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Sex & Celibacy

As someone who was raised as a Catholic — and as a former celibate, albeit Buddhist — I can’t help but follow the scandal that’s finally breaking over the Catholic Church. Long, long overdue, it’s the stuff of nightmares — the worldwide sexual abuse of children for decades, probably centuries, and the instinct of most church officials to deny its sins and leave victims to rot in their own misery. It goes against just about everything the Church is supposed to stand for, and has horrified Catholics and non-Catholics alike. After decades of successfully dodging widespread publicity, the Vatican now faces a broad-based, tangible protest — actually, blood-lust is more like it. No surprise there. Will the church survive? Will it learn? I’d bet on the first, not the second. I said as much on Huffington Post, and drew the ire of Catholic bashers, as if I were a sympathizer!

All in all, I was fortunate. Although I was terrorized by my Catholic teachers as a boy, the abuse foisted on me was only physical and emotional, not sexual. Years of therapy and mindful reflection have taught me to disbelieve the disparaging inner voice of my teachers, and to wrestle it aside whenever it shows its ugly face, but it still shows up. I’ve worked hard and can win the battles, but the war goes on.

Now, do the math: if thousands of children were sexually abused, then how many were simply abused like me? I’d guess millions, most still carrying their demons around and passing down the same old ‘discipline’ on their children. It becomes instinctive.

Mine is just one story, not unusual. Children are society’s most natural scapegoats — weak, defenceless, silent, and respected by only a minority of parents. Most of us are in need of psychotherapy just as much as of dentistry and daily hygiene, but people still look at those in therapy and wonder, ‘What’s wrong with them?’

Nothing’s wrong — at least, no more than usual. It’s just life in an imperfect world.

Many blame the sins of the pedophile priests on a mix of homosexuality and celibacy, but to equate pedophilia with homosexuality is reactionary, and mistaken. The celibacy connection is another thing altogether. Forcing celibacy on those with healthy hormones — and telling them that they’re becoming ‘pure’ because of it — is a recipe for deceit, perversity and disaster. On the other hand, there are those who handle it well, even thrive off it — it seems to be a matter of personal temperament. I was avowedly celibate for eight years with great enthusiasm, hoping it would wean me off urges that had only brought me pain and heartache. That didn’t work, and I returned to a normal lifestyle, to face the music and eventually discover unexpected joy. Other people, like Wilfred Thesiger the great English explorer and writer, professed to simply prefer that way of life. There was no social pressure on him to be a confirmed bachelor; he simply was one.

Likewise, many priests are successfully celibate. Still, those who are not are apparently not a tiny minority, as the church insists. The history of the Catholic Church is one of breathtaking hypocrisy, featuring among other things dozens of pope’s mistresses, even wives. Wisely, the Eastern Orthodox Church offers priesthood with or without celibacy.

Why is the Catholic Church stuck on it? Because it’s considered holy.

I found the same attitude in Tibetan monasticism, where celibacy is the norm and homosexuality, of course, exists too. I never heard of any cases of pedophilia, but that’s presumably because the Tibetan establishment bears the same unwritten code of silence as the Catholics, and is not exposed to the same sort of scrutiny. Bad things that happen in monasteries are hushed up for two stubborn reasons: so as to not a) besmirch the monks, and b) weaken the faith of the laity. Within the confines of the ‘holy’ life, such logic is the automatic reaction. Also, in the ritualistic world of Tibetan Tantrism, ‘preserving one’s seed’ is considered a meditative accomplishment, a source of vigour and prerequisite for serious practice.

I never experienced, understood or believed that, and have never been sympathetic to it. I went to church every Sunday as a child, and heard the weekly announcement of ‘couple counseling’ provided by the parish priest — a man with supposedly no experience of sex, personal intimacy or parenting. I thought that preposterous; to their credit, many of my parents’ Catholic friends were of the same opinion, though they kept it discretely to themselves.

As I studied the life and times of the Buddha, it seems to me that he demanded celibacy from his monks for entirely practical reasons — firstly, he built communities that were dependant on local lay people for food and shelter, and needed his monks to not look as if they were having a fun and pleasant life on the backs of their benefactors. Secondly, a life of withdrawal was the antithesis to the ‘householder’ life, i.e. one with family responsibilities. In the days when sexual intercourse led almost inevitably to pregnancy, dependants and the need for a livelihood, you could either withdraw into meditative retreat or accept the everyday responsibilities of a parent, spouse and provider — the two were mutually exclusive. Makes sense to me, but what does it have to do with ‘purity?’

I’ve come to think of purity as an affectation, a notion I associate mostly with religious and racial bigots, a pretense and an untruth especially when it comes to sex. It’s true that sexuality can be a source of dissipation and confusion, but it’s also the source of the greatest intimacy most people experience. In good hands, it’s a foundation of mature, fruitful relationships — far more compatible with the reflective lifestyle than is the pointless attempt to deny one’s natural urges. It’s simply enriching — though not necessarily so. That takes a suitable match, real honesty and hard work.

There’s nothing revolutionary in this. Many religious traditions, like the Orthodox Christians, embrace sexuality. Some, like Judaism, largely reject celibacy. Now that makes sense. Except for a small few, celibacy is unnatural. Even when it is suitable for a particular individual, I can’t for the life of me see how it suggests any sort of saintliness or spiritual advantage; it’s just a preference. Even the Catholic Church calls marriage a sacrament, though most clergy obviously consider it a lesser one than priestly ordination. Perhaps in the fallout of this scandal the Vatican powers will at last reconsider their old prejudices. As rigid and intolerant as the Catholic Church has been over the ages, when it really has to adapt, it does. It’s a survivor.

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3 responses to “Sex & Celibacy”

  1. Robert G. Longpré

    In my opinion, if priests had been allowed to marry, this tragedy would not be unfolding today. There is little likelihood that Catholicism will ever regain its stature as the dominant Christian faith. With fundamentalism creeping into most Christian sects, spiritualism is fading into the shadow regions of the collective human psyche.

  2. Eric

    Kinda makes you think back to Sinead O’Connor.

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