Editor’s Note: Father Edward L. Beck, C.P., is a Roman Catholic priest and a religion commentator for CNN. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
Pope Francis sure knows how to make headlines – and not always in a good way.
Last week, aboard his flight returning from the United Arab Emirates, when asked about reports of the sexual abuse of nuns by some priests and bishops, Francis spoke about a case in which Pope Benedict dissolved an order of nuns “because a certain slavery of women had crept in, slavery to the point of sexual slavery on the part of clergy or the founder.”
A Vatican spokesman said the Pope’s comments referred to a small group of sisters from France, the Contemplative Sisters of Saint-Jean.
But the Pope’s use of the term “sexual slavery” was what raised more than a few eyebrows. The Vatican spokesman later clarified that Francis “spoke of ‘sexual slavery’ to mean ‘manipulation’ or a type of abuse of power that is reflected in a sexual abuse.”
That clarification did little to ameliorate a rapidly spiraling crisis that continues to engulf the worldwide Catholic Church – a crisis that some commentators have deemed the most serious threat to the church since the 16th century Reformation. Rome is burning, and sex is fanning the conflagration.
The church rarely has dealt well with issues of human sexuality. Despite lofty documents, such as John Paul II’s “The Theology of the Body,” practical and useful guidelines in negotiating the nitty-gritty realities and complexities of human sexuality have been lacking. Pious platitudes have failed Christians (never mind celibates) in coping in a sexualized culture that screams sex in nearly every ad, TV show, movie and dating app.
Priests, like everyone else, want to have sex. We want to be touched. We want to be desired. In order to forgo these natural impulses, we employ coping mechanisms to offset the sexual urges. We do so for the sake of a “higher good,” but let’s not delude ourselves that it is natural or easy – or that sometimes we don’t fail.
Prayer, self-denial, fasting and downright avoidance can be effective antidotes to sexual desire, but the allure of human intimacy and touch is so strong that only an honest confrontation with the challenges it presents can possibly hope to overcome the pitfalls. Repression and suppression are employed at a price, and that price must be acknowledged and paid.
Issues of sexual abuse are, of course, separate from the struggle to integrate one’s sexuality in healthy and productive ways. Sexual abuse occurs when the illusion of power and dominance corrupts one’s sexuality and inflicts the result onto someone else in acts of violence or dominance. Sexual abuse is not a result of celibacy. It is the result of pathology that afflicts celibates and noncelibates alike.
Some women religious (nuns and sisters) have been victims of this pathology embodied by some clergy. Women religious have long been viewed as second-class citizens in the hierarchy of the church. They have been the work force, often performing menial labor. In some religious communities, the sisters served “Father” dinner and darned his socks. It is not hard to see how such systemic misogyny can lead to subjugation and abuse.
While this perception of women religious has certainly evolved in the United States and in other Western countries where these women have made tremendous social and ecclesial strides, the perception of the religious sister (and indeed woman) as subservient still exists in many cultures.
There is no question that the clericalism, or maintaining the privilege and power of the religious hierarchy, and sexist patriarchy of the church also have contributed to the heinous acts of some clergy who have sexually abused nuns. The church must own its complicity in this illegal and immoral behavior. It must make reparation and take action to ensure abuse in all forms is abolished from the church. But this demands fundamental structural change that has thus far eluded the hierarchy.
Some suggest that mandatory celibacy heightens the occasions of sexual abuse. While I disagree with that assessment, I believe forced celibacy certainly can compound the issue of abuse if there also exist other contributing factors in the potential abuser, such as isolation, stunted psycho-sexual development, misappropriation of power and narcissism.
There was some hope the Pope might move the church toward a consideration of optional celibacy for priests. Many believe this would remove the veil of secrecy that enshrouds the sexual lives of some priests.
Hopes of a change in the church discipline of mandatory celibacy were dashed recently when, on his plane returning to the Vatican from Panama, Francis said that celibacy for priests was a “gift to the church” and not “optional.” (Although he seemed to leave the door open for married priests in “far-flung places” where there is a pastoral necessity.)
The problem is that now pastoral necessity exists everywhere. If not a pastoral necessity of shortage of clergy, then it’s a pastoral necessity of living authentic and honest lives. Some priests don’t want to be (or can’t be) celibate. As long as no option exists for those men, some may act out in ways that are destructive and contrary to the Gospel values they profess to embrace. The church can and must help thwart such deleterious choices. It has the power to do so. But does it have the will?
Tradition has it that in the year 64, the Emperor Nero played his fiddle while Rome burned. It remains to be seen if Pope Francis and his Curia can douse flames proving to be just as destructive to their beloved church.