Richard Sipe is a former Benedictine priest who was laicized in 1970. Trained as a psychologist, he has spent nearly fifty years studying and writing about the psycho-sexual nature of the modern Catholic clergy. I am not expert on these matters, but I have found few people out there who seem to match his knowledge, both first hand as well as scholarly, on the nature of Catholic sexual ethics, both in practice and theory. As both a former religious and as a trained psychologist, someone who worked with sexually troubled priests as early as the mid sixties, he brings unique perspective to these difficult issue in modern Catholicism.
I first came across his material about a decade ago, before the whole sexual scandal had become well known in this country. There had been rumors of sexual abuse, and a few stories here and there, but before the Boston Globe published the list of priest offenders and their bishop protectors back around 2002, much of the information out there was merely second hand and hard to verify. The revolution of knowledge started with the Globe article. I find it amusing how so many people before this article appeared would routinely denounce the press for Catholic bashing whenever such things were reported (still a favorite tactic by such groups as the Legion of Christ). Not that the media does not have a large anti-Catholic bias, it does, but that does not deny the truth when the truth comes out. And with the Globe article the truth about the extent of the sexual scandals finally came out.
What is interesting for me is that Sipe predicted all this before the Globe article. I remember reading one of this books (I can’t remember which one) where he said the subculture of sexuality within a publicly proclaimed rule of celibacy could not be maintained. It was simply too widespread. It was too extreme a contradiction. When I first read that I was not sure if he was accurate or not, but he was proved correct by what later followed in the media.
Recently I read an interview with him on his web site (see my blog role under Religion section for his site). He sums up many of the theological and practical problems when it comes to the Church’s teaching on many sexual issue. He even compares our modern dilemma of sexual ethics with the Churches dilemma five hundred years ago concerning the whole heliocentric theory of the world that was then being discovered. Today, the practical understanding of human sexuality brought about by scientific study of the human body and what drives desires, is often incompatible with the much of Catholic theology on sexuality, just as five hundred years ago the ancient conception of the universe was fundamentally changed by the realities brought about by scientific study. Today, something needs to change, some advance needs to take place, some better fusion of faith with biological realities. How, I really do not know. All I know is that my own experiences with sexuality are more in tune with what Sipe has been saying, and not so much as what the Church has always taught. It has always been one of the fundamental conflicts in my own approach and practice of my faith.
He is very good at arguing the structure of Church power, the training of priest in the seminaries, often leads to very sexually maladjusted individuals, a sort of psycho-sexual stunting of growth that ultimately leads to some serious and even criminal behavior. The facts of wide spread sexual misconduct among clergy, revealed in the last decade, not only in the U.S. but now emerging in other parts of the world, such as Europe and Africa, bare his thesis out. These things are now undeniable.
As far as the specifics of this recent interview, which occurred in Luxemburg last month, Sipe is critical of the mandated celibacy for the clergy. So am I. As far as I am concerned, no one under thirty should even be allowed to enter a seminary if that demand is being made on someone. Most people are simply too young in their twenties to know better. Again, the facts of wide spread sexual abuse, or the sexual subculture which exists in the Church, are enough proof of this for me. So I will list a few of the things he mentions in this interview, things which I feel are key to understanding many of the problems facing the Church today. (All the following quotes come from his recent Luxemburg interview, which can be found on his web site).
First, all serious studies show, and not just his own studies, that many of the clergy do no practice the publicly state rule and norm of celibacy within the Catholic Church. This is one of the fundamental problems facing the Church today, a problem which the hierarchy seems to not want to address.
“At any one time 50% of all clergy are sexually active in a variety of behaviors. Masturbation is the most common behavior.”
Masturbation, oh yeah, that “intrinsically and gravely disordered action” according to the Catechism. Seems like a lot of priests are doing that too. Perhaps even hard core orthodox exorcists perhaps? And at least half of all clergy are sexually active in some way? If true, this is a contradiction that cannot be sustained. Something has to give, and what that something has been up until now are all the secret sexual scandals going on, big and little.
However, he does not bash celibacy. He has praise for celibacy, but what he says is this:
“Some very devoted, committed scholars, and dedicated men and women employ the practice of celibacy in the service of others. Gandhi remains an explicit example. Celibacy, however, is not natural. Church teaching recognizes that and calls it a gift and a grace. I know many active priests who say celibacy is impossible. Huxley called it the “greatest sexual perversion.”
I agree wholeheartedly with his position:
“My position is clear: celibacy, in all its aspects, must be freely chosen and openly discussed.”
It is a travesty, driven by a culture of fear, that this is not openly discussed in the Church. This is clearly a problem. It needs to be discussed. I believe recently an Austrian cardinal wanted to open up a discussion of clerical celibacy. He was quickly told by his superiors to shut up. This no way to handle this situation. It can lead to no good, only more secretive problems and emerging scandals.
As I mentioned above, he draws a parallel between what is going now in the Church (as well as in society in general) and what happened during the Reformation (otherwise known as the Protestant Revolt in more conservative Catholic circles). The two key elements today, as then, are this: increased scientific knowledge of nature, and the rapid spread of new information. The science side needs no explanation, but the growth of the internet, the readily and rapid availability of knowledge, is something that is revolutionizing many areas of life. No longer can people simply be told this or that and be expected to believe without questioning, we can now find things online. We can now discover for ourselves how strange and cult like an organization like the Legion of Christ is and how sinister its founder was, or how many priests abused children, and we can communicate with others about our own experiences as never before. This creates a fundamental shift in how knowledge is transmitted, and what and how people think. Like Mubarak in Egypt, the old cardinals in the Vatican seem completely out of touch with this new reality, and the revolutionary implications it can bring.
Sipe goes on about the gulf between faith and reason when it comes to a modern understanding of human sexuality.
“The assertion that all sexual activity outside of a legitimate marriage is mortally sinful is as unreasonable as it is to assert that the sun revolves around the earth.”
Perhaps we are at a moment of great change? Who knows. What we do know is that these recent sexual scandals are the worst to infect the Church since the Reformation.
“The Church is at a ‘Copernican’moment in regard to human sexuality. Vatican understanding of human sexual nature, development, behavior and identity, are inadequate and not accurate. Dialogue and re-evaluation about sex must consider a shift equal to that of the heliocentric debate of the 17th century. Measure instruments are less fixed, but equally complex issues are at stakes that are vital for the development of life on the planet.”
I am not quite sure what he means about the “development of life on the planet” but I do agree basically with the idea of a more scientific consideration of the nature of human sexuality, at least to a greater extent than seems to have been case up till now.
“I think we are in an era of Church reform equal to that of the Protestant Reformation. The battle lines are not denominational and geographic–they are between reason and fear and responsibility.”
But there is always a price to be paid. The Church is always an institution in need of reform, growth, and positive change. These things are always difficult. Today’s major issue is human sexuality. For anyone who doubts that, simply pick up any newspaper and read about whatever latest sexual scandal has erupted, whether here, or in another country, or in another Christian denomination. We are a point where it never seems to end. Reason and faith need to intersect now when it comes to our understanding of sex and sexuality. “Washing your girlfriend’s car” as a way of diffusing your lust, as one popular chastity speaker has said, is the modern version of an old wive’s tale. And just as effective. Even the old notion of exercise to diffuse desire is silly, since exercise increases testosterone, and testosterone increases sexual arousal. So we need to get real.
But this is never easy:
“The internal strife involved in the process has never been easy or without casualties and scars. Reason and grace are perennial guides. The Roman Catholic Church is an institution ecclesia semper reformanda–it is in process. Human sexuality is the focus of the current challenge to Catholic reformation.”
As I believe here, and open and honest discussion about the realities of sexuality are what is needed, not more flowery theological theses on how sex is a divine gift, which it is of course, the mutual and loving giving between spouses, etc, all of which is true, but when you have a raging hard-on the only thing that feels divine about that is the pleasurable release you want to achieve. If you don’t have a wife, that can make things tricky. And buying flowers for your girlfriend when you really want to fuck her is so silly as to be laughable. We need real, down to earth discussion here, not idealistic platitudes. Sex at its most basic is about flesh and blood, arousal, excess amounts of semen which need to go somewhere, the gina tingle which longs to feel something inside it, etc. A hard penis and a wet vagina tend not to care too much about intellectualized concepts of sex. This is one of the basic truths of sex.
We need to be honest:
“The church must face ever aspect of human sexuality open and honestly–and dialogue, not proclaim. Truth is the answer. Any church that cannot tell the truth about itself has nothing to say.”
I don’t want to get into this at this point, perhaps this will be for another post, but I have had one too many creepy experiences with priests in my lifetime to know that there is something seriously amiss with the sexuality of more than a few modern clergy. Perhaps I will say more on that later, but not now. All I want to say here is I believe Sipe is mostly correct in his thesis, and he has the data to back up this claims too.
I think in the end, a more realistic and deeper understanding of human sexuality will do more to lead people to, and not away, from Christ. Basing sexual ethics on ignorance and medieval notions of human nature, although seemingly more traditional and even more ascetic than modern scientific understanding of human biology, are in the long run more harmful and destructive to sexual ethics and practice, than not. They ultimately harm faith, and lead people away from God. The scandals revealed in the last decade, which are just the more extreme examples of the sexual subculture within the Church, are more than enough proof of that, at least for me.
Ecclesia Semper Reformanda. It is an old Catholic adage. It means, most literally, “The Church always to be reformed”. You could also translate it as “The Church must always be reformed” or “The Church should always be reformed”. Whatever way one wishes to translate it into English, as Sipe says above, the idea is that the Church is always correcting itself, and it is in process. It is process that never ends (semper, which means “always”). I believe it is time for some reform in our understanding of sexuality. The Church is ultimately about Christ, and leading people to Christ, and I believe many of our present of notions of sexuality are doing the opposite, and they are doing that because they are based on fear and ignorance and and not on the gifts of reason and faith that God gave us.