Sunday, October 01, 2006

Church's teaching on celibacy misses point

Saturday, September 30, 2006

America's Catholic bishops have released their new guidelines for seminary training. Here's the question: Do these regulations represent their perception of - and solution to - the sex-abuse scandal that has engulfed the church for nearly five years?

If so, church leaders apparently believe that a lack of celibacy caused the crisis and that more of it will cure it. Indeed, they give the impression that the prime purpose of seminaries is to preserve celibacy and the chief work of the priest is to be celibate. What were they thinking?

The bishops now propose to ban any applicant who has been involved in the sexual abuse of a minor or shows evidence of sexual attraction to children. Since the first is a crime and the second is common sense, the question is, "Didn't you hierarchs know this before?"

Celibacy the 'gold medal'

Where, one wonders, did they decide that further sexual scandals will be averted if seminaries are made into training camps for the Celibacy Olympics in which priests fulfill themselves and find salvation by winning the gold medal?

The guidelines claim that "thresholds pertaining to sexuality serve as the foundation for living a lifelong commitment to healthy, chaste celibacy." Monsignor Edward J. Burns, who oversees priestly formation for the bishops, claims that "This edition brings a higher level of integration of chaste, celibate living in all dimensions of priestly life."

Candidates must "give evidence that they have been celibate for at least two years." Exactly how would anybody ever do that? Each seminary must now have a "coordinated and multifaceted program" including regular psychological evaluations, yearly conferences and "clear and prudent guidelines." These are not to produce good pastors, which is what you might think seminaries are for. They are designed to help "seminarians adopt skills for celibate living."

If celibate living is the goal, they should skip the theology and canon law and teach sewing, cooking, homemaking 101 and survival skills.

The document also follows the Vatican guidelines to bar homosexuals from the priesthood. Let us skip the present tortured thinking on this subject because, in fact, we have many wonderful priests who are homosexual and who understand that the essence of pastoral work is to establish healthy and life-giving relationships with their people.

Forging healthy relationships

The best sign of good seminary candidates is whether they can forge healthy relationships with other persons. This is not necessarily linked to celibacy, yet remains the best test of a person's soundness to take on the demanding work of being a priest. Selection processes and seminary training should be ordered primarily to this goal. A priest's ability to live a celibate life depends on and is expressed through the way he relates to those he serves. This document threatens to make more of celibacy than of the service for which it is supposedly designed. Celibacy is a not a sacrament but a "discipline" of the church. Making celibacy the center of seminary training seems to place that discipline above the first and greatest commandment of loving our neighbors.

This document has plenty about training priests for celibacy, a condition that most priests accept generously. According to research done for the bishops after the Second Vatican Council, most priests accept celibacy and adjust to it in a kind of contented bachelor-uncle's life.

To place celibacy - a subject about which church officials allow no discussion or research - as the unquestioned prime virtue of the priesthood may not prevent but unknowingly invite future sexual-abuse problems among the clergy.

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