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Editorial: Should priests be able to marry?

Let’s just say what sentient people have to be thinking in the aftermath of still more abuse by Catholic priests: Isn’t it time to think seriously about ending the church's requirement for celibacy? Why not let priests marry? Why shouldn’t women be priests? Such changes could make a difference.

The questions inevitably arise with news of the sexual abuse that the Rev. Norbert F. Orsolits acknowledges inflicting on “probably dozens” of boys. Yes, these assaults occurred decades ago, but the stories keep coming and one expert, Judith Burns-Quinn, says she believes the number of actual priest abusers in Western New York could be double or even triple the 19 known so far.

The problem of sexual abuse by priests appears to be a larger, more pervasive problem than previously recognized here. It demands answers to searching, fundamental questions. They are not limited to the church’s structure, but they clearly have to include that.

Centuries of tradition backstop policies regarding celibacy and the exclusion of women. They are infused in the faith and in the expectations of millions of adherents. But regardless of any justification for them, there is abundant reason to examine whether their influence has helped lead the church into a prolonged crisis and untold numbers of children into a lifetime of tortured misery.

It’s always uncomfortable to question the doctrine of any religion, whose practices are protected by the Constitution. But this is not just a church issue, anymore. The public has a compelling interest in how leaders of this faith deal with the root causes of a problem that for too long was concealed as abusive priests were moved among parishes. As such, church policies that may have helped to create an environment in which child sex assaults could flourish like weeds in a garden must be on the table.

This is not to argue that celibacy causes child abuse. Married people have been known to abuse their own children. It’s also not to confuse homosexuality and pedophilia. Sexual orientation is no predictor of child sexual abuse. Plenty of heterosexuals have assaulted children.

It’s also not to suggest that the priesthood is somehow more likely than other professions to attract pedophiles. The terrible abuses committed at the Nichols School document the greater breadth of this problem. Any environment in which adults are around children may be prone to attracting those who would abuse their position of authority and trust. Predators know where to find their prey.

But some key questions needs to be answered: What are the consequences of suppressing normal, healthy sexuality? Who might be attracted to that lifestyle, beyond those whose only goal is devotion to Catholicism? We are all only human, after all. Some who adopt celibacy, no doubt, do well with the lifestyle. Others, demonstrably, do not.

It wasn’t always true that priests were required to be celibate. At one time, centuries ago, they could marry. Some say Pope Francis may want to end the rule on celibacy; if so, it wouldn’t be novel.

A change in policy could also eliminate another dagger aimed at the heart of the church: a declining number of priests. That, in fact, is a matter of internal church policy, but allowing priests to marry could benefit the church in more than one way.

More controversial, perhaps, is the question of whether women should be allowed to be priests. That, too, could expand the number of clerics and attract new parishioners. More to the point of sex abuse, though, it’s hard to imagine great numbers of women priests abusing children or tolerating others who do. Some studies suggest that men commit more than 90 percent of all sexual assaults on children.

The Catholic Church is an old and venerable institution. It doesn’t change easily. And, it is important to state, it is only small portion of priests who commit these sickening crimes.

But three things undeniably true here: Sexual abstinence is not natural to human beings. Men who have committed to it have, instead, forced themselves on children. Women are radically unlikely to engage in similar behavior.

How those issues relate to the church’s crisis may be up for debate, but the debate should be undertaken in earnest.

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