Mandatory Celibacy of Priests: A Fertile Source of Impurity

This op-ed is taken from the Introduction of Antonio Lombatti’s forthcoming book La moglie del Monsignore. Storia del celibato nella Chiesa cristiana (The Monsignore’s Wife. History of Celibacy in the Catholic Church) which deals with mandatory celibacy in Christianity until the recent scandals of pedophile priests.

By Antonio Lombatti
Università Popolare, Parma, Italy
May 2013

Let’s start here: last month, the Los Angeles Diocese was sentenced to pay 10 million dollars more to four victims of its pedophile and ephebophile priests. Don’t forget that the same diocese had paid 660 million in 2007. Overall, the Catholic Church has given about 3 billion dollars to abused victims in the US only. Impressive numbers.

On the scandal of pedophile priests in North America, Nancy Sheper-Hughes, professor of Anthropology at the University of California at Berkeley, and John Devine, Chairman, Academic Advisory Council, National Campaign Against Youth Violence, USA, have written:

At the heart of the current child sex abuse scandal in the United States is the ugly spectacle of hundreds of consecrated "men of God" committing, with impunity, repeated acts of sexual violence against children and adolescents, the bodies and minds of whom they had extraordinarily privileged access to. Adding insult to injury, these same sexual predators received sympathy from the Pope and protection from their bishops and religious orders, whose main concern was damage control packaged in the pious language of "preventing scandal." (“Priestly Celibacy and Child Sexual Abuse”, Sexuality Vol. 6[1]:15)

The plague of pedophile priests is not at its conclusion. But rather, I believe, it’s just at its beginning. Many Catholic countries with mediocre judicial systems, complacent journalists, or fearful victims have kept the problem hidden to the rest of the world. Now, the question is: Will there be a change in the Catholic Church’s attitude towards mandatory celibacy? Is this the real problem?

In a recent interview, before the election of the new pope, the New York Cardinal, Timothy Dolan, said:

“It startles me sometimes (when people) say why doesn't the church talk about married priests,” he said. “I think we talk about it; I can't get my hair cut without my barber asking me about it. (But) I don't think there would be that kind of change.”

“For a pope, the mission statement is to conserve in the best sense of the word ... preserve the spiritual patrimony of the church, the timeless teaching that's taught to us from Jesus to his apostles through 2,000 years of the Church.” (

There’s something both true and false in this statement: “I don’t think there would be a change,” which is, in my opinion, true at least in the coming years. But that celibacy is “the spiritual patrimony of the church, the timeless teaching that's taught to us from Jesus to his apostles through 2,000 years of the Church,” that is false and misleading. Let’s start from this second point.

The Church has known the apostles and their wives, a married first pope, Peter, daconesses, women presbyters, and ministrae, legally married priests and bishops for over 500 years, and illegally for more than 1000 years, and even married popes or sexually active popes after their election. This presumed timeless teaching from Jesus to us simply doesn’t exist. There is, on the contrary, a difference in the interpretation of the New Testament which brought Christianity into a curious anthropological pattern of Christians trying to convince other Christians of true Christianity.

Our earliest relevant report on sexual abuse by Catholic clergy is the Liber Gomorrhianus written by Saint Peter Damian in the second half of 1049. The author was an abbot in Italy, later archbishop and cardinal and, after his death, declared a saint. He reported several types of sexual excesses by the clergy: sexual abuses of all kinds such a sodomy and fellatio practiced by priests on adolescents and young seminarians. He also included a short section condemning ecclesiastical superiors for tolerating these perversions and abuses. This charge was first advanced when mandatory celibacy started to spread among the clergy. It was an alarm bell that went unheard for almost a thousand years. But nothing seems to have changed.

Every analysis of the internal phenomena of the priesthood cannot avoid underlining the fact that Christianity, in its Catholic form, has conferred to the priesthood a very high function in order to create complex social dynamics. There is a clear distinction between the clergy and the lay people. Only priests, bishops, and cardinals can spread the message of Jesus and, above all, mediate the presence of God among the faithful and guide an individual towards salvation. Therefore, Catholicism has tried to build a model of dependence of the believer on his/her priest. The practice of the sacramental act of confession is the clearest example of the absolute need of this relationship between the faithful and priests. Mediation cannot be avoided. Under this point of view, Catholicism is a radical reorganization of human life based upon a spiritual dependence: the lay person needs the help and the guidance of the clergy.

Therefore, this system of human relationships, which divides people into two different categories, has pushed the clergy to becoming a new form of an independent social class: a sort of leading class or caste. Born to allow a vertical communication between God and men, priests find themselves also able to experience horizontal relations with each other. This has inevitably created a social awareness and some sort of team spirit that, as in the case of pedophile priests in the US, Germany, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Austria, Ireland, and Italy, has prevented many of them from denouncing the abuses as if the moral transgressions because this could endanger their function as intermediaries. Thus, the silence about sexual activities among priests is connected to the protection of the clerical culture.

Throughout the centuries, the priest has been perceived not only as an authority but as an untouchable authority: believers felt dependent and also inadequate, incompetent, intellectually, morally and religiously inferior. The mantle and aura of prestige that has been accorded to Catholic priests allowed them to be treated for generations as special agents of God, as mediators between ordinary humans and the divine. Celibacy endowed Catholic priests with awesome, almost magical, power and authority. Celibate priests were not "ordinary men." It is this aura, this "mystical halo," that the pedophile priests have taken advantage of to gain easy access to naive religious families and their vulnerable children.

At this point one more observation needs to be made: the Catholic clergy is composed only of unmarried males. The mandatory celibacy in the Catholic church is not a dogma, but a rule of law. In fact, the Catholic church can ordain married priests in churches of the Eastern Rite. Authority is represented by male celibates who speak about sex and family, but who must behave against nature and have no families and no sexual relationships. Mandatory celibacy bestows an excessive importance on the sexual and affective aspects of life, which become a sort of taboo just because they are radically and unnaturally negated to priests. And this is the heart of the matter.

Mandatory celibacy for a priest, another Christ, is a church policy which supports, endorses, and defends anti-sexual ethics. It is important to note that every Church document on the matter of human sexuality has been written by men who are (supposedly...) celibate. So, writing or talking about sexuality, Catholic priests are supposed to be disembodied voyeurs. Living in the midst of people who are coupled, experiencing relationships, marrying people, priests watch what others do while denying the yearning of their own bodies. As disembodied voyeurs—eyes without a face—priests determine what is ‘the good’ for other moral agents without knowing what the experience is like. They have no idea how sexuality, marrying and having children positively enhances human relationships and the experience of living. In short, it’s as though I were to write a handbook of cardiology.

Based on his extensive clinical experience, Richard Sipe—a former priest and seminary instructor, now a psychotherapist with a speciality in treating and counseling clergy—is convinced that celibacy is a strong co-factor in sexual abuse in the Catholic clerical community. As long as the Roman Church refuses to come to terms with human sexuality, and as long as it continues to put sexually and psychologically immature men in close contact with young boys, the institution is creating a high-risk situation. In the other words, the Church itself offers an "occasion of sin." Vigilantius already understood this at the end of the fourth century when he wrote that celibacy was “a fertile source of impurity.” In 1135, Saint Bernard of Clairvaux wrote in one of his sermons not to deprive the Church of honorable and immaculate sacerdotal wedding, because this would have increased concubinage, incest, and all manner of nameless vices and depravation (tolle de ecclesia honorabile connubium et torum immacolatum, nonne reples eam concubinariis, incestuosis, mollibus, mascolorum concubitoribus et omni denique genere immondorum).

Now let’s come to the point. Is there a connection between mandatory celibacy and the scandal of pedophile priests? The answer, I think, is hidden in the data available. Pedophilia and ephebophilia are disorders of sexual behavior which lead to the aberrant and perverse relationships of adults with prepubescent children and postpubescent teens, so says the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders by the American Psychiatric Association. According to two of the leading scholars on this subject, Thomas Plante (professor of Psychology at Santa Clara University and adjunct clinical professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University School of Medicine) and Richard Sipe, about 6 percent of the Catholic priests and brothers across North America have had sexual experiences with minors. Two percent of them are pedophiles and 4 percent are ephebophiles. Since there are about 46,000 active Catholic priests in the United States, Sipe suggests that approximately 2,700 priests have been sexually involved with children and minors. According to Plante, if we include the additional 15, 000 retired priests and other male clergy such as brothers and deacons, this number swells to 3,600. This data was established in a professional conference held at Santa Clara University in 1999 long before the sex abuse crisis came to the public’s attention in 2002. In recent years Sipe has re-evaluated the numbers, bringing to public attention the fact that the percentage of some US dioceses—Tucson, Boston, and Los Angeles—swells from 10 to 23 percent. Therefore, even we keep in mind the first scientific reports on pedophile priests with their percentage (6 percent), the number of depraved priests is far beyond the average rate of the population with sexual disorders such as pedophilia, that the World Health Organization estimates between 3 and 4 percent. These numbers speak for themselves.

If anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea. (Matthew 18: 6–7)

I’m against the death penalty. Always. However, as a father of two children, I sometimes feel the temptation of hanging a stone around a priest’s neck who has molested children. “Our religion has invented a new dogma against nature” (PL XXIII, 282) wrote the monk Jovian in the late fourth century. The Catholic church will turn back to its origins and let priests marry. I think it may take some time, but it will happen. It has to happen sooner or later.

Comments (10)

As Dr. Lombatti seems to appreciate the expertise of Prof. Plante I recommend the reading of this article where it is clearly denied what Dr. Lombatti writes in this introduction of his new book and that Prof. Plante calls 'myths':

Then I would remember that only in the Unites States it is estimated that there are 4.5 million students abused in the schools. As Dr. Lombatti is a teacher in an high school (in addition to teaching in a cultural association) I really hope that he would feel also the temptation of hanging a stone around the neck of his colleagues (many married).

#1 - domenico - 05/09/2013 - 10:54

Abused children can be unfortunately found in Judaism, Hinduism, among boy scouts, students or in sport teams. That's true. However, the numbers here swells from 3 to 4 percent. While in many US Catholic dioceses these numbers reached even 23%. Richard Sipe is deeply convinced that mandatory celibacy is a strong co-factor in the scandal of pedophile priests. And I agree with him.

I think I have extensively quoted cases in ecclesiastical history in the middle ages in my book to substantiate my claim that when mandatory celibacy was introduced this produced, using the words of Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, all sorts of sexual depravation.

#2 - Antonio Lombatti - 05/09/2013 - 17:23

Dr. Lombatti, it seems to me that you're confusing the percentage of pedophiles (those who are attracted in pre-pubescents) in the general population as established by the WHO with the percentages provided by Plante and Sipe that relate to the child abuse of minors (abuses of children under 18 years and even 21 as this was the legal age years ago). Please ask Mr. Sipe or Dr. Plante what is the percentage of pedophiles in the Catholic Church according to the medical definition of pedophilia and then compare it with the WHO data.

Relating the association pedophilia and celibacy I simply quote Dr. James Cantor, professor at the University of Toronto Faculty of Medicine,Head of the Law & Mental Health Research Section of the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH; Toronto) and the Editor-in-Chief of Sexual Abuse: A Journal of Research and Treatment:

"Although there have been claims that child molestation is a result of homosexuality (or of celibacy), there is absolutely no basis in science for either conclusion."
(CNN article by Dr. Cantor)

This for me settles the scientific aspect of this topic.

#3 - domenico - 05/10/2013 - 08:06

Dr. Lombatti,
well I read the words of Saint Bernard of Clairvaux; do you realize that in his sermon he was contesting the Albigenses who rejected the institution of marriage and asserted that the Church could not perform marriages?
Or are you claiming that Bernard was contesting the First Council of Lateran where celibacy had just been sanctioned?

#4 - domenico - 05/10/2013 - 08:47

Domenico, as you may understand, the real data of pedophile priests are totally unknown to scholars. A secret document written by cardinal Ottaviani in 1962 obligated worldwide dioceses to deal with abuse cases only with ecclesiastical trials. No word should be said to anyone about them, otherwise the cleric would have been excomunicated. We knew about the existence of this document just because a brave Houston attorney found one in a US diocese secret archive in 2002. So, the percentage of pedophile priests between 6 and 23 is even higher. (by "pedophile" I also mean "ephebophile")

Of course I'm aware of the context of Bernard's words. I used them intentionally to show the paradox of the church in those years: she was condemning the ascetism of others and not her own just because kids of bishops and priests were inheriting ecclesiastical properties.

The paradox didn't stop here. Lots of popes who were asking for celibacy were openly married and lived with their wives and children in the Lateran palace (IXth c.), and after that they kept lovers anc concubines. But this will be made clear in my following op-ed. And, above all, in my book.

#5 - Antonio Lombatti - 05/10/2013 - 17:20

I have a rather Protestant, rather negative attitude to celibacy, but perhaps the likes of me shouldn't get involved in this topic without mentioning that there are scandals in the Church of England too. The Scout movement has been mentioned. One of our scandals, the subject of a recent report, involved both the Scouts and the CofE. The Scout authorities come out of it rather better than the ecclesiastical ones do!
I'm sure your book, which is on my list, will examine the highly encratite ideas current in the fairly early church, well before the formalisation of celibacy rules. The Acts of Peter, which I understand had reached its finished form by the fourth century, has the saint causing concubines to go on sex strike (well, maybe some husbands deserve that) and uses language with a rather alarming degree of disgust about sex in any form. These ideas must have concealed a terrible ferment of sexual desire and guilt.

#6 - Martin - 05/15/2013 - 15:40

Martin, I have a chapter on Encratites, Manicheism and Cenobites. On how, in early Christianity, there was an ante litteram voluntary celibacy.

#7 - Antonio Lombatti - 06/06/2013 - 12:04

It is ridiculous to claim that celibacy makes someone a sexual predator. Are we to forget that Jesus Christ and St. Paul both recommend celibacy for the sake of the kingdom?

Some books contra Lombatti's claims:

Christian Cochini, 'The Apostolic Origins of Priestly Celibacy,' trans. N. Marans (Ignatius Press, 1990) 469 pp., from Cochini's 'Origens apostoliques du célibat sacerdotal' (1981).

Roman Cholij, 'Clerical Celibacy in East and West' (Gracewing, 1989) 226 pp.

Stefan Heid, 'Celibacy in the Early Church: the beginnings of a discipline of obligatory continence for clerics in East and West,' trans. M. Miller (Ignatius Press, 2000) 376 pp., from Heid's Zölibat in der frühen Kirche: Die Anfänge einer Enthaltsamkeitsplicht für Kleriker in Ost und West (1997).

Philip Jenkins, 'Pedophiles and Priests: Anatomy of a Contemporary Crisis' (Oxford, 2001) 224 pp.

#8 - dmw - 06/12/2013 - 19:19

dmw, thanks for your comment. Of course, I've read those books.

As for the' Jesus and Paul recommend celibacy' statement, I can only say that among Christians there's no agreement on that. Well, only Catholics interpret the New Testament this way, despite the Vatican ordains married priests in the church with Oriental rite and accepts former Anglican pastors.

#9 - Antonio Lombatti - 06/12/2013 - 20:39

The following sentence touches at the heart of the problem : "As long as the Roman Church refuses to come to terms with human sexuality, and as long as it continues to put sexually and psychologically immature men in close contact with young boys, the institution is creating a high-risk situation." Jesus never asked his Apostles to leave their wives,nor to suppress their sexuality, but he commanded them to follow Him first. The Anointed Servants of G-d must follow G-d first, the wives (or families) come second: "You cannot serve two masters (equally well)".The Church made the error of overaccentuating the main task, thereby neglecting the secondary task. Priests should be given the choice: If they lack the maturity to serve only G-d, they should be granted permission to marry, but with the understanding that marriage should never become an obstacle to the Highest Service. This problem reminds me of Judas Iskariot : he attached more importance to worldly matters such as liberating the Jews from the Roman yoke (the very reason of his treason), and spending excessive time with his family instead of with Jesus (and he got reprimanded for it). I call upon the Vatican to return to it's Jewish-Biblical roots.

#10 - Francois Aerts - 04/24/2015 - 14:52

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