March 9, 2010
(1 Cor. 7:9)
Swiss theologian Hans Küng has linked clerical sex abuse with priestly celibacy, as reported yesterday by Ruth Gledhill in the London Times. It’s a well-timed provocation, which comes a few days after the Regensburg Diocese in Germany revealed that a former chorister claimed he was abused while a member of its famous choir, to say nothing about the previous scandals of sexual abuse by priests in Ireland and in the US.
Father Hans Küng is a Prominent Catholic theologian—even though in 1979 he was stripped of his licence to teach Catholic theology because of his rejecting the doctrine of Papal infallibility (Infallible? An Inquiry)—whose books have been translated into many languages. Several years ago I happened to read his Justification: The Doctrine of Karl Barth and a Catholic Reflection—in which he argued there is fundamental agreement between Catholicism and Barth’s doctrine and that the somewhat divergent viewpoints would not warrant a division in the Church—and found it very informative and helpful, if not eye-opening. That’s also why, despite his reputation of (old) enfant terrible of the Catholic Church, I am not biased against him.
Writing in The Tablet, Father Küng described the denials of any link between abuse, celibacy and other teaching as “erroneous.” Of course, he said, perpetrators of child sexual abuse were also found in families, schools and other churches, but “Why is it so prevalent in the Catholic Church under celibate leadership?” Citing the New Testament, he said that Jesus and St Paul practised celibacy but “allowed full freedom in this matter to each individual.” He also quoted St Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians: “Because of cases of sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband.”
“Compulsory celibacy,” according to the Swiss theologian, “is the principal reason for today’s catastrophic shortage of priests, for the fatal neglect of Eucharistic celebration, and for the tragic breakdown of personal pastoral ministry in many places.” (Küng also argues that, in order to fight the shortage of priests, besides the abolition of the celibacy rule, the admission of women to ordination would be a reasonable solution. But this is a completely different story.)
Now, I really don’t know what to say about that other than I’m beginning to suspect that Küng is right. After all, the Eastern Orthodox—who are very close to Catholics in theology, so that the Catholic Church does not consider their beliefs to be heretical—do not deny a celibate priesthood, and that’s why priest-monks exist, but celibacy is voluntary and never imposed.
On the other hand, since the official introduction of compulsory celibacy for priests by the Catholic Church, some 900 years ago in the 1070’s, contrary to the decisions of the First Ecumenical Council, held in Nicea in A.D. 325, what have the results been? The history of the Church is full of wonderful and inspiring stories, but also of less edifying examples, to say nothing about the present times.