Celibacy is not in itself the cause of pedophilia in Catholic priests any more than marriage is the cause of divorce among married people. Both, however, are psychological states that only seem easy to understand. The motives people have for entering each state may not always be healthy, causing pain and heartache to more than the person making the choice.
Marriage appears so appropriate, so right, so to speak, for humans that it seems an almost natural institution. Yet marriage has been, and is, understood in almost contradictory ways across the cultures of the world. In some, it is a choice of the heart made by individuals, while in others, it is arranged by parents and therefore an act of obedience. To some, its only and overriding purpose is to stabilize the relationship in which children are born into the world. Others view it as ordered to the fulfillment and friendship that men and women seek so deeply in life.
The motives for marriage do not always match these varied ideals and the state may yield as much pain as it does happiness. The failure rate is high. And yet most people want to, and do, get married. Many of them learn, long after they have forgotten the words of their vows, that they never really knew either themselves or the person they married.
Celibacy refers to an unmarried state. Chastity is something different: it applies to the unmarried and married alike, asking them to be faithful to a religious vow or to a spouse, respectively. Celibacy's history in the Roman Catholic Church is more of a discipline, as it is described, than a virtue, as it is promoted. It was introduced ten centuries after Jesus chose a married man to head his church, in order to prevent priests from handing on lands to their descendants.
While it can be understood as a voluntary choice made by people who want to give their whole lives in service to a community larger than their own family, it is, in practice, not free but a condition that must be accepted by young men who wish to be priests. During their training, the seminarians of years past typically learned of celibacy's possibilities of glory and the example of the saints who surrender marriage to serve the Lord.
In reality, however, celibacy is a complex and subtle state. It may attract those aspiring to heroic virtue, but may also attract large numbers of persons with very different motivations. In a national study of American priests conducted for the American bishops, my research attempted to determine how priests regarded and lived this condition of celibacy (The American Priest: Psychological Investigations, Eugene Kennedy and Victor Heckler, USCC 1971)
We learned that even the healthiest priests in the sample did not perceive celibacy as a virtue to be practiced as much as a condition of life to which they had to adjust. This required an enormous investment of energy and often led them to do things--such as taking expensive vacations, having big cars, or costly hobbies--for which they were criticized. Other less healthy priests in the sample accepted celibacy for reasons varied and emotionally self-serving enough to raise questions about how sturdy a foundation it is for ministry.
Even then, many immature candidates found no challenge in celibacy because their own sexuality had not yet awakened within them and had not yet been integrated into their personality development. Because they were not attracted to marriage, celibacy was never a true existential choice for them. Often, their sexual feelings only asserted themselves after they had entered parish work. They were dismayed and puzzled by a erotic attractions to boys that reflected their own pre-adolescent state. Celibacy for these men was an illusion of virtue, a stage set for life rather than a condition for service, and they found themselves abusing the trust that this presumed virtue won for them by seducing and defiling the innocent in their care. Their lack of maturity was reflected in their low-level denial and distorted descriptions of their behavior.
The more disturbed the priest, the more disturbed was the sexual adjustment he forged under the cover a celibate priesthood provided. It became apparent that celibacy existed far more for the purposes of the institution than the growth of seminarians or the good of the people. Celibacy sealed an all-male clergy totally dependent on the institutional church for identity and livelihood. While we all admire men and women who voluntarily choose, with full understanding of themselves and the sacrifice they make, to lead celibate lives, we must not look away from the high price this requirement exacts from the large majority of even healthy persons.
While celibacy obviously does not cause pedophilia, it provides a setting and a shield for candidates whose lack of inner maturity dilutes celibacy as both a challenge and a choice. It may, in some circumstances, incubate men who will lead tragic double lives behind its screen. All too often, it has provided an as if life of virtue for men deeply entangled in and tortured by sexual conflicts. When they act out these conflicts, they cause others misery whose measure we are just beginning to take.
The possibilities of celibacy as a freely chosen state of service are overshadowed by the documented realities of celibacy as a forced condition of becoming a clergyman in service to an institution. It is late in the day for popes to do what they have refused to do, despite the obvious evidence of celibacy as a problematic state: examine celibacy in depth for the sake of both their priests and their people.