Celibacy, Sexual Abuse, and the Denigration of Women

Celibacy, Sexual Abuse, and the Denigration of Women

In a recent essay I noted that, while allegedly seducing a young priest who later committed suicide, Albany Bishop Howard Hubbard justified his homosexual acts by claiming that celibacy means nothing more than “being free of sexual contact with women.” [Emphasis added] The claim was odd, and it made me wonder: Was it nothing more than a seductive ploy or something Hubbard actually believed? Is it possible that many of the other abusers believed it too? Where could such a  belief have originated?

The claim seems to reflect the negative view of women found in most religions and cultures throughout history. In Catholicism, it has taken three distinct forms. First is the classification of women as inferior to men:

But I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God. . . . A man . . . is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man. For man did not come from woman, but woman from man; neither was man created for woman, but woman for man St. Paul. [1Cor 11:3–9]

It is improper for a woman to speak in an assembly, no matter what she says, even if she says admirable things, or even saintly things, that is of little consequence, since they come from the mouth of a woman. Origen (182-254)

As regards the individual nature, woman is defective and misbegotten, for the active force in the male seed tends to the production of a perfect likeness in the masculine sex; while the production of woman comes from a defect in the active force or from some material indisposition, or even from some external influence. St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) 

Second is the linking of all women to Eve’s “corruption” of Adam and its consequences:

And do you [women] not know that you are (each) an Eve? The sentence of God on this sex of yours lives in this age … You are the devil’s gateway: you are the unsealer of that (forbidden) tree: you are the first deserter of the divine law . . . On account of your desert[ion] . . . even the Son of God had to die. Tertullian (160-225)

Women’s] very consciousness of their own nature must evoke feelings of shame. St. Clement of Alexandria (c150-215)

One must be on one’s guard with every woman, as if she were a poisonous snake and the horned devil . . . Her feelings drive woman toward every evil, just as reason impels man toward all good. Saint Albertus Magnus (1193-1280)

Third is the blaming of all women for the evil deeds of men.

What is the difference whether it is in a wife or a mother, it is still Eve the temptress that we must beware of in any woman… I fail to see what use woman can be to man, if one excludes the function of bearing children. St. Augustine (354-430)  [ It is relevant to note that according to the website of the Augustinian Order, “[A] negative attitude toward sexuality marked Augustine for life.” The site explains further that he described his own sexual impulses in “images of disease, disorder, and corruption,” and he considered all sexual relations as carnal and equated them with original sin. Moreover, Augustine became “a major source of the negative attitudes on this subject in Western society.”]

The way you dress is an index of your secret desires. Your bodice is purposely ripped apart to show what is beneath . . . Sometimes you let your shawl drop so as to lay bare your white shoulders . . . St. Jerome(347-420)

As I have noted previously, some argue that whatever denigration of women the Church may have shown is more than compensated by the positive view of women it has advanced. They cite the Blessed Mother and many women saints as evidence. Though it is true that in those cases women were honored, it is also true that the Church has been more inclined to bestow such honor on women who repressed their sexuality than those who expressed it in marriage.

The underlying message over the centuries has been that there is something morally dangerous, if not downright evil, about women’s sexuality. This idea explains, in large part, why the Church long taught that “lustful pleasure” should be avoided, even in sexual intercourse between married couples. 

If suspicion and fear of women’s sexuality influenced the Church’s teaching on sexual restraint in marriage, it surely also influenced the requirement of celibacy for priests and bishops. Two of the earliest examples of such a requirement were those in the Council of Elvira (305) and the Council of Carthage (390). Elvira declared: “It is decided that marriage be altogether prohibited to bishops, priests, and deacons, or to all clerics placed in the ministry, and that they keep away from their wives and not beget children; whoever does this shall be deprived of the honor of the clerical office.” (Canon 33) Carthage stated: “It is fitting that the holy bishops and priests of God . . . observe perfect continence, so that they may obtain in all simplicity what they are asking from God . . . [and that they], guardians of purity, abstain from conjugal intercourse with their wives, so that those who serve at the altar may keep a perfect chastity.” (Canon 3)

The Second Lateran Council and the Council of Trent reinforced these prohibitions. Lateran declared: “We also decree that those in the orders of subdeacon and above who have taken wives or concubines are to be deprived of their position and ecclesiastical benefice. For since they ought to be in fact and in name temples of God, vessels of the Lord and sanctuaries of the holy Spirit, it is unbecoming that they give themselves up to marriage and impurity.(Canon 6) The boldface is added here to underscore that the statement does not say “marriage OR impurity” to parallel the phrasing of “wives OR concubines; it says instead, “marriage AND impurity,” clearly implying that marriage and impurity are associated.

The Council of Trent went still further, declaring in a format generally reserved for definitive statements, “If anyone says that it is not better and more godly to live in virginity or in the unmarried state than to marry, let him be anathema.”

Nowhere in the passages I have quoted, nor elsewhere (as far as I know), is it explicitly said that celibacy is required because sexual commerce with women is spiritually corruptingBut, then again, there was never a need to say so because the idea had long been taken for granted.

Let me make clear that I have no brief against celibacy; in fact, I believe that it can be a noble choice that is pleasing to God, but not when it rests, even in part, on a belief that slanders half the human beings created in God’s own image and likeness.

The slanderous belief about women has contributed, directly or indirectly, to such offenses as the age-old habit of men blaming women for their own sins with arguments such as “It wasn’t my fault—she tempted me,” and the even more contemptible “she was ‘asking’ to be raped.”

The same belief, I submit, has contributed to a number of problems in the Church. First and most obviously, the belief that women are inferior to men and tend to corrupt them led to the banning of women from the priesthood. And the related belief that intimacy with women diminishes men spiritually led to married men also being banned. Though less problematic in the early Church, these prohibitions have become more so in the present age, as more priests are reaching old age and new vocations are insufficient to meet replacement needs.

The slanderous view of women has contributed as well, though less obviously, to the corruption of theological training and the sex-abuse scandal. Let me begin with some historical context:

The sexual revolution of the 1960s, based mainly on Humanistic Psychology’s fallacious notions of human nature and Alfred Kinsey’s fraudulent research, undermined traditional morality. As a result, among the laity the temptation to infidelity became stronger. The temptation was no less strong among the clergy, but it was very different. Clerics’ seminary training, in particular exposure to the Church Fathers’ views about women, made them wary of involvement with women, and nothing in the personal experience of most was sufficient to make them question the validity of their wariness.

Meanwhile, Humanistic Psychology’s teachings and Alfred Kinsey’s research were changing attitudes toward homosexuality. Both claimed that all forms of sexuality—including homosexuality and, in the case of Kinsey, adult-child sex— were normal, and both encouraged people to experiment boldly to find which form suited them best. A number of Catholic religious orders and dioceses hosted Encounter Groups to discuss the new ideas. Many years later William Coulson, a Humanistic Psychologist who led those groups, admitted in an interview, “We corrupted a whole raft of religious orders on the west coast in the ’60s by getting the nuns and priests to talk about their distress.”

In 1970 and again in 1971, homosexual activists protested at American Psychiatric Association (APA) meetings demanding that the classification of homosexuality be changed from mental illness to normal sexual behavior. Eventually, the APA membership approved the change. As one researcher later stated, “What’s noteworthy about this is that the removal of homosexuality from the list of mental illnesses was not triggered by some scientific breakthrough.  There was no new fact or set of facts that stimulated this major change.  Rather, it was the simple reality that gay people started to kick up a fuss.”

It was roughly during this period (and later) that homosexual priests began to assume positions of leadership and influence in many seminaries (as well as in the hierarchy) and to approve applicants who were either homosexual themselves or believed that homosexuality was normal, while simultaneously screening out heterosexual applicants. It was also during this period that the clerical sex-abuse crisis occurred. (Incidentally, that the abuse overwhelmingly involved homosexual priests is undeniable. The John-Jay Report says 81% of the abuse victims in the United States were male; another study says it could be as high as 90%.)

How did the Church’s historically negative view of women affect its current problems? By denigrating male-female sexuality (oddly enough, even while extolling marriage), the Church made seminarians more vulnerable to the homosexuals’ claim of normalcy at the precise time when the prestigious American Psychiatric Association was validating that claim, Humanistic Psychology and Kinsey were promoting sexual experimentation, and the seminary culture was providing a haven for that activity..

I will not venture to guess how many seminarians were sufficiently weakened by their confusion and the force of that perfect moral storm to experiment with and perhaps embrace the homosexual lifestyle, or how many of those who did so went from being the ones seduced to the seducers or, worse, the rapists. Or how many were not only ordained, but in time became bishops and even cardinals, and in many cases enablers of the criminals. Or how many others, in sharp contrast, were disillusioned (or sickened) enough to leave the seminary and join the ranks of those whom Michael Rose bid, Goodbye, Good Men.

From the moment that the first, generally late and formulaic, apologies for the sex-abuse scandal came from chanceries around the country and world, I wondered if they were destined to become substitutes for reform rather than preludes to reform. My worry is that the matter will pass quickly from the hierarchical memory. After all, it is human nature to want to forget unpleasant matters, not least those involving vile sins.

I am not sure whether the Church can ever sufficiently make amends for the abuse scandal. Nevertheless, I am increasingly convinced that a crucial step toward that goal is to replace its historic denigration of women with a view more in keeping with the virtue of justice and Christ’s commandment to love.

Copyright © 2018 by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero. All rights reserved

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Vincent Ryan Ruggiero