AIDS Series: on Thin Ice

Arecent Kansas City Star series on the allegedly high incidence of AIDS among priests is neither convincing as good research nor as good theology.

First, the research. The newspaper claimed that, proportionally, four times as many priests die of AIDS as do members of the general population. It based its findings on a survey of 3,000 priests. The problem is that almost three-quarters of those approached never responded, which indicates the survey wasn’t a reliable sample. As one statistician pointed out, if you randomly sent a survey asking people if they are one of a set of twins, it is a fair bet that twins will be the most likely respondents. The results would be skewed.

When questioned by outside journalists, the newspaper failed to back up its claims about priests and AIDS with a clearer description of the key information it used.

Of course, the fact that any priests suffer from AIDS is tragic. Many of these tragic cases could, no doubt, be linked to the crisis in seminary training and priestly identity in the turbulent years after Vatican II.

Indeed, the Church has recognized the difficult circumstances of seminary formation in the modern world, and has taken firm steps to address candidate selection as well (see Indepth on the opposite page). Dioceses that are fully implementing this teaching have solved many of the 1970s problems addressed in the Star series.

But the Star series doesn’t content itself with its flimsy statistical critique of the post-Vatican II era. It goes further, and by doing so, steps onto thin theological ice.

In its first article, the paper attributes the problem of AIDS and priests to “the church's adherence to the 12th-century doctrine about the virtues of celibacy.” Celibacy is unnatural, the argument goes, and bottling up the sexual drive is like trying to keep a lid on a pot that is boiling over. Denied its natural outlet — the argument continues — the sex drive will force its way out one way or another, as often happens in prisons, for instance. But this argument ignores the fact that there are plenty of problems with infidelity and homosexuality among married people. Lasting chastity, in any walk of life, is impossible if it is imposed by force. It only works when it is a freely chosen embrace of a higher love: the love for a spouse, the love for Christ.

Today's culture has too often put flesh before faith. This is all the more reason to reaffirm the basic truth behind the Catholic priesthood's insistence on celibacy. Life isn’t about sex. It is ultimately about Christ. And to love him totally, exclusively, with all one's mind, heart and body isn’t dangerous. It's liberating.

AIDS, while especially scandalous when it occurs among priests, points up the need for more support for celibacy among priests and seminarians, not less.