The recent findings of a grand jury report on the Archdioceses of Pennsylvania are horrific but, sadly, not surprising. The latest revelation that hundreds of Catholic Church officials raped and molested thousands of vulnerable children in their care fits a continued pattern of violation and cover up. Even one-time progressive Catholic heroes like now disgraced Cardinal Roger Mahony who gave sanctuary in Los Angeles to poor refugees from Central and South America have been seduced by internal Church politics, giving succor to and shielding pedophile priests from accountability.
The findings span decades. Tragically, many survivors will never see their perpetrators brought to justice since it appears each specific abuser cannot be held to account. But it is clearer than ever that the Catholic Church as an institution requires a new round of serious reforms.
The causes of such widespread abuse are complicated and should not be oversimplified to a single doctrine or hierarchy, or even specific psychological determination such as pedophilia. Reform requires real scrutiny and one policy in dire need of reexamination is the celibacy requirement of priests.
Over and over again, history tells us that sexual abuse is often the result of repression. When healthy outlets for sex are denied, the libido is expressed in surreptitious and destructive ways. It is impossible to know how many men went into the priesthood as a way to escape aspects of themselves they dared not name. We may assume that this denial played an integral role in the perpetuation of abuse.
Celibacy was not always a requirement of the papacy. For the first eight centuries of the Church’s existence, popes and priests had wives and children. Some even had mistresses and children by them. When celibacy was introduced at the Second Lateran Council 1139, the new requirement was justified by appeals to greater holiness—but in fact had little to do with denying the flesh. Celibacy was part of a symbiotic relationship the Church developed with Europe’s ruling class.
Like most things in history, celibacy derived from a desire to consolidate wealth and power. A post-Charlemagne Europe had unified into a distinct political unit with the Catholic Church its primary cultural determinant. The medieval feudal economy separated populations into monarchs, landowners, and serfs. The succession of status and wealth required strict inheritance laws.
The tradition throughout Europe for hundreds of years was for each family in the landed gentry to have one son go into the priesthood. The Church then acquired that son’s portion of his family’s inheritance because celibacy prevented legitimate heirs. Generation after generation, this tradition allowed the Church to siphon off a considerable portion of the aristocracy’s wealth—so much so that by the time of the French Revolution, the Church owned more land in France than the king.
In return for this gradual acquisition, the Church offered theological legitimacy to the ruling class. Medieval prosperity theology taught peasants to be happy with having little wealth or control over their lives while justifying the “divine right of kings” and rule of the few. The democratic revolutions that gave us modern, liberal democracy were rebellions against the Church as much as the crown. Concepts such as religious freedom and separation of powers derive from earlier critiques of the Church’s unquestioned authority.
The continuance of democracy requires a similar review. Though less powerful now, the Catholic Church still commands an outsized political influence grounded in moral authority. It still legitimizes candidates and regimes using moral high ground as its currency of power.
The breadth and depth of the clergy sex abuse scandal should provoke Renaissance-levels of reevaluation of this influence. Then, as now, the Church’s teachings on sex and relationships are a tool to cement inequality. If the sex abuse scandal causes society to question the Church’s moral authority, so too should its political implications be reexamined.
While not all Christians oppose LGBT rights, opposition to full equality is nearly the exclusive domain of Christians. For decades, LGBT advocates have argued that majority moral disapproval is an inadequate justification for unequal treatment under the law. While correct, this argument concedes morality to those opposed to LGBT rights.
If the sex abuse scandal teaches us anything, it’s that this defensive posture is unnecessary. Unlike the nebulous claims of supposed harms of granting marriage equality used for years to delay progress, sexual repression and its subsequent abuse cause demonstrable, undeniable harm.
The old formula for power still holds sway today—though it should not. The Church controls the state by controlling bodies and controls bodies through the control of sex. We cannot afford to continue separating the power dynamics of repression and oppression. Regardless of what internal reform the Church finally implements, equality advocates now have an effective antidote against the poison of shame. We, too, may unequivocally claim the moral high ground and couch our policy preferences in the context of righteousness.
Equality is politically superior to inequality because personal authenticity is morally superior to repression.