March 23, 2002

Catholic Church scandal and celibacy

As the Catholic priesthood's boy-fondling scandal runs its course, I suspect that calls to end the Church's 1,000 year old policy of priestly celibacy will mount. It's hard to tell from news coverage whether the victims are mostly pre-pubescent or post-pubescent boys, but even in the gay-intimidated current journalistic environment, it's clear we are talking about boys, not girls.

Clearly, the Catholic Church can no longer recruit many young heterosexual men to a life of celibacy the way it did in the glory days of the Irish-American Church in the first half of the last century. This strikes me as reflecting one of the big overlooked changes of the 20th Century - the spread of the idea that everyone would, should, and deserves to get married. I don't know the statistics, but I gather that throughout much of Western European history, a sizable minority of the population didn't marry. Even in Victorian England, there were lots of professions in which marriage was difficult - domestic servants, sailors, army officers, Oxford dons, and so forth.

Anthropologist Peter Frost has talked about how one of the distinguishing features of Western Europe, going back into barbarian times was late and non-universal marriage.

The 1950's, which seem to us like the bedrock era of unchanging stability, may have been the first time when the universality of marriage became economically feasible in the U.S.

All in all, this seems like a happy change. As I've argued before, monogamy (one man-one wife) may be at the heart of Western individualism and freedom. This trend spread that notion of sexual democracy even farther.

However, the spread of the notion that everyone should have an active sex life has obviously caused big problems for the Catholic priesthood. The Church doesn't like to move fast - it has seen lots of fads come and go. But this one seems permanent.

Ending celibacy would also set the stage for dealing with the issue of female ordination a few decades in the future. The Church can't afford female ordination now because it would turn the priesthood into an overwhelmingly gay male and lesbian-dominated institution, further alienating the straight male laity. But a few decades of building back up the proportion of straight men in the priesthood would put the Church in position to open the doors to women as priests.

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