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Celibacy Is Not the Heart of the Matter in the Priest Sex Abuse Scandal -- the Bishops Are!

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Duluth, MN (OpEdNews) June 10, 2010 James Carroll has published a viewpoint piece about the priest sex abuse scandal in the Roman Catholic Church titled "Mandatory celibacy at the heart of what's wrong." Carroll's piece was published in the National Catholic Reporter, the independent weekly newspaper that has covered the priest sex-abuse scandal over the last twenty-five years.

As the title of Carroll's piece indicates, he considers the mandatory celibacy requirement for most diocesan priests to be at the heart of what's wrong in the Roman Catholic Church that led to the priest sex-abuse scandal. He is a learned critic. As a result, he is able to succinctly review the history of the celibacy requirement as church law "as a near universal prerequisite for ordination to the Latin-rite priesthood." (As he understands, the voluntary vow of celibacy in religious orders of priests, brothers, and sisters is a separate issue. Disclosure: Like Carroll, I was at one time in my life a seminarian for the priesthood in a religious order.)

Carroll also ably reviews how two extraordinary papal interventions prevented the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) from even considering the possibility of long-held church teachings regarding artificial contraception, on the one hand, and, on the other, celibacy.

Through these careful steps of historical analysis, Carroll is able to move to the question that he wants to raise, What is wrong with the Roman Catholic Church that led to the priest sex abuse? The title of his piece tells you his answer: Celibacy is at the heart of what is wrong.

But I want to question Carroll's analysis. To challenge his analysis, I propose that we try to imagine the counter-factual situation of what would have happened if the various bishops had immediately reported credible allegations of priest sex abuse to the local authorities to investigate.

As I say, I am asking you to imagine something that is counter-factual. As a matter of fact, the various bishops did not immediately report credible allegations to the local authorities to investigate. But Carroll, who lives in the Boston area and writes a column for the Boston Globe, does not even mention the role of the bishops in bringing us the priest sex abuse scandal by transferring alleged perpetrators from parish to parish.

What is wrong with the Roman Catholic Church that led various bishops to cover up credible allegations of priest sex abuse? Carroll does not explicitly address this question at all. I do not understand why the bishops acted as they did.

But celibacy is not at the heart of what went wrong in the priest abuse scandal the bishops are at the heart of what went wrong in the sex abuse scandal.

Now, this brings me to my second line of criticism of Carroll's line of criticism. In his learned understanding, Carroll intimates that the powers that be in the Roman Catholic Church fear changes not only in the teachings regarding artificial contraception and celibacy but also in the very idea of change itself.

Carroll makes the following statement: "Until then [the Second Vatican Council], an insufficiently historically minded church had regarded such contingent questions [as birth control and celibacy] as God-given absolutes."

Perhaps Carroll is here deliberately echoing terminology that the Canadian Jesuit theologian Bernard Lonergan (1904-1984) uses in his famous 1966 essay "The Transition from a Classicist World-View to Historical-Mindedness," which is reprinted in A Second Collection of Lonergan essays (1974, pages 1-9). However, even though Lonergan taught theology at the GregorianUniversity in Rome for many years, his views about historical-mindedness had little influence on the church hierarchy.

Nevertheless, Lonergan does at least suggest a useful way to refer to the mindset that Carroll aptly characterizes as regarding such contingent questions as birth control and celibacy as God-given absolutes this way of thinking represents what Lonergan refers to as a classicist world-view. In the classicist world-view of certain church prelates and of many conservative Roman Catholics, change is anathema.

After all, how can teachings that they have been thinking of as absolute truths (Carroll's God-given absolutes) change?

If there is any reasonable justification for holding religious faith in God at all, isn't it supposed to be the opposite of certainty about propositional statements? In other words, in a world where there are no certainties, don't we hold to religious faith in God in place of trying to hold to certainties of one sort or another?

But what happens to religious faith in God when church authorities substitute absolute faith in moral teachings for faith in God and try to pass off moral teaching as though they were God-given absolutes, to use Carroll's term?

Carroll correctly suggests that many of the church's moral teachings will probably stand or fall together. This is exactly what the church hierarchy fears if one moral teaching is changed, it will lead to changes in other moral teachings.

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Thomas James Farrell is professor emeritus of writing studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). He started teaching at UMD in Fall 1987, and he retired from UMD at the end of May 2009. He was born in 1944. He holds three degrees from Saint Louis University (SLU): B.A. in English, 1966; M.A.(T) in English 1968; higher education, 1974. On May 16, 1969, the editors of the SLU student newspaper named him Man of the Year, an honor customarily conferred on an administrator or a faculty member, not on a graduate student -- nor on a woman up to that time. He is the proud author of the book (more...)

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James Carroll should criticize the bishops for the... by Thomas Farrell on Saturday, Jun 12, 2010 at 5:40:56 AM
I had the occasion, with my hippie commune, to vis... by mollycruz on Saturday, Jun 12, 2010 at 7:09:42 PM
Look, why beat around the bush? All four 'horsemen... by TomK on Saturday, Jun 12, 2010 at 8:33:18 PM