The Kansas City Star's recent report on AIDS deaths in the Catholic priesthood sent both Church liberals and Church conservatives scrambling for explanations. Liberals blamed the Church for failing to teach sex education to seminarians, while conservatives blamed it for failing to enforce its teaching that homosexual activity is wrong. Lost in all this analysis was the fact that the Star profile itself was untrue to history, inaccurate, and irresponsible. The story's sloppiness obscured the Catholic Church's impressive record of ministering to AIDS sufferers. More sadly, its sensationalism obscured the pressing need for a serious reexamination of the Church's celibacy requirement for all priests, which has been unfairly blamed for the scandal.

First, the unfaithfulness to history. By focusing almost exclusively on priests "who entered the seminary during the 1960s," the Star series insinuates that priestly homosexuality and other instances of failure to comply with the celibacy rule are phenomena of recent origin that finally reached crisis proportions with the spread of AIDS. The series ignores the fact that the celibacy rule is many centuries old, with roots in the New Testament, in which both Jesus and St. Paul speak approvingly of the unmarried state. Furthermore, although you would never guess it from the Star story, the struggle to remain chaste has never been easy for either Catholic priests or Catholic laypeople of any sexual persuasion--as a reading of Caravaggio's racy biography or the tales of medieval clerics with mistresses readily indicates.

Over the centuries a great many Catholic priests have remained faithful to their vows of celibacy, while some have not. But the Star report fails to discuss celibacy's unquestionable utility for many in the clergy (unmarried priests do not have family concerns to distract them) and the important role that it will surely play in the Church's future. Instead, the Star's sweeping account of AIDS as a widespread, perhaps universal, phenomenon among Catholic clerics summons a lurid vision of the last two priests on earth ministering to each other in an abandoned AIDS hospice. This failure to place the AIDS issue in an appropriate historical context--that there have always been some transgressors of the celibacy rule--sensationalizes the series and perpetuates a misguided stereotype of the Catholic priesthood as containing huge numbers of active homosexuals.

Second, the inaccuracy. The Star's manipulation of statistics would make even a presidential campaign pollster blush. The reporter, Judy L. Thomas, said that her paper "mailed [its] random, confidential survey to 3,000 priests last fall, and more than 800 responded." She evidences no embarrassment over this laughable approach to gathering statistics, merely noting vaguely that the so-called survey's "margin of error was 3.5 percentage points." Later, she acknowledges that its meager response rate of 27% was indeed problematic. Nonetheless, she declares that "it appears priests are dying of AIDS at a rate at least four times that of the general U.S. population." ignoring the fact that men in general die from AIDS at a far higher rate than the general population, for few women ever contract the disease.

Third, the irresponsibility. The celibacy rule for clergymen is a source of the skepticism and scorn of many of my non-Catholic friends. It is even more unfathomable for them than the Church's supernatural "mysteries," such as baptism and transubstantiation. The mysteries we leave alone, even if we do not believe in them; the unfathomables bug us because they are so close to home. The Star series reinforced this tendency to ridicule the incomprehensible. It did nothing to help its readers understand the complex way in which Catholics regard celibacy, or the admiration Catholics have for those who grapple with its requirements. Non-Catholics are not the only ones who recognize that a universal celibacy requirement for the priesthood is a very hard rule.

Years ago, when I was a college student thinking about a legal career, I visited the office of the Rev. Robert Drinan, S.J., a professor at Georgetown University's law school. At one point, as we were discussing my education at a parochial grade school and Jesuit high school, he asked why I wasn't considering the Jesuits.

Sheepishly I answered: "Father, I kind of like the ladies a little too much for that."

He turned suddenly toward me with the look of a mad scientist and said, "Sublimate, sublimate!"

I left his office, and for the next hour I tried my darndest to do just that. And for a good quarter of that hour, I pulled it off. But I had neither the self-discipline nor the vocation of Father Drinan. Nor do many ordained priests. And yet, far more troubled by their failure to measure up than I, they continue to do good work while they struggle with this unfathomable. On the one hand, the celibacy rule allows priests to throw themselves selflessly into their work: Think of Father Damien among the lepers on Molokai. On the other, the celibacy rule tortures and even impairs numerous priests who lack the required constitution. For large numbers of Catholic clergymen, the most pressing problem is not disease but dysfunction.

There is a antidote, and it actually springs from very orthodox Catholic teaching. The requirement of compulsory celibacy for all Catholic priests of the Latin rite, even those who do not belong to religious orders, is a relatively recent one, dating only to the Middle Ages. Originally the rule was (and it still prevails for the Eastern churches): celibacy only for monks and other religious, and the option of marriage for ordinary diocesan priests. That would leave room for activist celibates like Father Drinan, monastic celibates like Thomas Merton, and married clergymen among those who want to serve the Church in less structured ways. It would restore the Catholic clergy as a model for the diversity of human impulse and interaction. With marriage an option for the priesthood, the Church would better imitate Christ.

The Kansas City Star series did include a poignant anecdote that partly redeemed its tawdry attempt at exposé. In 1995, it reported, Bishop Emerson J. Moore of New York died in a Minnesota hospice of an AIDS-related illness. The article stated that the "death certificate attributed his death to 'unknown natural causes' and listed his occupation as 'laborer' in the manufacturing industry."

Laborer. Legions of investigative journalists and Oliver Stone will likely be scouring a thousand priests' death certificates because of this conspiracy-evoking detail. The irony is that "laborer" actually best describes the occupation of most of the Catholic priests who minister on every part of the planet at every minute of the day. And all the while, most are also laboring with a concept called "celibacy" that is really at the heart of the dialogue the Star report tries to provoke.

HIV and drug tests as seminary entrance requirements may soon render this particular scandal moot. But until both Church conservatives and would-be Church reformers realize that a return to ecclesiastical orthodoxy in its oldest and truest sense could satisfy them both, reports like this will continue to cloud the Church's vital contributions and accomplishments in our world. Ironically, those "laborers" with their mislabeled death certificates may have done more for their church than they could have known.

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