ABC News is just now discovering last week’s confusion over Christoph Cardinal Schonborn’s comments on priestly celibacy. If you missed it, the cardinal had written a column for his diocesan magazine addressing the past sex abuse scandal.
In the article, Cardinal Schönborn called for an “unflinching examination” of possible reasons for pedophilia, and said that this includes the issues of training priests “as well as the question of what happened in the so-called sexual revolution.”
“It also includes the issue of priest celibacy and the issue of personality development. It requires a great deal of honesty, both on the part of the church and of society as a whole.”
As a spokesman later clarified, Cardinal Schonorn wasn’t questioning celibacy, but saying that we need to look at the way we handle the personal development of the men we’re calling to be celibate priests. That’s a perfectly reasonable suggestion, and many others have made it. Celibate priests are still sexual beings; their seminary formation needs to acknowledge that and help them transform those energies.
Of course, that subtle point flew right past the headline writers at ABC News. Even though the mix-up was reported on — and then corrected — last Thursday, they went with “Top Cardinal Says Priest Celibacy Rule Needs to be Reexamined.”
There was one good section in the piece:
[Father Edward] Beck rejects the notion that there is a direct link between celibacy and pedophilia within the Catholic Church. “Pedophilia is its own disease. It cuts across all professions; doctors, lawyers, rabbis…it is not limited to priests. Can celibacy lead people to act out sexually? Yes. But when it comes to acting out this way with kids, no.”
On the other hand, another leading German Catholic, Bishop Hans-Jochen Jaschk of Hamburg, told German Radio on Friday: “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.
This is an important distinction. The strongest argument against priestly celibacy — at least as regards its alleged harms — is not that it produces sexually unhealthy men, but that it attracts them in disproportionate numbers. While I think the problem would be better addressed through simple improvements in seminary enrollment and formation practices rather than upending the Latin priesthood, it’s a fair concern.