A modest proposal for errant priests

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Some rough jokes have been played on priests throughout the ages, based around their celibacy. The philosopher David Hume recorded one in his history of England, played by Geoffrey Plantagenet, the father of Henry II, whose family had a notorious bad temper: "When he was master of Normandy, the chapter of Seez presumed, without his consent, to proceed to the election of a bishop: upon which he ordered all of them, with the bishop elect, to be castrated, and made all their testicles be brought him in a platter."

Hume's friend, the historian and not wholly willing celibate Edward Gibbon, commented that the priests involved "might justly complain ... of the pain and danger; yet, since they had vowed chastity he deprived them of a superfluous treasure."

This is so funny and so unfair because we know that the Roman Catholic church would never dream of castrating its priests, though St Origen is supposed to have done it to himself, and Abelard had it done at the instigation of his wife's uncle, Canon Fulbert. Both men became theologians of the utmost distinction. One hesitates to draw the obvious moral.

Short of castrating all priests on the night before their ordination, the Church is always going to have a problem with a system in which all its priests are expected to wrestle with and subdue one of their most fundamental urges. These problems are more subtle than they may seem. Some people are both highly religious and highly sexed. There is no necessary correlation between a call to the priesthood and a call to celibacy.

Officially, the Catholic church admits this and allows married priests in the UK, in the United States, and in countries where it overlaps with the Orthodox married clergy, among the so-called Uniate churches. But this admission is partial and half-hearted. The married priests in Western Europe were all born Anglicans. It is assumed that if you are born a Catholic and have a vocation to the priesthood, this will coincide with a vocation to celibacy. All the evidence suggests that this is not true. The result is a dangerous condition of double-mindedness, and institutional hypocrisy. This may be compounded by other aspects of official teaching on sexuality, such as the ban on artificial contraception and on the remarriage of divorcees.

Dr Richard Sipe, an American former monk who became a psychotherapist after his marriage and has studied celibacy for the past 25 years, says: "Priests and bishops don't believe what they teach sexually." Catholics are very sensitive to accusations of hypocrisy on these matters; but there really does seem to be a huge and institutionalised gap between the official teaching of the Church and the private beliefs of those who teach it. This must have a corrosive effect.

One of the ways in which this effect is seen is, perversely, in the forgiveness of sinners. The serial celibate is forgiven again and again. Even Roderick Wright was offered a parish until he had social intercourse with the News of the World. He is not a unique case. Dr Sipe, the last time he was in England, said he knew of one priest who had had affairs with seven women over 15 years. Two he encouraged to have abortions; one he finally married, which brought his career as a priest to an end. He made an honest woman of her, as the saying goes, and perhaps an honest man of himself. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the main distortion of celibacy is that it produces a system where betraying a woman is a forgivable weakness, and betraying an institution an unforgivable crime.