My home diocese of Santa Rosa, Calif., is in the midst of a sex scandal, involving the bishop (who has resigned), a priest, and possibly other people as well. The details of this particular scandal are not important. Seeing the wounded body of Christ at such a close range has inspired a lot of soul-searching. In this first column so inspired, I want to comment on one of the most common responses to the crisis of sexual impropriety by the clergy.
In the wake of these scandals, many people both inside and outside the Catholic Church wonder whether the time has come to reconsider the Church's discipline of celibacy for priests. I maintain that it is illogical to blame celibacy. In fact, continual reconsideration of a subject that Rome has forcefully closed would actually do more harm than good.
The assumption behind the attack on celibacy is that everyone, especially men, need an outlet for the sexual urge. If people are not provided with legitimate outlets for their sexual desires, they will be driven to illegitimate or inappropriate sexual activity. Therefore, the argument goes, the celibate priesthood is an invitation for the worst kind of inappropriate sexual activity.
Let's analyze this argument. The first premise is that the strength of the sexual urge is a given. A person just has a certain amount of sexual desire that has to be gratified, one way or another. If it isn't gratified in legitimate ways, it will be gratified through some illegitimate means.
There are two problems with this assumption. First, it suggests that we can solve all problems of inappropriate sexual conduct by redefining what is legitimate. A generation ago, sexual activity outside of marriage was almost universally considered improper. Not everyone lived up to this standard of conduct, to be sure. But most everyone accepted the basic code of conduct, and understood the reasons behind it.
Today, by contrast, virtually nothing is considered out of bounds. The American Psychological Association recently published a study suggesting that pedophilia is not harmful to children. Are we really all convinced that we have solved the problem of inappropriate sexual behavior, simply by changing the definitions?
The second problem is more fundamental. The intensity of the sexual urge is not fixed in any particular person. The passions have a logic of their own. If we gratify the passions, they don't go away contentedly. Rather, the passions become more demanding, and more intense, with gratification.
Consider this: why do we have “date rape” on college campuses where the students are living in coed dormitories? These students have plenty of opportunities for sexual activity that carries not a hint of disapproval or repression. Yet female students so often encounter predatory behavior among the men, that it is described as a date rape crisis.
If it were true that having plenty of opportunities for licit sex were a sufficient condition for appropriate sexual behavior, President Clinton ought to be the most appropriate guy around. You can't tell me that the president of the United States, and a married man at that, couldn't have found any outlets for his sexual desires. Surely he could have found women his own age with whom to share carnal knowledge at some location other than the Oval Office.
The president's case also illustrates the fact that the passions do not follow the normal calculating logic of costs and benefits. Clinton had a sexual harassment lawsuit pending against him. He should have been accustomed to the scrutiny of the media. He knew full well that he had plenty of political enemies. And he couldn't keep his hands off a 21-year-old intern. He wasn't stupid. He was a slave to his passions, as St. Paul explained to us so long ago.
The passions such as the sexual urge are not necessarily calmed by being gratified. On the contrary, it is practice at calming the passions that reduces the desire to gratify them. According to both Aristotle and Aquinas, problems like date rape and our libidinous president are the result of overindulging the passions, not of inhibiting the passions.
Many people consider “inhibition” or “repression” a Bad Thing. But we don't seem to have a problem with the idea that people should practice calming the passion of anger, or the passion of greed. We realize that people will not always be successful at channeling their anger in appropriate ways.
But we recognize that it is necessary to insist that we try. Not trying will lead to more frequent and more destructive outbursts of anger, not fewer and calmer.
This is why the suggestion that the Church abandon its ancient discipline of clerical celibacy is misguided. It does not logically follow that allowing people to have sex more often will guide them into having sex in the right time and the right context. Every person in every state of life has a standard of chastity appropriate to that state of life. Every society has rules about appropriate sexual conduct. And, every society has people who sometimes fail to live up to those standards. The answer to that failure is not to abandon the standards.
Modern society has been attempting to do just that. We have tried to lower the standards of acceptable behavior so that more people have acceptable outlets for their sexual desires. But this has done nothing to reduce the intensity of the desires, nor to channel them away from the few remaining taboo areas. Masochism, sadism and now even incest and pedophilia have unashamed, unabashed advocates in our world.
It is unthinkable that the Catholic Church should follow this trend. Our call is to be a sign of contradiction. And boy, our society sure gives us a lot to contradict. Rather than continually reopening the question of clerical celibacy, we should support our priests in living out their vocation faithfully.
Jennifer Roback Morse is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution.