By John Veal,
Kansas City Star
Should Bishop Robert Finn resign? It would be a rare example of accountability. But this question, I believe, is largely irrelevant to the central problem behind the ongoing priestly sexual abuse scandals.
I am a lifelong, devout Catholic and a historian. To me, the central problem is not the fact that a relatively few priests have sexually abused children, evil as that is. Priests are prone to the same failings as everyone else. Like anyone else, they should face appropriate criminal penalties and civil liabilities.
Neither is the real issue those bishops who have been negligent in confronting the problem or complicit in covering it up. They too must be held legally accountable.
Most absurd of all, the main problem is not the cultural upheaval of the 1960s. A recent study blamed in part the “patterns of increased deviance in society” at that time. This implies the existence of a golden age of priestly celibacy that never existed.
As I see it, the central problem behind the ongoing clerical abuse scandal is the all-male, celibate priesthood. It is an embarrassing holdover from the Middle Ages.
Da Vinci Code aside, real historical evidence shows that women’s roles in the Catholic Church were increasingly restricted as the early church became established. At the same time, the view of all sexuality as evil crept into the church. The origins of this sex-denying ethic were cultural, not scriptural.
Other issues, such as the inheritance of church property for the many priests with families, also led to the church increasingly to insist on absolute priestly celibacy.
The result today is a closed society of men held to a standard Jesus never established, the apostles did not follow, and many fine priests cannot meet.
There is simply no valid scriptural or theological basis for the celibate male clergy. Almost all other Christian churches rejected celibacy centuries ago. Many have also admitted women to their clergy. Yet Rome still condemns these changes as strongly as it once condemned Galileo’s proof of a sun-centered universe.
Would a Catholic clergy composed of men and women, single and married, prevent clerical sexual abuse? Of course not. But can anyone doubt that women priests would be less likely to protect their deviant peers?
Just as Pope Urban silenced Galileo but not his truth, Rome today has banned discussion of a female priesthood. Yet the “sense of the faithful” has moved beyond the sexism and sexual dread of Church leadership.
Bishop Finn, your people are angry. Your many good priests are humiliated. I do not call on you to resign or to implement weak reforms of the current system. I call on you to speak out for sweeping reform of the priesthood — for women’s ordination and optional celibacy. That would be more powerful than any apology.
John Veal is a lifelong Catholic and a history teacher. He lives in Kansas City.