As accusations of sexual impropriety swirl around the Catholic priesthood, many questions arise. One must, for example, wonder how men trained for years to live a celibate, professional life fail so dramatically, so tragically. Why could their superiors and teachers not guide them into a mature integration of their sexuality? The answer lies in a celibate culture that reinforces an unhealthy personal psychology.
After the Church took steps in the 11th Century to link celibacy and priestly ordination, candidates for the priesthood had no choice in the matter. Some few desired both celibacy and priesthood, fewer yet had integrated their personality such that celibacy could become a healthy personal expression. The majority of candidates and, eventually, the ordained either did not want to live celibately, did not have the capacity to do so in a healthy manner, or both.
Yet these men, then and now, had emotions, a body, senses, and sexual desires. How did the clerical and religious systems teach them to handle them?
Since religious leaders accepted as central the highly educated intellect and well- ordered will, they emphasized the intellectual and voluntary defense mechanisms capable of controlling an unruly sexuality. This meant the following:
- repression of emotional and sexual feelings and their expression. Treat these as outlaws even to the extent of no longer considering them, or experiencing them, as part of ones self;
- use denial both in oneself and towards others as a way of keeping sexuality distant, as undesirable and unappealing;
- through intellectualization transform any emotional or affective situation into an intellectual problem to be solved, not one to be entered into, explored, embraced or forsaken;
- rationalize away any breakthrough of emotion or feeling, after finally regaining control, as an aberration and not a choice: I acted out sexually because of fatigue, stress, depression, too much to drink, and so on;
- through reaction formation turn sexuality into an external enemy to be ferreted out, pursued, overcome and diminished in others. This keeps the focus away from ones own interior sexual needs and longings.
A specific continuum of psychological situations and disorders utilize these defense mechanisms. At the best they reinforce a personality structure that considers ones worth to be measured by external norms. For priestly candidates these norms come from the Church, from religious superiors, from teachers, from older candidates, and from the community itself. Intellectual control, obedience of the will, no emotional or sexual relationships, a stance of holiness and specialness: these must be fostered and maintained. Most seriously, scandal before others must be firmly avoided. Merit and worth and advancement depend on meeting these norms readily and consistently.
Should there be any trouble containing ones sexual urges even in the face of strict norms and community pressure, anxiety grows. They must be handled. This requires the developing of neurotic patterns that keep sexuality at bay and, in this way, relieve anxiety. These self-reinforcing patterns in time rigidify and possess the personality. To others they seem irrational and addictive; to the person they simply work.
However, should these neurotic patterns fail to contain the anxiety-producing desires, paranoid intellectual patterns may develop. These project anxiety and sexuality outward, so much so that the person sees them everywhere except in oneself. These external symptoms and events become the focus of ones attention, diminishing self-attention to, and any self-recognition of, ones own sexual problems. In the end, if bad sex exists anywhere, it exists only in others.
In this clerical and religious culture yesterday’s candidates graduate into tomorrow’s superiors and teachers. If one were lucky enough to enjoy the guidance of men who both wanted to be celibate and who had integrated their sexuality into a mature and healthy personality, then one might receive assistance in accomplishing the same goals for oneself. But the norms of a closed, secretive, and special congregation of priests would still work against anything other than acting according to its protective norms and using its sanctioned defense mechanisms. Sadly, most teachers and superiors, raised in and molded by this unhealthy celibate system, employ the same personality patterns described above. They only guide the young candidates to be like them, to their shame and the young men’s serious detriment.