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The Catholic Church needs to reform – and celibacy is a good place to start

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As droves of Catholics leave the Church over the continuing sexual abuse controversy, it's clear something must be done about its archaic tradition of priesthood celibacy.

To judge whether any enterprise is succeeding or failing, you look at the numbers. For the Catholic Church, here’s a recent set: Pope Francis visited Ireland, one of Catholicism’s oldest and staunchest “markets”, in August and drew fewer than 200,000 to his Dublin rally. In 1979, the papal service at the same park drew more than a million people.

As any marketing department can tell you, falling numbers of that magnitude are a sign of something badly wrong.

For Catholics, rocked by horrifying revelations of priestly abuse, there are too many wrongs to ignore. Over generations, it now transpires, the church they loved, trusted and obeyed was sheltering those who sexually abused, entrapped and sometimes drove to suicide defenceless young people. And the management knew.

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Rather than ousting predators, the church has had to be mostly dragged by the force of law to even admit, let alone curtail, the abuse. Perhaps most damaging to its franchise is the fact that the church leadership refuses to enact reforms, even now.

Like a manufacturer reluctant to reformulate a faulty product, Catholicism persists with its age-old formula of celibacy. Imposed in 1139, celibacy suppresses natural human sexuality and denies the fulfilment of intimate and nourishing relationships. Purporting to uphold human procreation as the holy purpose of sex, while denying that holy of holies to its own priests, monks and nuns, this absurd contradiction of the Catholic Church has led to boundless misery.

Some priests, it must be acknowledged, lead unblemished lives. But for many others, celibacy has been a path to predation and perversion. When no form of sex is allowed, writes US commentator Andrew Sullivan, “all forms of sex can seem equally immoral”.

And when even Pope Francis, the most liberal, compassionate and reform-minded pontiff, who has condemned clerical “atrocities” and the lack of “care for the little ones”, will not consider reform, it’s no wonder Catholics are no longer buying it.

The sheer volume of abuse now being disclosed from around the world – including instances of rape in New Zealand – cannot be ignored. Sexual assault was once euphemistically hidden behind such phrases as “boundary issues”, but in Pennsylvania, where 1000 child victims of historical abuse have been identified, an investigation by the Attorney General has confirmed that a gang of more than 300 priests committed abuse and rape. One group systematically groomed boys for sexual abuse, giving them “markers” such as large crucifixes to wear so they knew which boys had been “processed” for their terrible purposes. The ritual abuse included naked crucifixion poses and sadistic whippings. If these priests were Muslim immigrants, critics rightly note, there would be “tough questions about the culture that produces abuse on this scale”.

Decades after the Magdalene Sisters’ cruel custodial reign over unmarried pregnant women and girls was assumed the lowest ebb in Irish church-licensed cruelty, a secret charnel house was discovered in Tuam, where 800 babies died between 1925 and 1961, some of their remains consigned to a septic tank. This still elicits a defensive “leave well enough alone now” response from some in the church hierarchy.

Some more marketing department numbers on brand-slippage: in 2015, 62% of Irish voters chose to legalise same-sex marriage, and this year, 66.4% voted to end Ireland’s ban on abortion. Yet this is an overwhelmingly Catholic country – 78% as of 2016’s census. That this is down only six percentage points since 2011 suggests it’s not the church people are losing faith with but its adherence to grotesquely outmoded rules, including those that enforce celibacy and deny women a full role.

As any HR department can tell you, a successful enterprise needs the right personnel. The modern church needs men and women with a deep understanding of the human condition, including sexuality.

Some Catholics, frustrated, just leave. But they then lose the priceless gifts the church can offer: a sense of spirituality, community cohesion and strong social justice. It is now urgent for the Catholic leadership to end the very hypocrisies it purports to deplore and introduce reforms. You can call it a sacred duty, or call it a special offer to lapsed subscribers, but it must be done.

This article was first published in the October 6, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.