Posted March 6, 2004
For Priests: Celibacy is not the Problem
in the New York Times
The logic of the argument is simple: 4 percent of Roman Catholic priests have been sexual abusers. Priests are committed to celibacy. Therefore, the frustrations of the celibate life led to the abuse. Therefore, celibacy should be abolished.
While perhaps not quite so starkly stated, this is the line of thinking that has been used by many to explain the sexual abuse scandals shaking the church. It will also shape the response to two reports issued by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops last week. Leave aside for a moment the fact that 96 percent of priests are not abusers — is this portrayal of widespread frustration an accurate description of American priests
The picture presented by the two reports — one a statistical study by researchers at John Jay College of the abuse cases and the church's reactions to them, the other a report on the causes and context of the crisis by a review board appointed by the bishops — is horrific and tragic. But as a priest and as someone who has been writing about the evil of sexual abuse by priests for two decades, I must also point to a substantial body of data collected over the last 35 years that presents another story, one which ought to be heard. These surveys of attitudes among priests and parishioners have shown that most don't consider celibacy the problem with the priesthood; the problem is that many priests don't do their job well.
Over the last 30 years, The Los Angeles Times and the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago have each made repeated and comprehensive studies of attitudes among the priesthood and the laity. The polls have consistently shown that a vast majority of priests say that life in the priesthood is better than they expected it would be.
For instance, the most recent Los Angeles Times study, completed in 2002, found that 93 percent of the more than 1,800 priests surveyed said that they would become priests if they had to choose their careers again. Only 2 percent said that they would probably leave the priesthood. In general, priests are more likely to affirm that they are happy in their lives and satisfied with their work than are doctors, lawyers, teachers, professors and even married Protestant clergy. Priests, on average, seem to be about the happiest men in the country. Abusers, it seems clear, aren't being driven to crime by celibacy but by their own demons.
On measures of personality traits by the National Opinion Research Center — including the capacity for intimacy — priests compare favorably with married laymen of similar educational backgrounds. Despite the call by a few priests for abolishing the celibacy rule, there is no evidence that priests are more likely to be frustrated, unhappy misfits than are married laymen. Priests like being priests; they like doing the work that priests do; and they recognize that celibacy is part and parcel of that work. Like all humans, however, we are far less then perfect: we must offer sacrifice for our own sins as well as the sins of our people, as the Epistle to the Hebrews observes.
So where does today's negative picture of priests come from? In part, it's a relic of the anti-Catholic, anti-celibacy sentiment of 19th century nativism. In addition, priests themselves tend to be silent when their vocation is attacked, either by men who have left the priesthood or by the public over the crimes of the abusers. Indeed, their response to the latter is pathetic: my colleagues tend to feel sorry for themselves, to blame the news media, to assert that it is the bishops' problem, and to argue that it is not the most serious crisis facing the church.
Denial, research shows, is a major factor in clerical culture — the dark side of the priesthood. Just as teachers stereotype their students and doctors their patients, priests stereotype their parishioners. In response to an open-ended question in the 2002 Los Angeles Times survey about why the laity was growing disaffected with the church, 13 percent of priests said parishioners were suffering from moral decline, 10 percent cited loss of faith, 7 percent secularism, 5 percent apathy, 5 percent materialism, 4 percent lack of responsibility and 4 percent lack of "personal leadership."
Only 13 percent saw problems arising from failures of the clergy — sexual abuse, decline of confidence in leadership, poor sermons and liturgy, and clerical authoritarianism. Only 19 of the more than 1,800 thought that poor sermons were a problem. The mindset is clear: if the laity have religious problems, the fault is either their own or cultural trends over which priests have no control.
When asked in the survey why congregants leave the church, a quarter of priests (and only 16 percent of the younger clergymen) accepted some personal responsibility — insensitivity, inadequate leadership, poor sermons and liturgy, and the sexual abuse scandal. The rest cited the usual litany of horrors: individualism, secularism, no faith, poor prayer life, no commitment, media bias, hedonism, sex, feminism, family breakdown and apathy. In essence, three-quarters of the priests surveyed washed their hands of responsibility for Catholics who leave the church and excused themselves from an obligation to respond.
On the other side of the steel door that seems to separate priests from parishioners, the laity give their clergy, on the average, scores only about half as high as what Protestants give their ministers on preaching, liturgy, sympathetic counseling, respect for women and work with young people. In the 1950's, according to a study by Ben Gaffin Associates, 40 percent of Americans (Protestants and Catholics alike) rated the sermons they heard as "excellent." In 2002, according to the National Opinion Research Study, 36 percent of Protestants still found their sermons excellent, compared to just 18 percent of Catholics.
In addition to the abuse cases, the big problems in the priesthood, then, are not celibacy or sexual frustration, but the constraints on excellence in an envy-ridden, rigid and mediocre clerical culture that does a poor job in serving church members.
If priests really want to improve their image, they should not bother to write letters demanding that celibacy be made optional — which will be dismissed by their bishops and the Vatican — but to make every effort to upgrade their work — especially their sermons.
These are hard times for priests. They are under attack as perverts. More people are making more demands on fewer priests. Yet, in parishes where the pastor is reasonably open and reasonably secure, the lay response is enthusiastic commitment and dedication.
People ask me what kind of a priest I am — meaning Jesuit, Dominican or Franciscan (Jesuit being the answer most want to hear). I usually respond, "Not a very good one, but I try." Now, in the wake of these new reports, we must all try harder.
Andrew Greeley is the author of "Priests: A Calling in Crisis" and the forthcoming novel "The Priestly Sins."