A fascinating article on Priestly Celibacy (The Tablet)

The clerical trap
Luigi Gioia (Benedictine monk)

Priests are caught up in a dysfunctional system that makes a healthy emotional life impossible, suggests an academic scholar, spiritual director and Benedictine monk / By LUIGI GIOIA
AMONG THE greatest blessings of my priestly ministry, I count the many retreats I have preached to religious sisters, nuns, monks and diocesan priests in Europe, North America, Australia and Asia. The experience has given me an intimate knowledge of those who serve the Church as priests and nuns.
During confessions and personal conver- sations, retreatants open up with exceptional candour. Within a few days of doing little more than simply listening, a picture begins to emerge of the health and wellbeing of a community, a diocese or a local church.
This unfiltered access to the inner motiva- tions and struggles of countless nuns and priests has persuaded me that the Church remains an unparalleled force for good in the world. These priests and Religious are frank about their struggles, frustrations and failings
but remain patiently devoted to their mission. In spite of its flaws, no other body in the world cares for the poor, the immigrants, indigenous people, the promotion of women, quite in the same way as the Church does.
obstinate resistance of bishops to account- ability, the silencing of victims.
A common thread running through this depressing litany is the misuse of power. Some priests assume that by virtue of their ordina- tion they are deserving of privilege and are not answerable to anyone other than their own peers. For Pope Francis, “clericalism” is a mentality that identifies priesthood with power rather than with service. It is a frame of mind that leads to a sense of entitlement, paternalism, self-absorption and loss of missionary impetus.
The demand to overcome clericalism has become the catalyst in some quarters of a righteous anger to hold the Church’s hierarchy accountable to the laity for their offences. But there is a risk that this understandable reforming zeal might miss its target. The great majority of the women and men I have come to know as a spiritual counsellor and friend do not strike me as having a sense of entitle- ment, or an attachment to power. They are not mired in hypocrisy or secrecy. Most of them are honestly and humbly living lives of prayer and ser- vice to those in their care.
Those retreat experiences
resonate in me each time I
hear the word “clericalism”.
Once upon a time, it was an
insult hurled at clergy by secu-
lar pamphleteers; now it has
become a rallying cry for those
sympathetic to Pope Francis’
reforms. “Clericalism” is often
used without any unpacking
as a catch-all explanation of
all the sprawling ills in the life of the Church: the abuse of minors, impunity of perpetrators of same-sex harassment, the sexual exploitation of nuns and vulnerable women, the obstinnate resistance of bishops to accountability, the silencing of victims.
A common thread running through this depressing litany is the misuse of power. Some priests assume that by virtue of their ordination they are deserving of privilege and are not answerable to anyone other than their own peers.
For Pope Francis, ‘clericalism’ is a mentality that identifies priesthood with power rather than service
But what is clear is that these men and women are seriously deprived of the emotional support they need to deal with the enormous burden of their mission. Often, they speak to me of a desperate loneliness. They delight in being listened to without judgement, because this is so rarely available to them. In particular, they have no space in which to talk openly about their sexuality.

Precise statistics are elusive, but according to reliable accounts, while being nominally celibate, around half of Catholic priests are sexually active – and the figure is even higher in the Global South. Yet there is almost no dis- cussion about an incongruity of this magnitude, nor any serious attempt to understand it.
THE CHURCH is afraid to see priestly celibacy scrutinised. There is an aversion to face facts, collect reliable data, understand the causes, and, especially, to care for priests caught up in this situation. The main complaint of the hundreds of priests and Religious I have lis- tened to is precisely this. The Church claims to believe in the positive value of celibacy. And almost all priests and Religious acknow- ledge the fruits of a freely chosen celibate life. But there is dismay at the refusal to look honestly at the ways celibacy is actually prac- tised, and the impact the insistence on mandatory celibacy has on the welfare of priests and on the mission of the Church.
This suggests that mandatory priestly celibacy can be maintained only if it is enforced and if its transgressions are kept hidden. And this is clericalism: institutional aversion to truth-telling, a reliance on power, and lack of care for those who are struggling with the Church’s discipline.
My experience over many years has persuaded me that priests are not so much the agents of clericalism as its first victims. They re caught up in a system that tends to construct priestly identity and preserve it in an unhealthy way. The problem is not sex, but the Church’s dysfunctional relation to power and truth-telling. Yet whether in celibacy or in conjugal relationships, healthy and mature sexuality requires reciprocity, truthfulness, acknowledgement of desires and needs, and emotional attunement.
Using clericalism as an interpretative lens to disentangle the many strands of the present crisis in the life of the Church is legitimate – and indeed urgent – but it is fraught with potential downsides. The issue here is the welfare of people and especially priests.
THE BEST approach might be to take a step back and explore the phenomena that underlie clericalism, with the help of not just theologians and ethicists, but also sociologists, psychologists, anthropologists, historians and journalists (it is, after all, largely thanks to the latter that these mechanisms are starting to be unearthed). This is the kind of exercise the Von Hügel Institute for Critical Catholic Inquiry, based at St Edmund’s College in Cambridge, conducted with its workshop last week on “Clericalism and Sexuality”.
Just to give one example out of many, Maya Mayblin, an anthropologist at the University of Edinburgh, studies priestly transgressions of celibacy in consensual contexts and she patiently unravels the intricate pressures and patterns that cause many priests to choose to live double lives. She challenges simplistic clichés about hypocrisy, denial, secrecy and doubleness.
From an anthropological viewpoint, the transformation undergone by a priest when he vests to celebrate the Eucharist is not dissimilar to an actor moving on and off stage. The etymology of “hypocrisy” is “acting a theatrical part” and paradoxically this can be seen as one of the stratagems that can prevent the complete identification of the priest with his vocation. From a theological or spiritual viewpoint this might sound anathema. Seen through the eyes of the anthropologist, it looks like a survival strategy.
The crisis is systemic. The institution might be tempted to look for a quick fix out of self- preservation, but that too would be a form of clericalism. If the Church – bishops, priests Religious and laity together – looks not for fixes but for honesty and healing, then the anger this crisis is generating could be a force for good. Taking this anger seriously has to be part of an authentic healing process, and might even teach us all a lesson in the value of being more in touch with our emotions and our humanity, and really listening to, and caring for, each other.