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Sex and Power in Catholicism

by C.G. Estabrook

It seems difficult to deny that the current scandals about child molestation by clergy in the catholic church are connected with the discipline of celibacy. The requirement, in place for half of the church’s history, that office in the church be limited to unmarried males, seems today to be attracting sexually immature candidates to this ecclesiastical cadre.

The present situation results at least in part from long-term historical changes that have made the practice of celibacy the anomaly that is, limited within christianity to the catholic churches of the west (that is, those originating in western Europe — there are of course today catholic churches, in union with Rome, that originate in eastern Europe and western Asia, where clergy are permitted to marry). Celibacy was made the rule in the western church in the course of the 11th century in a struggle for the independence of the christian movement from feudalism, the political and social system that followed the collapse of the Roman order in Europe.

Feudalism rebuilt society according to family relations, natural and artificial: a vassal was a son to his lord, and obligations were respectively filial and paternal. To our eyes the feudal order collapsed the distinction between public and private; it produced an entire society — which lasted a thousand years, roughly from the 8th through the 18th centuries — structured like the mafia.

The church sought to throw off control by the new lords of Europe by celibacy, which ended the natural family ties, and by what came to be known as “the investiture controversy,” which cut the artificial ones. The uniqueness of the church order that grew from feudalism is due in part to the uniqueness of feudalism itself — a polity that finds a parallel only in pre-modern Japan (where christianity was officially suppressed).

Christianity should of course be subversive to every political order. In general, whenever the term “the world” is used in the New Testament, it means not the physical world but the present political set-up. Thus Jesus is quoted as saying that his kingdom is “not of this world”: it is opposed to the Roman order — which recognizes the challenge and kills him. The cross, paradoxically adopted as a christian symbol, was a Roman instrument of capital punishment, used particularly for political dissidents and terrorists. Crucifixion was an official lynching, which killed by slow suffocation — the weight of the body hanging from the arms eventually made it impossible to fill the lungs. It was a public display of the weakness and humiliation of those temerarious enough to question the world order. Had Jesus lived in the time of a later empire, christians would adorn their churches with nooses or electric chairs — or perhaps the syringes used for lethal injections.

Of course there is a tradition of celibacy in christianity before the 11th century, but it is not particularly associated with the clergy in the church’s first thousand years. Celibacy — abstention from marriage — is regarded, like fasting, as withdrawal from things good in themselves for the purposes of the kingdom of God, where, it was thought, all good things would be found, and forever. This stance was explicitly political in that it meant a minimization of engagement with the social nexus by people who thought that they could take the meaning of their lives not just from the structures of this world but from the world to come. Settling for the present arrangements meant, christians thought, not wanting happiness enough.

This asceticism is associated with the rise of the monastic movement in the late Roman empire, where monasticism is seen as political protest, in the name of the coming kingdom of God, against the oppression of the Roman civic order. “If cities were christian, monasteries would be unnecessary,” wrote a 4th-century bishop of Constantinople in a letter to a rich man. It was a revived monasticism that initiated the 11th-century struggle with feudalism.

In the 16th century the new protestant churches begin a complex course of adaptation to the budding capitalist order and jettison celibacy in the process, while catholicism freezes into its anti-feudal posture. Against this background, it’s easy to argue that celibacy as a requirement for the catholic clergy has outlived its usefulness. There are of course some more general scandals — notably the exclusion of women — about what should be the leadership of a revolutionary movement, dedicated to overcoming the world.

Bodiliness is hardly irrelevant to christianity. Its central symbol is the resurrection of the body (christians would say, much more than a symbol), not the “immortality of the soul,” a philosophical concept not mentioned in the classic christian creeds. Christianity has insisted that our link with the divine is material, in our flesh and God’s flesh. It has been opposed to all spiritualisms — and in its history it has opposed some powerful ones, like gnosticism and manicheanism — that view our connection with God as a non-bodily or “mental” one. Its preaching of Jesus’ resurrection is not that he performed some magical trick, a resuscitation, but that he entered the kingdom of God as just “the first-born from among the dead.” “As he is so shall we be.” And it was central to the preaching of Jesus that the kingdom of God, to be fulfilled in the future, is nevertheless mysteriously present and available to us now. Happy Easter.

Carl Estabrook, a frequent CounterPunch contributer, teaches at the University of Illinois. He is running for congress on the Green Party ticket. He can be reached at:


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