Samstag, 16. März 2019

ധ്രുവദീപ്തി // Opinion // Celibacy and the Sexual Abuse Crisis in the Church // Fr. Sebastian Thottippatt

ധ്രുവദീപ്തി // Opinion //

Celibacy and the Sexual Abuse 
in the Church

Fr. Sebastian Thottippatt

 Fr. Sebastian Thottippatt
The one burning issue that has been making headlines in the media in recent times has been the sexual abuse of minors and vulnerable sections by members of the clergy in the Catholic Church. It has been a rampant problem all over the world, giving rise to universal outcry against it and the civil society members calling for urgent remedial action from the Church. Finally Pope Francis thought it necessary to have an extraordinary summit called, consisting of Cardinals, Heads of Bishops conferences from all over the world, Heads of various Rites in the Church and Religious Superiors’ General of both men and women. Some of the victims of sexual abuse too came in person to testify to their experiences to the organizers of the event. The Pope himself had asked all the participants to listen to the stories of the victims in their own areas.
But why had this crisis mounted to such proportions in so many parts of the world? The crux of the problem was that the Church was shielding the perpetrators of sexual abuse, protecting them from being prosecuted by taking the matter lightly as mere moral failure, disregarding rendering of justice to the aggrieved party. The perpetrators, who were by and large priests, were being transferred from place to place to shift the focus off from the victims. The possible reason behind this phenomenon was the unwillingness of the Church officials to accept weakness in their ranks. They deemed it compromising the name and prestige of the Church which is considered holy according to the creed of the Catholic Church. But the truth of the matter is that it is not true to reality. Holiness is not necessarily in its members but in the means the Church offers to attain it. Any member of the Church can be holy if he or she lives up to the teachings of the gospel as coming from Christ Himself and taught by the Church. However, to pretend that all the members of the Church, particularly the clergy, are holy is taking too preposterous a position. No one ceases to be human, the members of the clergy included, by baptism or ordination. All that is common to all humans will be present in every one of them. Members of the laity should not expect the priests, bishops and even Cardinals to be made of different stuff. It is merely by the grace of God they are able to lead a life different in quality. But failures in their ranks are not to be ruled out because human frailty shows up in unguarded moments in any Person.

 Judas Iscariot
We have examples in the gospels of drastic failures in the ranks of the apostles themselves. Judas betrayed the Master for 30 pieces of silver and Peter the appointed leader of the apostolic band, denied him three times. The former hanged himself in despair but the latter repented and was reinstated as Head of the Church to nourish and feed the flock entrusted to him. There was an open confession made in Peter’s tears at being confronted with his failure and in his proclamation of loyalty to the Master in full public view of the company of apostles (Jn.21:15-21). Why then are today’s apostles and ministers of the Church becoming shy of admitting their human frailties and refusing to face the consequences? It is the false image the clergy wants to maintain of being beyond human limitations because they have taken upon themselves the vow of celibacy according to the norm prevailing in the Latin Church at present for all clerics - something that is considered beyond human nature in the mind of the ordinary Christian.
We have to admit that there was no justifying reason for making celibacy mandatory for Catholic priests except the example of Christ who was celibate by virtue of his nature as God and man. Although Christ did not place celibacy as a condition for choosing his apostles he did speak of it in the context of the troubles people face in marriage. On being asked by the apostles whether it was better not to marry, he said: “Not everybody can take what you have said but only those who have received this gift. Some are born incapable of marriage… but there are others who have given up the possibility of marriage for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Whoever can accept this may accept it.” (Mathew 19:12). It is obvious from this that celibacy is a gift given only to a few by God. It is recognized by one’s passionate love and attachment to God coupled with disinterestedness towards the perishable things of this world. Those who do not experience this must enter into marriage to grow into the perfect form of love in God through conjugal relationship.

It is of supreme importance that a candidate for priesthood is well oriented towards pursuing a life fully for God and be totally free from any emotionally binding relationships. This does not proceed without a committed relationship with God. However, he is not freed by this from the intrinsic tendencies of his human nature. The one who has taken the path of celibacy has to maintain constant vigil and avoid occasions that can endanger his virtue. This has been true for the priestly class all through the history of the Church. If any member of the clergy fails to maintain his vow of celibacy, it is an indication that either he had not made an adequate assessment of his own natural inclinations before his ordination, or he had deteriorated in his commitment to God over the years. However, as a failure in this field is vitally linked with the dignity of the persons involved, it is of utmost importance that one does not compound it by committing an act of injustice besides the moral failure. One cannot, therefore, wriggle out of a failure of this nature in the same way as one gets back to the path of spirituality through repentance in any other area of one’s life. He must necessarily accept the consequences of his actions on others as well.

It is incumbent on the part of the clerical person, a bishop or priest, who fails and the society that comes to learn of it, to take the matter proactively. There must be no premature condemnation of the persons even though their actions may appear to merit such a response. The manner in which Jesus dealt with the sinful woman of the gospel must serve as a precedent for everyone. He sought a way of freeing her from outright punishment and dismissed her saying: “Neither do I condemn you. Go and do not sin again.” (Jn.8:11). A failure in celibacy does not mean the end of the world for the priest. He has only been given to recognize his own innate human nature. There are two meanings for the term human. It refers to feelings, emotions, sentiments and what is weak in man. But it also refers to the noble, kind and loveable qualities in man. We need to accept every aspect of our humanity bearing in mind that it was the same in the person of Christ who was the “Word became flesh.” (Jn.1:14). By this the Son of God embraced all the vicissitudes of human nature. He embraced all that man is except sin (Heb.4:15). There is no reason why we should repudiate any manifestation of our human nature whether it is in strength or in weakness.

But that is the very reaction that seems to be prevailing in Christian society today when a priest or bishop is exposed in his human frailty. There is an overwhelming outburst and condemnation of the person by the members of the laity whilst the Church goes to any length to hide the failure as though it is the failure of the Church itself. On the other hand, it is merely an individual’s personal failure to live up to his commitment and it must be made possible for him to proceed from there in an amicable and human manner. Falling in love by a human being is not to be looked upon as disorderly conduct even though he belongs to the rank of the celibates. All need to bear in mind that the celibate person does not cease to be human when he embraces the celibate state. He only hopes that with the grace of God he will be able to be faithful to his celibacy till death for love of God. However, if on account of circumstances he fails to do so, it should be normal for society to accept him in his present position and let him enter the state of the married as most men are, in a peaceful manner. It would not be right for the priest or the bishop to continue as if nothing happened and flaunt his celibacy in a hypocritical style. That would give rise to protests from the ranks of the laity because such a reaction from the clergy would be tantamount to dishonesty. No priest or bishop should be shocked at his own failure but rather accept responsibility for the turn of events brought about by his own style of life. No manifestation of weakness hits upon a person all of a sudden out of the blue. It must necessarily be preceded by a series of imprudent behavioral patterns and callousness on his part that do not agree with his freely chosen state of life. But once a sexual infidelity of a serious nature has occurred, the person concerned must wake up to reality and adopt a course of action that is true to his frame of mind, avoiding any form of violence to his own life. Society too should exercise utmost compassion and understanding towards the person with the gentleness of Christ.

We may add at this juncture that the overwhelming distress in the ranks of the clergy to accept their human frailties is the lopsided understanding of Christ that is often prevalent among them as well as in the laity. There is often a lack of balance in accepting the divine and human elements in Christ in a balanced manner. On the other hand, there is a tendency in the Church to exaggerate the divine element in Christ to the detriment of his humanity. The same is transferred on to those who assume the role of shepherds in the Church. When their frailties come to the surface they are ignored or sought to be hidden away, wanting as if to claim their divine character.

When all is said and done, it must be accepted that the celibate life is not the highest form of spiritual life. A man or woman reaches the peak of spirituality when he or she is transformed into Christ in love. This is possible both in the celibate as well as in the married state, depending on one’s specific call. If a person is unfaithful to his or her own call, it will be very difficult for him or her to arrive at perfect love. It is fitting here to remind ourselves of the words of St. Paul writing to the Corinthians: “An unmarried man concerns himself with the Lord’s work because he is trying to please the Lord. But a married man concerns himself with worldly matters because he wants to please his wife and so he is pulled in two directions…(1Cor.7:32-39). Celibacy has its own spiritual and temporal advantages whilst at the same time possessing its inherent drawbacks as well. 

One must not over-rate or under-rate it. If lived faithfully in its authentic meaning it has the capacity to lead a person to heights of sanctity for himself and for the people to whose service he dedicates his whole life. We have examples down the centuries of numerous men and women who embraced celibacy and succeeded to an eminent degree to make Christ present on earth through their life of love and sacrifice. There is also an army of men and women who embraced the married state and set the example of experiencing heaven on earth through their selfless living.  We may then look forward to the day when the Church will open priesthood to both the celibate as well as to the married. The ministerial priesthood can then be considered as an extension of the priesthood of the faithful and not a privileged position in the Church as it appears today.//-

Fr. Sebastian Thottippatt
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