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Church historian warns celibate priests “easier to control and blackmail”

German Church historian Hubert Wolf has claimed celibate priests are “easier to control and blackmail”.

The professor has just published a new book, Zölibat: 16 Thesen (‘Celibacy: 16 Theses’).

Driving the news

Compulsory celibacy for priests has been a talking point in the global Church’s ongoing sex abuse crisis.

A major 2017 report that looked at conclusions from 26 Church sex abuse royal commissions and inquiries from Australia, Ireland, the UK, Canada and Netherlands found celibacy was and remains “the major precipitating risk factor for child sexual abuse”.

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The intrigue

Wolf, a priest and professor at the University of Münster, wrote last week in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung that changes to the Church’s discipline of celibacy for its priests would not represent a break with tradition nor an alteration to dogma.

Instead, ordaining married people would help stop child sex abuse. The move would also ensure Catholics in remote areas have regular access to the Eucharist. Abolishing celibacy would also increase vocations, Wolf said.

The 2003 Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz Prize-winning historian also recalled that celibacy is neither a divine command nor an order of Jesus or the apostles.

Wolf wrote that the early Church had no problem with married priests and bishops and that married priests are still a reality in Anglican and Eastern rites of the Church today.

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Go deeper

Talking to katholisch.de, Wolf denied that sexual aggressions in the Church today are a consequence of the sexual revolution of the 1960s.

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That flies in the face of what Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI argued in April, when he wrote that “part of the physiognomy of the Revolution of ’68 was that paedophilia was then also diagnosed as allowed and appropriate”.

Wolf criticised the way compulsory celibacy turns priests into “seemingly angelically-pure, asexual beings” and provides sex predators with an “invisibility cloak”.

The historian added: “Celibate priests are… easier to control and easier to blackmail, not least because of the well-known high proportion of celibacy violations”.

Wolf explained that the Church’s discipline of celibacy for priests has not even remained consistent over the centuries, but has morphed into everything “from the prohibition of the remarriage of a widowed priest to sexual abstinence on Sundays and feast days to mandatory lifelong celibacy”.

For the record

Anthony Ruff has provided on the Pray Tell blog an English translation of Wolf’s 16 theses against compulsory clerical celibacy.

1. Taboos have fallen. The priest shortage and accusations of abuse force the Vatican to address celibacy.

2. The mother-in-law of Peter. Celibacy cannot be justified biblically, since there are of course married bishops, priests, and deacons in the New Testament.

3. Celibacy is not the same as celibacy. Not only were there entirely different understandings of it in various eras; the regulations had to be repeatedly renewed, modified, and implemented against great resistance.

4. Pre-Christian origins. The notion of cultic purity of the priest derives from Jewish and pagan antiquity and no longer fits our era.

5. Jesus was no Stoic. The ideal of the ascetic priest goes back to notions of the philosophical life in antiquity and does not correspond to the model of Jesus.

6. Economic roots. Abstention from marriage in the Middle Ages and early modernity ensured that clergy would not bequest church resources at their disposal to their children.

7.  Flying the flag in doctrinal battles. In the Reformation and Counter Reformation era, celibacy served as a mark of distinction from Protestants.

8. Priests too have human rights. Since the Enlightenment, the critique of celibacy as violation against nature has radicalized advocates of celibacy.

9. The leap into other realms. Since other justifications no longer held, Paul VI exalted celibacy spiritually.

10. It works without celibacy too. In the Eastern Catholic churches there are married Catholic priests as a matter of course.

11. Ever more exceptions. Protestant and Anglican pastors who convert to Catholicism receive priestly ordination with a papal dispensation.

12. Developments in sexuality. Since the Second Vatican Council, marriage is seen as an image of the covenant between Christ and his church and cannot be the reason to prohibit priestly service.

13. Not a dogma. Catholic church teaching allows for the abolition of celibacy at any time.

14. Dangerous promises. Obligatory abstention from marriage is a risk factor with respect to sexual abuse by priests.

15. Weighing goods. Faced with a choice between ameliorating the priest shortage or retaining celibacy, the Church must decide in the interest of the Eucharist which is necessary for salvation over celibacy which is not.

16. The old system has come to an end. The abolition of celibacy as an instrument of retaining power must be part of a foundational reform of the hierarchical clerical system.

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Cameron Doody

Director and editor at Novena
PhD in ancient Jewish/Christian history and philosophy. Lecturer in ethics at Loyola University Maryland, Alcalá de Henares (Spain) campus. Religion journalist with 4 years experience.
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