussion” probably will never happen.”

    I’ll never forget an episode from the original “Roseanne” series in which a very young DJ asks Dan about the “private solution.” Dan winced a bit and with a very forced smile, said, “DJ, that’s something everyone does but no one talks about.” How true that is. In the meantime, given all the bad things that can happen to male physiology when nothing is moving around like it should be, you’d think the Catholic Church would at least have the honesty to admit that frequent usage, of whatever sort, does at least help ward off prostate cancer and keep the male reproductive system in proper functioning order. But no, they’re still stuck on Monty Python’s “every sperm is sacred” with a “Theology of the Body” to match.

  • a jesuit? go figure. one thing the seventh day adventist have right is the truth about your cult.
    and that’s quite a statement coming from a militant atheist such as myself.
    Loud and Proud.

  • What a laugh. You do realize that most priests have failed at the celibacy thing? That includes bishops, cardinals and popes. Go ahead, throw them all out.

  • I’ve heard it said that The Church is much about “mysteries”. This is undoubtedly one of them.

  • “a real knack for delivering straight lines.”

    BobBob, don’t be so modest. You are one of the greatest second bananas of all time, bless your precious little BobWorld heart.

  • There are trolls – and then there are paid apologists.

    Bob Arnzen – perhaps the former – but definitely the latter.

    He has the personnel and resources to challenge any negative comment made about the RCC and/or its minions. He/they refute negative comments with detailed (false/misleading, character-assasinating) stats/references within the blink-of-an-eye.

    Arnzen et al is either a law or PR firm on the payroll of a deep-pockets institution with billions of $$$$ in tax-free revenue that needs to protected at all costs.

    You need to keep this fact in mind when you read/view one of his/their rebuttals or comments.

  • That’s an interesting reaction to having your nose rubbed in it regularly.

    Would you like some cheese to go with your whine?

  • Why would anyone pay BobBob for his boilerplate drivel? They would have to be even more mentally challenged than he is, bless his precious little BobWorld heart.

  • And the easiest of solutions? Leave the RCC and analogous Christian organizations thereby eliminating the need for priests and preachers. To help with this, some reality:

    The Apostles’ Creed 2018: (updated by yours truly and based on the studies of historians and theologians of the past 200 years)

    Should I believe in a god whose existence cannot be proven
    and said god if he/she/it exists resides in an unproven,
    human-created, spirit state of bliss called heaven??

    I believe there was a 1st century CE, Jewish, simple,
    preacher-man who was conceived by a Jewish carpenter
    named Joseph living in Nazareth and born of a young Jewish
    girl named Mary. (Some say he was a mamzer.)

    Jesus was summarily crucified for being a temple rabble-rouser by
    the Roman troops in Jerusalem serving under Pontius Pilate,

    He was buried in an unmarked grave and still lies
    a-mouldering in the ground somewhere outside of
    Jerusalem.

    Said Jesus’ story was embellished and “mythicized” by
    many semi-fiction writers. A descent into Hell, a bodily resurrection
    and ascension stories were promulgated to compete with the
    Caesar myths. Said stories were so popular that they
    grew into a religion known today as Catholicism/Christianity
    and featuring dark-age, daily wine to blood and bread to body rituals
    called the eucharistic sacrifice of the non-atoning Jesus.

    Amen
    (supporting references used are available upon request)

  • Every human being is sexual and human sexuality is not something that can be turned on and off like a light switch. But sexuality and genital sexual contact are not the same thing. It is possible for human beings to live healthy lives as celibates, which is what most Roman Catholic priests do.

    That said, I look forward to the day when celibacy is optional in the priesthood. I appreciate the witness it provides, but I don’t believe it is an absolute. Neither, by the way, did the early Church.

  • I Timothy 4:3
    Forbidding to marry, and commanding to abstain from meats, which God hath created to be received with thanksgiving of them which believe and know the truth.

    Sounds like the Catholic Church when meat wasn’t allowed on Friday. The context of this involves the last days and the actions of apostates.Jehovah’s Witnesses loved to use this against Catholics.

  • Oh well, I guess I won’t make the cut with the JW’s. Then again, 144,000 is a pretty high bar to begin with, so what the heck.

  • 1 Timothy is not of Paul so it has no bearing since is not guidance from any supernatural horse knocker.

  • It is currently optional, just not in the Latin Rite with some minor exceptions.

    Having dealt with both celibate and non-celibate, it is my distinct impression that making celibacy optional is vastly oversold.

  • But they don’t forbid to marry. Not marrying is voluntary in the non-Latin rites.

    In the Latin rite it is still voluntary, since entering the priesthood is voluntary.

    1 Timothy 4:3, of course, is talking about keep kosher as a Christian.

  • John Bollard and James Chevedden were adult Jesuits who were preyed upon by at least one senior Jesuit each.

    Bollard’s case was a 60 Minutes segment.

  • And this relevant to to celibacy how?

    Define “credibly reported” – SNAP believes it?

  • It sounds like a gross of thousands. Ican’t imagine what the point would be of so few people being saved. If this were an Agatha’s Christie, there would be a lot of bodies lying around.

  • My Catholic mother from Ireland had an interesting reaction when the first Afro-American bishop of Atlanta was accused of a sexual violation. She was rooting for him to be a big success, so she was very disappointed. Then, when she learned that he had been accused of living with an Afro-American woman as man and wife, her reaction was, “Oh, what’s wrong with that? He’s a good man. They should keep him and let him live with her.”

  • Your bigotry is breathtaking.

    Moral – Concerned with the principles of right and wrong behaviour.

    That someone who is unable to depress their ability to value evidence and reason and/or someone who’s natural sexual attraction is to someone of the same sex should be any less able to discern “right and wrong behaviour” than a gullible heterosexual is irrational and childish. Presumably you are judging others in the light of your dependence on an imaginary deity as fed to you by those who encourage you to fear chimeras of their own manufacture.

    Organisations which have, for centuries, wallowed in depraved, misogynistic, racist, financially self-serving, offender protecting, illegal behaviours have no right to determine what constitutes right and wrong behaviour – that way lies the abomination of divine command morality – whatever a person believes their deity commands is automatically and unquestionably “right”.

  • All priests have reprehensible morals. That’s what drives them to become priests. There is no worse morality than encouraging others to subscribe to the notion that innocent, deceased children never exposed to the Bible will burn in hell for eternity.

  • it’s supposedly 12,000 from each of the 12 Israelite tribes. It is a coded text to the Christians of the time in which it was written, but some folks have taken most of it too literally as about the future.

  • thanks. I new they got it from something like that. Twelve is an “ancient number”
    The twelve signs of thezodiac. The winds twelve quarters. The Twelve steps. The twelve titans. The twelve tribes. The twelve apostles. The twelve Olympians. Twelve gates and twelve angels in revelation. Twelve days of Christmas. and on and on and on.

  • What you’re seeing with Reese and National Catholic Reporter is: obfuscation fires.

    Given the continuing and unfolding sewage from same sex attracted (and active) McCarrick that is still surging outward..and other stories of same sex attracted priests abusing younger men (post-pubescent)…today’s story on Bishop Juan José Pineda Fasquelle (no surprises, one of Cardinal Maradiaga’s chorus girls) is just the latest in a long running series of exposures, there are two predictable responses from the left….

    make it about celebacy (Reese)

    or add in stories about priest’s abusing women. (NCR) to try to blur the much larger problem.

    the cause of these problems is plain: too many fragile penny-loafer wearing men who have been admitted to the seminary and who have pranced their way up the clerical hiearchy protected by their gay sugar daddies, like McCarrick, Fasquelle, and likely Maradiaga.

  • Uhh, sorry, it is incorrect that “most RC priests” are celibate.

    Monk-turned psychologist A. W. Richard Sipe in 1992 published research he’d been commissioned to do by the RCC. He found that only *50*% of all RCC priests were celibate! FIFTY percent! Of those, half were non-celibate with men, half with women.

    DON’T TAKE MY WORD FOR THIS. Look it up yourself.

  • I’m familiar with Richard Sipe. He’s not an objective researcher but a zealot and his methodology is suspect.

    As to your claim that he was hired by the RCC, which entity? A diocese? University? The Vatican? If you’re going to make such claims, back them up with documentation. “Look it up for yourself” doesn’t cut it.

  • It would be very helpful to me if you could give me some specifics as to why you believe he is not an honest researcher. (I don’t want to repeat misinformation.)

    My recollection is that it was some part of the Vatican that hired him. And it did not dispute his findings. I believe he presented his findings at the 1992 meeting of the American Psychological Assn.

  • It’s not that I don’t believe Richard Sipe has made some significant contributions to helping uncover clerical child abuse. He has. But he’s not a researcher or a psychologist. He’s a counselor who, in my opinion, often overreaches. He writes long, rambling screeds that are advocacy pieces, not scientific papers. In short, he lacks the objectivity needed to be a creditable researcher.

    I wouldn’t call him dishonest, but he does engage in some questionable practices. For example, on his website (which I’m pretty sure he writes and manages), he refers to himself in the third person in some pretty flattering terms, as if he’s getting unsolicited testimonials from outside sources. Legitimate academics don’t do that sort of thing.

  • What you say may be accurate, or not–I don’t know.

    Bear in mind that my comment referred *only* to his research re priestly celibacy published in 1992, hired by the Catholic church and not disputed by it.

    And we know, from 25+ years of experience following publication of his results, that bishops and higherups were very well aware of what was going on. Indeed, we learned just in the past week that Bernie “I am the law” knew very well what was going on and covered it up.

  • Have to disagree. Sipe had 16 years of experience as a priest/monk, then after leaving the priesthood, he he conducted a 25-year ethnographic study published in 1990 about the sexual behavior of supposed celibates, in which he found more than half were involved in sexual relationships.. Why would that be suspect?