My Evening in Edinburgh University

My Talk in Edinburgh:  Celibacy, Sexuality and the Crisis in Priesthood.

As is usual with my talks in recent years, the make-up of the attendance is very different to what I used speak to at novenas and missions. There were some who are still regular attenders at church; others who expressed their position as hanging on by their fingernails; others who gave up on church but who still have an interest in things religious; and then also a few who were not Catholics, but who came along out of interest. It made for a really interesting group.

I began by speaking about the crisis in priesthood, speaking mostly of Ireland, for obvious reasons. I explained that we are old, average age about 72, and with few younger priests, and hardly any seminarians. I said that generally morale was low among priests, for a variety of reasons. The clerical sex abuse scandal has had a major impact on all of us; clustering of parishes is increasing the workload; loneliness and isolation are a problem; priests in their fifties wondering what life will be like for them in twenty years time;  and older men worried about retirement, pension entitlements and accommodation. 

I told them I believe that compulsory celibacy is damaging to many men, and has to be abolished. I raised the question as to whither sexual frustration and repression due to celibacy might be connected to clerical child abuse.

I said that catholic sexual teaching is in serious need of re-thinking. It is now no longer credible, even to the majority of faithful church attenders. The scars of Humanae Vitae are still there for older married women, and has been accentuated by the discovery of so much sexual deviation among clergy, up to the very highest levels of the Church.

I finished by mentioning briefly the discrimination of women in the Church, simply saying that it is a further fundamental problem that the Church has to deal with.

Through all of this I included a fair bit of personal experience and belief. I talked a little about the type of Divine Presence that makes sense to me now, and how many of the traditional Church doctrines need to be re-imagined. Doctrine is the enemy of Mystery, and the spiritual life is immersed in mystery.

Then we had about forty five minutes of dialogue, which was really interesting. I heard a good bit about the Church in Scotland, and particularly in Edinburgh, where they had the trauma of Keith O’Brien, who had many admirable qualities, but whose revelations of sexual abuse left a lasting legacy of failure. Now they have an archbishop who is extremely conservative, and authoritarian. So it wasn’t a happy picture.

I was asked about how I was coping with being forbidden to minister. I explained to them that my recent discovery that my withdrawal from ministry was done by the Redemptorists (under orders from the Vatican), rather than from the Vatican directly, and how that had somewhat effected my relationship to my own congregation. One lady, a former nun, who is now a mystic, asked my why I stayed in the Redemptorists. I explained that at seventy two I needed to provide some security for my old age, so I would be afraid to go. She was not impressed. She said that there are times in life when one must strike out into the deep, or take a leap in the dark. “Don’t waste your energy in a situation that is negative; instead move out and give your energy to the wide world”, she said.

That gave me something to think about as I headed back to me hotel, having had a few drinks with some of the people who organised the event.

It was a good evening.