A new documentary to be broadcast on HBO on June 28 raises provocative questions about the role of clerical celibacy in the Catholic sexual abuse crisis. It is drawing fire from outraged Catholic bishops who say the film uses a "stacked-deck approach" to "assault" the church's sexual ethos.

In an interview from his home in England, the filmmaker, Antony Thomas, said his interest in celibacy was spurred by a desire to go beyond the daily media coverage of the church's abuse scandal.

"Like a lot of people, I was seeing the reports of priest abuse," he said. "But no one was asking the `why' questions. It seemed to me there was a connection between celibacy and the reports we were seeing, and yet no one was asking `Why celibacy?' `Why practice it?' `Who benefits from it?"'

The film, "Celibacy," opens with a comparative look at the practice outside the Roman Catholic Church. Interviews with Hindu priests, laymen and Buddhists who slough off worldly desires show how the renunciation of sexual activity is a potent force in many religious traditions.

However, the film's narrator says, abstinence is not specifically mandated for the holy men and women of these traditions.

"No other religious denomination imposes these demands on its priesthood. And today, the Catholic Church is in crisis," the film intones.

Citing the number of priests and nuns who have left their vocations since the 1960s and the "apparent epidemic of child abuse by the clergy" as evidence of that crisis, the film turns to psychiatrists and sexual therapists for an explanation of its roots.

"The drive or the propensity to reproduce is the most powerful biological process that ever existed on this planet. Sexuality, the sex drive, actually has more representations in the brain than even consumption of food," says Michael Persinger, a professor of psychology at Canada's Laurentian University, in the film.

Why, then, would the Catholic Church mandate a policy that denied this drive?

Although the film presents several young Christian men and women ready to give their lives over to God for profoundly spiritual reasons, sexual abstinence as a Church-wide policy was primarily "a powerful tool in controlling armies of priests and nuns," the film says.

In an interview, Thomas said he thinks celibacy is the most "beautiful thing. But it's either a gift or a rule. It simply can't be both."

When imposed as a rule, the film argues, the practice can destroy lives -- and it lines up various victims. They include a woman who had two children by a parish priest who later left her and the children; a man who was sexually abused by a priest for several years; a pedophile former priest who had himself surgically castrated because he feared he could not control his urges; and a number of men and women who were mistreated in an Irish home for children run by Catholic priests and nuns.

The church's refusal to bend in the face of accusations such as these demonstrates a historic stubbornness, the film argues.

The film suggests that "sex is the contemporary Catholic Church's Galileo." And that "it is now going through a dramatic period when the understanding of how things function collides with Catholic orthodoxy."

A review by the bishops' Office of Film and Broadcasting say the film fails "to take seriously that following the example of the celibate Christ is a motive for priestly celibacy. Primacy is always given to motives other than spiritual."

Moreover, the film's arguments are "full of unsubstantiated, anecdotal assertions ... presented in a largely imbalanced way, with fact deferring to mere opinion in many cases," wrote staff critic David DiCerto.

Among the details that the film fails to notice, the bishops' review says, are the "wealth of vocations to the priesthood and religious life outside Western Europe and North America, and the secular polls which demonstrate that most priests are happy with their lives."

According to the bishops' review, the biggest error in the film is that it reduces "man to a ball of biological urges." And it neglects the words of Pope Paul VI, who said that "Man, created in God's image and likeness, is not just flesh and blood, the sexual instinct is not all that he has; man also has, and pre-eminently, understanding, choice, freedom."'

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