PARIS (Reuters) - Like a fire that can’t be stamped out, the issue of priestly celibacy has re-emerged at the center of the debate about how to prevent the child sexual abuse scandals now haunting the Roman Catholic Church.
And just as persistently, Pope Benedict has once again ruled out changing the practice dating back to the 12th century. He said on Friday that voluntary chastity was a gift from God that should not be given up to “passing cultural fashions.”
“Men and women these days just want us to be priests to the end, and nothing else,” he told 700 participants at a Vatican conference about the priesthood.
His comments came as several senior prelates in German- speaking countries suggested a link between abuse and the priest’s vow of chastity and called for more open discussion in the Church about celibacy and priests’ sexuality.
Many media commentators and some liberal Catholics, such as Swiss theologian Hans Kueng, have blamed the marriage ban for the recent scandals in Germany, Austria, Netherlands and Ireland and called for the rule from the 12th century to be scrapped.
“Times have changed, and society too, and the Church will have to consider how this type of life can be maintained or what it has to change,” Salzburg Archbishop Alois Kothgasser said on Austria’s ORF television on Thursday evening.
In a diocesan newsletter, Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn of Vienna said the Church had to ask difficult questions about the abuse scandals. “That includes the issue of celibacy and the personal development” of priests, he wrote.
None of the prelates suggested ending celibacy. Schoenborn insisted on Friday his call to discuss the rule did not mean scrapping it: “If celibacy were the reason for sexual abuse, there wouldn’t be any abuse in the rest of society,” he said.
Bishop Stefan Ackermann, the German Church’s ombudsman for abuse cases, said the public often suspected all priests of being sexually abnormal when these scandals arose. “This view does not correspond to reality,” he said on ZDF television.
But spurred by the scandals, they are speaking up more about the need to help priests deal with sexuality and explaining to the public a lifestyle so out of step with today’s freer morals that many people cannot understand it.
“Just because one doesn’t live out one’s sexuality doesn’t mean it’s been turned off. No, I must see how I react sexually and learn to deal with it,” Hamburg Auxiliary Bishop Hans-Jochen Jaschk explained on German Radio on Friday.
Kothgasser told his interviewer he sometimes wished he had a family, especially when he met “beautiful people,” and called this a “very natural” human feeling.
Jashke said celibacy was not the reason for sexual abuse but added: “The celibate lifestyle can attract people who have an abnormal sexuality and cannot integrate sexuality into their lives. That’s when a dangerous situation can arise.”
Professor Klaus Beier, head of the Institute of Sexology and Sexual Medicine at Berlin’s Charite Hospital, told the ZDF discussion round that pedophile tendencies developed at puberty and were not influenced by celibacy.
But he added: “Celibacy attracts pedophiles into the service of the Catholic Church.”
Jaschke suggested Rome open the priesthood to so-called “proven men,” but the Vatican has consistently rejected the idea of ordaining older married men as priests.
The Eastern Rites of the Catholic Church allow married priests but they cannot become bishops, the same policy as the Orthodox churches use. Anglican and Protestant churches have married clergy and some allow women to be ordained.
Pope Benedict’s recent offer to disaffected Anglicans to become Catholics could bring another group of married priests into the Roman Church.
Editing by Noah Barkin