The retirement of Pope Benedict XVI, which paved the way for the election of Pope Francis last week, at a time Pope Benedict is still alive, was both radical and revolutionary. It takes a man of exceptional conviction and courage to take such a step. Pope Benedict XVI shocked many Roman Catholics and non-Catholics, and put some fear into the hearts of many Catholics worldwide that his unusual action could affect the reputation and tradition of the Catholic Church.
In 2001, Pope John Paul II broke with tradition by not just visiting a mosque in Damascus, Syria, but also kissing the Koran in the mosque, being the first pope to do that. That action shocked many Catholics and Christians. But it did not make Pope John Paul II to apologise for it or stop him from more radical actions.
These instances show that even in a conservative institution with a long tradition and history like the Roman Catholic Church, a man can change the way things have been, even if many worshippers initially find it shocking or unusual.
Stories of Catholic priests sexually molesting male and female children have been on the increase in recent years. Sometimes, such inappropriate sexual acts are not with children but with adults. A few weeks ago, a Catholic cardinal, Keith O’Brien – the head of the Catholic Church in Scotland and the most senior prelate in all Britain – resigned after admitting to having had sexual relations with some priests. Ironically, O’Brien had been a vociferous voice against homosexuality in the United Kingdom.
It is not that such stories are not heard among other Christian denominations now and then, but they are on a large and recurring scale in the Catholic Church. It is not because Catholic priests have a higher libido than other priests and pastors or that they are worse in morals. The only reason for it is the compulsory celibacy enforced among the Catholic clergy.
Such sexual molestation stories are not rife in Nigeria. But it is not because they don’t occur – for Nigerian priests are as human as their European and American counterparts – but because of two main reasons: 1. There is still a deep stigma for rape – victims prefer to keep silent to avoid being stigmatised; 2. since most victims are usually Catholics, they and their families would prefer not to tarnish the image of their beloved church by going public – they would prefer to bear the trauma for life than be pointed to as the “enemies” that wanted to drag the name of the Catholic Church through the mud. So, the silence continues, and everybody pretends that nothing untoward goes on in Nigeria. That I dared to write this at all will be considered sacrilegious by many.
Has the priestly celibacy worked for the Catholic Church? Yes and no. Yes, because it has helped to portray the Catholic Church as different from other Christian denominations, and therefore unique. It has helped to portray the priests as different from the laity, thereby strengthening their power over the laity and increasing their aura in their eyes too. It has helped to sustain the image of the Catholic Church as an institution with a great tradition. In addition, it has helped it to a large extent to have priests that are not ruled by inordinate acquisition of wealth as well as priests that are not too afraid to die in the line of duty.
But celibacy has not worked and will never work for the Catholic Church, because it is against natural law. Only VERY FEW men and women can be truly celibate for decades. And those who want to be truly celibate do so without any compulsion. Some would say that the Catholic priests are not forced to be celibate. That is true, but a man who passionately wants to serve the Lord as a priest in the Catholic Church MUST take an oath to be celibate, even if he earnestly does not want to be one.
Celibacy was an introduction into the church. The church was over a thousand years old when it took a definite stand in 1139, at the Second Lateran Council, forbidding priests to marry. In 1563, the Council of Trent re-affirmed that celibacy policy.
Curiously, celibacy is not a biblical injunction. It is not in the Old Testament, neither is it in the New Testament. It is not ordered by Jesus Christ or His apostles as a condition for one to inherit the kingdom of God. Christ made it clear that in heaven, there is no husband or wife, while St Paul said that whether one marries or does not marry does not matter. In 1st Timothy 3, Paul listed the qualities of a bishop or overseer, and said inter alia: “A bishop must be blameless, the husband of one wife, vigilant, sober, of good behaviour, hospitable, an apt teacher, no drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, and no lover of money.”
Christianity does not force its adherents to kill their libido. Sex drive is a natural and healthy thing that cannot be subdued by force. If it is subdued forcefully, it brews like a latent volcano, exploding one day in a destructive and embarrassing manner. It is a force that needs to be channelled to fruitful ventures, not caged. It is like hunger and thirst. One can control how much one eats or drinks, but one should not be forced to abstain from food and water. Even animals are not taught by anyone to engage in sex. In matters of sex, the difference between animals and human beings is that unlike human beings, they don’t have the capacity to manage and channel their sex drive properly.
Before becoming priests, many men would be convinced of their ability to be celibate all their lives. They start off well. But maybe a decade later, when the spiritual fire wanes or burns out, they see that they cannot control the sexual urge that rears its head in them regularly. And since they are not married and cannot resign as priests and face the odium of such an action, they look for the safest outlets: masturbation, paedophilia, homosexuality, and fornication. Children are naturally the easiest targets. Children are easier to deceive; children are easier to keep silent. CNN reported that a priest told a 12-year-old girl he wanted to defile who told him that such an act was a sin: “I am your priest. What I say is sin is sin. What I say is not sin is not sin!” And with such superior and fear-inducing arguments, he was able to disarm the girl, defile her and keep her silent until she became an adult and went public with her story.
Revolutionary men change things. Pope Francis can change this policy if he wants to. Luckily, clerical celibacy in the Catholic Church is not a dogma, but a regulation. A dogma like male-only priesthood is a Catholic dogma, irreversible by a Pope. But the ban on priestly marriage is a regulation, which can be changed by a pope overnight if he wishes.
Mandatory celibacy in the Catholic Church is an ill-wind that blows no-one any good. Just like the football ruling body, FIFA, saw reason after fighting against goal-line technology for many years for no other meaningful reason but to avoid change and maintain tradition, Pope Francis has the opportunity to be the pope that abolished compulsory celibacy in the Catholic priesthood. Every Catholic who truly loves his church should be on the campaign for the Catholic Church to discontinue that policy and save millions of children from sexual exploitation by the priests they trust and venerate, and also save the Church the embarrassment of constantly being bombarded with such unpalatable news from different parishes and dioceses.
Any time the story of sexual exploitation of children by a Catholic priest is aired or published anywhere in the world, it is not just the Catholic Church that is adversely affected by such news. The entire Christendom is affected and smeared too.
When a policy is not working, history makers face reality and change such a policy, thereby writing their names in gold in the process, while others prefer not to rock the boat and just continue to go with the tide, whatever the unsavoury consequences.