The recently concluded “Abuse Summit” at the Vatican convened by Pope Francis frontally addressed the problem of priestly sexual abuse — a problem and a challenge set against the extremely difficult-to-meet standard of priestly celibacy.
Priestly celibacy, according to the rules of the Catholic Church, means being unmarried. In practical terms, it actually means sexual abstinence — which, frankly, is a denial of a basic human urge.
If one were to attempt to interpret the Bible, sexual abstinence is also a virtual denial of what the Lord God Himself urged Adam and Eve to do shortly after their creation: “Be fertile and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it.”
Simon Peter, the first pope, was a married man. In the New Testament, Jesus Christ healed Peter’s mother-in-law, which suggests that he had a wife. In the history of the Catholic Church, there were Popes who were married and who had children. Pope Saint Silverius (he was later canonized) was the legitimate son of Pope Saint Hormisdas (who was married before becoming Pope and who was also canonized later on).
And we must have all read about the infamous Borgias, particularly Alfons de Borgia who became Pope Callixtus III and Rodrigo Lanzol Borgia AKA Pope Alexander VI.
It was not until the Second Lateran Council in the twelfth century that the Church established the rule forbidding priests to marry. This was reaffirmed in 1563 by the Council of Trent.
So, if being sexually active is being human, if even the Lord God mandated it, and if celibacy was not imposed by the Church until centuries after Peter became Pope, what was the Abuse Summit all about and why the hassle?
Firstly, being sexually active is different from being sexually abusive. The first is part of human nature. The latter is a violation of both Church law and criminal law. Members of the clergy who use their position to take advantage of sacristans, school boys, and women are violating the law of God and of society.
Secondly, the priesthood is not for everyone. It is a call to virtual sainthood. If, as Jesus said, it would be easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, how much more difficult would it be for a human being-priest to resist the call of the flesh and the carnal temptations confronting him?
What is, in fact, remarkable is how few cases there are of confirmed, recorded, or reported cases of priestly abuses in the Catholic world compared to the number of Catholics (1.2 billion) and priests (414,313 as of 2012).
In the Philippines, a country of over 100 million, the Catholic Church reportedly “apologized for sexual abuses, including adultery, homosexuality, and child abuse by 200 priests over the previous 20 years.”
Granted that hundreds — even thousands — more abuses have not been reported (excluding Padre Damaso’s affair with the mother of Maria Clara, which Dr. Jose Rizal recounted in the Noli and the Fili), that would still pale in comparison with the incidence of graft and corruption in all sectors of Philippine politics, public service and business
Of course, these numbers are irrelevant. As Bishop Michael C. Barber, SJ, of the Archdiocese of Oakland, California, rightly put it in his pastoral letter read last Sunday by our pastor, Fr. Geoffrey Baraan, at St. Joseph Church in Pinole: “The only acceptable number is zero.”
Bishop Barber had released the names of “20 diocesan priests, 22 religious order priests, deacons and brothers, and three priests from other dioceses who have worked in the Diocese of Oakland and have had credible accusations of sexual abuse of minors.”
The release of the names of the culprit clerics appears to be a direct result of the Abuse Summit in the Vatican. While the Church hierarchy wrestles with the mandate of Pope Francis, one significant move that the Diocese of Oakland has taken has been to unravel the “pontifical secret,” described as “a policy of confidentiality in the Church, regarding cases of sexual abuse of minors.”
According to Church leaders, “while the Church has acknowledged for decades the seriousness of the crime of abuse of minors by clergy, this was the first time there has been an equally clear acknowledgment of the gravity of cover-up” — which, in plain language, is what “pontifical secret” means.
Clearly, this “pontifical secret” has practically condoned priestly abuses, by allowing the culprits to remain anonymous. So why not just fire or defrock the predatory priests, one might ask?
It appears that separating someone from the priesthood is not as easy as terminating a layman-employee. An article in The Sun, a newspaper in Seattle, Washington, reporting on the “resignations of two priests who were removed from active ministry amid allegations of decades-old sexual abuse” stated:
“Both will remain on the archdiocese payroll unless they are ‘defrocked,’ or laicized — a cumbersome process that requires Vatican approval..
“Unlike secular employers, who may summarily terminate the position of an employee accused or suspected of misconduct, bishops have made a lifelong commitment to provide spiritual, intellectual and financial support to the priest,’ The Very Rev. Anthony Bawyn of Seattle, a canon lawyer and consultant on canon law for the archdiocese, said in testimony for a 1996 court case.
“Even valid allegations of misconduct are not in and of themselves grounds for terminating the virtually irrevocable obligations that the bishop has assumed vis-a-vis the priest.’”
In the wake of the Abuse Summit, the Catholic hierarchy must now confront a problem that it has had to contend with — and at times, chosen to ignore — for centuries.
It is not an easy problem to deal with. The problem goes back to Genesis. While God gave Adam and Eve a lot of latitude in the Garden of Eden, they were forbidden from eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and bad. But God also gave them free will, thus making them vulnerable to temptation. Worse yet, God also exposed them to the wiles of the serpent. These conflicting circumstances were a challenge and a curse that Adam and Eve had to deal with – and they failed.
This is the sort of “imperfection” for which His Perfect Excellency President Rodrigo Duterte called the Lord God “stupid.” I hope some clear-minded aides have subsequently explained to Duterte that God could not have made Adam and Eve perfect because there can only be one perfect being — God. That means everyone else is imperfect — including Duterte.
At any rate, the curse Adam and Eve had to bear is the same curse confronting the Catholic clergy. While they possess the power to forgive sin and thus open the gates of Heaven — they themselves are vulnerable to sin. Just as Adam and Eve were warned against eating from the forbidden tree, these priests are forbidden from availing of the fruit of the flesh because of the rule of celibacy — in conflict with their human-ness.
However, according to scholars, the Catholic Church “distinguishes between dogma and regulations.” The male-only priesthood is said to be Catholic dogma, irreversible by papal decree. The ban on marriage is considered a regulation that the Pope can rescind.
But will Pope Francis do it. Should he do it?
I guess it depends on how one regards his obligations to God. When Jesus confided to His apostles that he would surely go to His death in Jerusalem, Simon Peter protested and declared that he would not allow it. Jesus tells him: “Get behind me, Satan! You do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men.”
His crucifixion was the commitment of Jesus Christ to mankind. The burden being borne by Catholic priests is a symbol of their own commitment to their vocation. How much of that burden can they bear?
This brings to mind something that I wrote many years ago as a prologue for Malvarosa, a film produced by LVN Pictures:
“How much can the human spirit bear
Of the muck and the mire to which flesh is heir?
Can a flickering ember still burst into flame?
Must a frail child, falling, be held to blame?”
Heaven only knows.
Greg B. Macabenta is an advertising and communications man shuttling between San Francisco and Manila and providing unique insights on issues from both perspectives.