Pity the bishop, his mistress, his son; pity the ordinary Catholic man

Click to follow
The terrible price paid for Bishop Roderick Wright's "celibacy" - by him, his lovers and, most tragically, his 15-year-old son - is becoming apparent. Dozens more priests may also be involved in covert relationships that keep women hanging in limbo for years, deny children their true identity and turn otherwise good men into liars and cheats.

But the cost of priestly celibacy is not confined to the clergy themselves. To reckon the final sum, you have to understand the damage it does to ordinary male Catholics - men like me, who want to live with women and have children. We are turned into second-class citizens in our own church.

The bizarre message the Catholic church gives us is clear, though rarely stated bluntly. Those who are pure and unsullied by female flesh are the elite, showing themselves capable of self-sacrifice that elevates them above the laity. In comparison, we are but sad slaves to our sexual instincts. We may be participating in the vocation of marriage, but this practice, though worthy, is regarded as a lesser calling than priesthood. Worse, we are performing acts which, if carried out by the first-raters, the top drawer of male Catholicism, would be considered sinful and, as we saw last week, scandalous.

It is an insulting attitude which belittles the majority of male, and indeed female, Catholics. It undervalues sexual relationships. And if the supposed top rankers treat, at least in their personal behaviour, sex and family life as some sort of dangerous deviance to be avoided at all costs, the clergy is doing nothing to convince men in general of the need to be good parents.

Celibacy is an important factor that makes the priests of the Catholic church special, different and ultimately so much more powerful than their brothers in the laity. For the truth is that the church is indeed male- dominated but only by a narrow caste, which performs most of the ceremonial functions, makes all important decisions and believes itself to have the hot line to God. It is little wonder that they hang on to the practice of celibacy, the one discipline that singles them out from other men and so bolsters their ability to control the church.

This monopolisation of power by the priesthood leaves other men without a role. At best it makes us passive and bored with the practice of Catholicism. At worst it turns us into anti-clericals, angry men who feel excluded and belittled. We end up having little in common with powerful men who have cut themselves off from an important part of adult experience. And we certainly have little time for being lectured on questions of sexuality by a group whose lifestyle involves suppressing their own natures and diminishing ours.

Lay men do play some part in the workings of the Catholic church. They may take the collection, read the lesson and participate in the Catholic societies. And they do have far more power than women members of the church, who may regard this battle within the male sex as a distraction from the many greater injustices done to them.

But the treatment of the male laity deserves examination, even in the light of outdated roles that Catholic women are still forced to play. We should be worried that grown men who are not priests have virtually no role laid out for them theologically or spiritually. It is wrong that they should be cast aside merely as the men who did not become priests, while their clerical brothers bask in the glow of religious importance.

Boys do not suffer this humiliation. They are, after all, potential priests - and they are virgins. They are welcomed into meaningful spiritual and ceremonial roles. Boys (and now girls) serve Mass as altar boys, ring the bell, swing the thurible, bear a candle. I remember as a child, thinking that I was so familiar with the ceremony, that if the priest dropped dead I could probably have finished off the service for him.

Most Catholic boys think at some point of becoming priests - it is our mothers' greatest wish. An altar boy can expect to be taken aside by the clergy from time to time and questioned about whether he might have a calling to join a seminary. But once it becomes clear that he will not seek ordination, what is there for him? Virtually nothing except to be a passive onlooker while the priest stands on the altar, performing wonderful ceremonies. Hardly surprisingly, this satisfies few men and we vote with our feet. Go into any Catholic church in any part of the world and you will find women outnumbering men. Yet no one seems to ask why or be particularly bothered about the phenomenon. It is simply assumed, as though it were a natural part of the landscape, that men are less devout than women.

And it is probably true that women are psychologically more comfortable than men amid the theology of Christianity. Its imagery - requiring that the faithful love male figures such as God and Jesus - is counter-cultural to heterosexual men, who might feel more comfortable if God were framed as a woman. Loving the male figures of God and his son, Jesus Christ, seems, I imagine, natural to many women.

And the existence of a celibate priest often gives a woman a rare opportunity. She may have no close male relationships other than with her husband. Here is her chance to be intimate with another man, safe in the knowledge that a sexual relationship is ruled out (or is meant to be). Many women take comfort in these relationships away from marriages which may be unhappy, but which, because of their faith, they feel unable to leave. It is little wonder that women occasionally fall into sexual relationships with priests, given the trust they place in the celibacy of the clergy.

Catholicism also elevates Mary to iconic status and so maps out a role, however inadequate for the modern day, for women who do not become nuns. They are to be mothers like Mary, saintly beings. Men of the laity, on the other hand, have no model equivalent in importance and inspiration to that of Mary. Christ himself cannot fulfil this function for a married man. He was celibate. There is Joseph, but he was a fairly passive, inconsequential individual. Theological orthodoxy states that not even his sperm was required to create Jesus. Once again by this rendering of the Christian story, sex and family life is devalued against the imperative to maintain sexual "purity". Look at the number of paintings of Mary and Jesus, which leave out Joseph. He clearly doesn't matter. To a child's inquiry as to where he is, the best reply I can muster is: "He must have been taking the photograph."

As for the male saints, they offer few lessons to the male laity about how they should live, since so many of them were clergy. I can't remember anyone being canonised for being a good father. In contrast, just as civil servants seem to make the Honours List as a matter of course, so entry to the saintly ranks seems to come a little more easily to the priestly caste.

So, with icons, imagery and heroes of the church having limited appeal to the ordinary male Catholic, should not the church be actively seeking to draw those men into its working life? Instead their alienation is compounded by the celibacy rule.

Today in Catholic churches around Britain thought will no doubt focus on the victims of this outdated practice who have this week revealed their hurt. Prayers may even be said for Roderick Wright. But perhaps the priests in their pulpits should also be asking why so few men are present at Mass today, and why so many prefer to remain outside, smoking a cigarette.