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Celibacy as a Feminist Issue by Clara Maria Henning from 'Women and Orders'

Celibacy as a Feminist Issue

by Clara Maria Henning

from Women and Orders, pp 87-104, edited by Robert J.Heyer. Paulist Press, 1974.

The Catholic Church describes celibacy as “one f the purest glories of the Catholic priesthood” (Pius XI), a “most sacred and most salutary law” (Benedict XV), “a brilliant jewel,” and a “divine gift” (Pope Paul VI). Most priests themselves find such descriptions amusing, and they are silly. They call to mind absurd locker-room phrases by which men describe their genitals, such as “the family jewels,” and can be considered more spiritual versions of the same. But it is unwise to regard such catch-phrases as merely silly or amusing. They are highly sophisticated political slogans. They are to the government of the Church what “law and order” is to the present government of the United States.

Laymen have come to accept blindly the term “celibacy” and rarely think through as to what it actually implies or how it affects our lives. At most we conjure up the word “unmarried” as an analogy. A closer examination of the word’s meaning and effects, however, reveals so many negative aspects to “celibacy,” that we can consider its use an employment of Orwellian language! It is Doublespeak. We have been taught to accept an unthreatening term and are spared an emotional confrontation with its actual message. We have further always viewed celibacy as primarily the priests’ problem; after all, they have to live it. Celibacy is very much a women’s problem. This innocuous term has over the centuries created a multitude of evils, most of which prove to be particularly insulting and generally detrimental to women.

The topic of celibacy is usually very quickly absolved by looking at canon 132/1 which dictates that clerics are not permitted to marry and that they are bound to observe chastity. In non-Orwellian language, that canon establishes that the Church does not want its priests to make love. It speaks of sex, and since the Church does not want its male priests to make love to other priests, we can be secure in the conclusion that the thrust of celibacy involves entirely a concern on the part of the legislators that priests do not engage in love-making with women.

One innocent suggested to me recently that celibacy may just imply a prohibition against sexual intercourse as such. Perhaps, she reflected, the law still allows priests to hug a girl friend, kiss her, even engage in some petting as long as . . . . Perhaps overzealous canon lawyers caught the ball and ran. Unfortunately, the idea of celibacy excludes all of these activities and much more.

The concept of celibacy precludes any close association with women. The law clearly expects that any relationship between priests and women, no matter how innocent, will lead to better things. The most blatant expressions of the Church’s concern about the sex lives of its priests are found in now repealed diocesan statutes which provided that no priest may ride in the front seat of a car with a woman. We can still point to the present canonical restrictions against housekeepers in rectories as living examples: women employed as housekeepers to priests must either be close relatives or otherwise of an age “past suspicion” (canon 133/1). “Past suspicion” is usually interpreted to lie between the ages of 40 and 50. It would be too charitable to laugh this canon off as mere ignorance or a reflection of past attitudes when the prevalent opinion in medicine, psychiatry, and culture in general was that women had no sex drive at all. Canon 133/1 reveals that the Church suspects its priests to be so sex starved that they cannot be expected to resist any woman at all unless she is old or at least middle-aged. Primarily, however, we should recognize the political import of this simple rule: Celibacy is enforced at the expense of women’s self-worth and self-image; the law verbalizes that any woman who has not yet reached menopause is under suspicion and strongly implies that she can be expected to seduce any priest.

Economically, also, there is a message in 133/1. That canon prevents any younger, single woman or one with small children from earning a livelihood as housekeeper to priests.

If life were simple and love an uninviting pastime, we might be able to regard celibacy as a charming idiosyncrasy of Catholic culture. But life is complex and love a universal need. Consequently, a simple law like canon 132 which prohibits priests from marrying cannot stand on its own authority; it must be assisted by complementary regulations such as the insulting and suggestive canon 133.

Priests can, of course, seek diversion outside their rectories. But the concept of priestly chastity demands that men under its obligation are not exposed to contrary influences. Thus we have, predictably, on the books a law which forbids priests to attend public shows: the theatre, movies, the opera (!); dances and picnics are especially out (canon 140). When we think about these forms of entertainment, we recognize that all to some degree involve women: Tosca chased around the table by Scarpia as she cries “Help!”; Butterfly and Pinkerton in the throes of their wedding night; Violetta and Alfredo, Mimi and Rudolfo never getting married but living together; Papageno yearning for a Turtletaeubchen of his own. Women and men, passion and illicit love! Picnics indeed would be dull without beer and girls. The theatre usually depicts the everyday interactions between men and women. Old-time vaudeville and the cabaret at their best can be highly suggestive. And what of movies showing Ann-Margret’s pelvic gyrations! The legislators were concerned that priests not be exposed to any of it - they might find out what they were missing. The point is that a rule such as canon 140 is determined to keep priests from sitting next to, dancing with, or looking at women. Feminists are not too sympathetic to Ann-Margret, but they must be incensed at the thought that even the attendance at simple public entertainment involving women is considered “unclean” for the priesthood.

Anyone desirous of keeping a group of people apart from the rest must count on the contingency that members of the group do manage to break out. Prohibitions against inter-sex associations seem to go so much counter to the general thrust of life that over the centuries ways had to be found by which the class of priests could be effectively segregated. The problem is how to easily identify people who are subject to segregation. Short of tattooing people on their foreheads, clothing is the most readily noticeable and acceptable sign of one’s station. Thus it is to be expected that we find rules governing the garb of priests.

The collective consciousness of the Church realizes well that a uniform style of clothing for priests is useful as a tool of control and identification. Canon 136/ 1 calls for decent ecclesiastical dress at all times; it ís, in fact, the basis of a considerable body of literature.

A uniform style of dress and color allow lay persons to recognize immediately that they are dealing with a man separated from the mainstream of their own lives. On the one hand, distinctive ecclesiastical dress serves to mark men as a group to whom all lay persons owe by law respect (canon 119); on the other hand, it keeps reminding the priests themselves that they had better behave. Most importantly, it reminds people that they are dealing with sexual abstainers. Young women are discouraged from flirting; mothers will not take the attitude of “Father, do I have a girl for you!” The clerical collar warns: “Do not tempt.”

How clearly the language of ecclesiastical dress announces the wearer’s untouchability impressed itself upon me during a recent party. Someone mentioned that a priest walking down the street always reminded him that “he doesn’t do it.” We all laughed hysterically in sudden recognition of a shared experience. (The same is, of course, true of habits worn by nuns.)

Our Church is too astute and too preoccupied with sex to have missed out on the enormous effectiveness which clerical dress has in imposing a separation between priests and women. Although the language of canons and Church documents on this matter may sound superficially innocent, the ulterior motive gradually impresses itself on the reader. For example, on July 28, 1931, a decree of the Sacred Congregation of the Council admonished that:

Clerics . . . should be distinguished from the laity even by their dress. There are some who wear even in public garments which are thoroughly secular in both form and color . . . . The result naturally is that the due respect of Catholics toward the clerical order is diminished, and the clerics themselves are exposed to the danger not only of doing things which are foreign and unbecoming to the clerical state, but even, which may God forbid, of falling away entirely from their state.

The intention here is not to make everyone look clean and neat, but to control, and to control the laity as much as the priesthood. “Their state” is celibacy, and “falling away entirely from their state” is loaded language which reeks of sex. With a nod of recognition toward the gay community, let us be sure that all sexual allusions are directed toward - that is, rather away from - women.

Our priests throughout the ages were, of course, no dummies. Despite admonitions to the contrary, many have managed to visit places of entertainment without revealing their clerical state. There are some who are incredibly talented teachers of the theatre (for example, Harke of Catholic University of America). But the taboo is on the books. The following excerpt of a letter from the Sacred Congregation of the Council, dated July 1, 1926, reveals the Church’s present attitude about priests who slip into swimming trunks and frolic pool-side just as concretely as it did when written:

The Sacred Congregation has learned that certain priests . . . when for health’s sake they take a vacation in the mountains or at the seashore, or go to the springs . . . to take advantage of the baths or the waters there . . . spend [part of the day] in pleasure-seeking, and go to theatres, revues, “movies,” and other such shows which are entirely unbecoming to the dignity of the priesthood. Some even lay aside their clerical garb and dress exactly as laymen, in order to enjoy greater freedom and liberty.

What, one may ask, is wrong with greater freedom and liberty? These immature attitudes have the dual intention of controlling the men and preventing them from attempting any contact with females! I know of no similarly loaded admonitions against the attendance of priests at football, hockey, or basketball games. At most the rules urge restraint in voicing sporty enthusiasm.

The collective conscience of the Catholic Church is fearful that it will lose control over the clergy and their associations with women. The political question to be asked by women in relation to the above juridic attitudes is: “How dare the Church presume that a group of men of apparently suspect morals can sit in judgment over our affairs? If it feels the priesthood must be kept in check, how can priests guide our lives?” Most directly we should ask: “How can any priest presume to understand women at all if he not only never lives closely with women in marriage, but cannot even associate with women in play and activities of relaxation?” It appears that the “brilliant jewel,” the “divine gift” is an adornment manufactured at the emotional expense of women’s unsolicited and unrewarded cooperation.

If a system demands celibate males, it is obvious that the schools which feed the system must themselves be all-male and instill in their students a “men only” attitude. Seminary law consequently speaks exclusively of boys and young men as making up the student body (see, for example, canons 1353 and 1354/1). Only “legitimate sons” may enter the seminary according to canon 1363/ 1. The injustice of this type of segregation to legitimate daughters is evident. A Catholic family, which contributes to the diocese, is in fact supporting a system its daughters are not permitted to make use of. Young girls are expected to stifle any talents and ambitions toward the priesthood. And to add insult to injury, it is generally admitted that seminaries openly teach their young students antifemale attitudes.

How can the men and women in the women’s rights movement influence and supervise the seminary curriculum and faculty in this regard? There are a few canons which hint at the possibility of cracking the vicious circle at some future time. Canon 1364, for example, specifies that students should receive an education which reflects their culture and would be suitable to the locality in which the students will minister. Life for women in the United States has changed dramatically over the past few years. Is my local seminary keeping up with these changes? Canon 1364 and some of the interpretive rulings could theoretically afford the women’s movement a way of making sure that seminaries teach healthy attitudes toward females - if they were not checkmated by other laws such as canon 1359 which stipulates that the boards of governors of seminaries, who are of course the final authority, must be composed only of priests.

A handful of women faculty members can now be found in minor and major seminaries around the country, but curiously, they are for the much greater part nuns. Nuns are clearly considered much less threatening than other women, and repeatedly preferred on those occasions where the establishment Church admits women to teaching or administrative positions. (See Arlene Swidler, National Catholic Reporter, July 7, 1972; I have complained of this in Momentum, Dec. 1972 and Catholic Mind, Nov. 1973, among other places.) Nuns are preferred even in the seminary kitchen. If the students don’t do kitchen detail themselves, they have a few nuns (usually way over 40 and foreigners) to do the cooking. Thus, an average mother of small children looking for a domestic job, or an unmarried Ph.D. in philosophy looking for a teaching post, still finds it enormously difficult to find jobs in a seminary. Average women are effectively prevented from not only exercising an influence on our future priests, but also from earning a living commensurate with their training and inclinations. All this to preserve the future sexual orientation of a few young men!

It is obvious that even if a seminary would voluntarily and publicly revise its curriculum to include women’s courses and if it retrained its faculty toward presenting ecclesiastical history and theology with an objective view on females, the pedagogic effect of an environment saturated by maleness and a curriculum and educational goal which verbalizes “no women allowed,” cannot but ingrain a very much distorted view on females. Even the most enlightened efforts are wasted as long as the overriding pedagogical thrust is to train young men into attitudes of celibacy.

I am here reminded that there are now seminaries which, in response to over-protectiveness, allow their young seminarians to date. This could possibly be a gigantic step forward, but it could also prove to be a brand new way of manipulating women toward unwittingly collaborating in the preservation of celibacy. Dating in this case is combined with the attitude of chastity; a policy of leniency is combined with one of unswerving strictness, the latter being the determining factor in the seminarians’ lives. A policy of dating linked to an overriding policy of celibacy seems to encourage young men to enter into friendships with girls after which they must return to the protective ideology of celibacy. Each encounter affords the young man the sweet decision of his abiding commitment of sexual non-activity. The women are left with nothing but possible heartbreak. Young women alone are placed in a position where once again they may, this time emotionally, support celibacy laws. The irony is that Church history offers us a long period during which exactly the same tactics where employed, tactics through which, as a matter of fact, celibacy was introduced into the life of the Church.

Article 35 of Sacerdotalis Caelibatus, the major contemporary document on celibacy of 1967, still dares to instruct that the laws of celibacy were voluntarily accepted by the Catholic priesthood and laity of the 12th century. It is true that Church history reveals a continuous sentiment toward an abstentious clergy. Already the Council of Elvira (ca. 300 A.D.) sought to impose celibacy upon a married clergy and consequently upon their unsuspecting wives. This imposition of celibacy was effected through stringent, punitive sanctions against noncompliance. Now, we can express sympathy for the clergy family men involved, but let us ask what of the women involved?

As hard as constantly reiterated celibacy laws may have been on priests, the cruelty levied on their wives seems to have taken no end. There were laws which provided that a cleric may not visit his wife except in the presence of reliable witnesses. There were laws which imposed excommunication on those not ready to desert their families. There were laws which threatened physical punishment to priests. Wives could even be sold! Did the women of those first ten centuries who married clerics have an inkling that eventually they would be compromised to support the Church’s idea of celibacy by these insidious means? What happened to their millions over the centuries? How could the Church in conscience ordain married men and then force them into a life of chastity? Are our contemporary seminaries following the same tactics by allowing young seminarians to date? Was the Church of old at all concerned to provide sustenance either materially or spiritually for the families of its newly chaste clergy, and is the contemporary Church at all concerned about the feelings of young girls who date seminarians?

How difficult the Church found it to impose celibacy on the priesthood is revealed by the very fact that it spent almost a thousand years impressing the people with its ideas on sexual purity. And, still, during the Gregorian Reformation (11th century) clerics resisted celibacy laws with threats and bodily violence toward their bishops. I hope that their fury was diligently fanned by their wives and girl friends; in memory of them, we should light a few fires of our own.

To return to the twentieth century and men properly ordained. The document Sacerdotalis Caelibatus shows a great interest in reintroducing a system of common life for priests (Article 80). This sentiment is an extension of canon 134 of the Code of Canon Law which “favors” the common life. Communal life was in past ages an economically expedient way for priests to be educated and to find companionship in eating and praying together. Today, however, a return to communal living is clearly seen as an alternative way of keeping men under administrative surveillance. Efforts to reintroduce communal living seek to counter a trend in America which sees both diocesan and religious priests moving into private apartments, especially those studying or teaching at universities. It is no secret that there has arisen a rather high incidence of priests finding girl friends and adopting what the code calls an “unclerical life” (see Newsweek, Dec. 3, 1973).

Although the Church expresses a well-advised concern to guard priests from loneliness (Article 93), the intention of recommending the common life is clearly to safeguard our priest’s chastity:

Priestly chastity is increased, guarded and defended by a way of life, surroundings and activity suited to a minister of God. For this reason the close sacramental brotherhood . . . must be fostered to the utmost (Article 79).

Is it merely academic to ask whether the intent of Article 79 is to keep priests away from women or women away from priests? We should be aware that a further separation between priests and women will exacerbate the gulf of understanding between them. It is even now practically impossible to see a priest for any detailed discussion involving, perhaps, the parochial school or the matter of women lectors when he lives in an average rectory. Women already have no forum in which to bring priests to account. How much more difficult our lives will be when greater numbers of priests begin living together with the express understanding that they do so in order to guard their chastity!

A society which requires sexual abstention of its functionaries tends to create rules which in themselves do not mention or even imply celibacy, but which are, nevertheless, attributable to them. Celibate legislators of a thousand years ago never had the opportunity to engage adult women in conversation. In charity, they may be forgiven for many of our woes, but the same leniency cannot be shown to. the contemporary leadership.

Women of the twentieth century are still exposed to some now outrageous attitudes held by eighth, ninth, and tenth century male celibates. Many of these are especially prevalent in the procedural rules of court cases. What are we to say about rules which provide for the close examination of a woman’s genital orifice, and which instruct doctors as to how exactly to proceed in a digital examination of a woman’s hymen? Aside from the humiliation levied upon untold Catholic women who seek to have their marriages annulled on the basis of non-consummation or impotence, what of procedural rules that specify that tribunal officials are obliged to solicit the opinion of a gynecologist, that is, one gynecologist if they are dealing with a male physician, and two extra male physicians to verify the findings if the examining gynecologist was a woman? (A closer discussion of these rules will be found in the upcoming book by Rosemary Ruether, Images of Women in the Jewish and Christian Traditions, Simon and Schuster.)

As modern women and men we can approach such rules with the understanding that, after all, every ecclesiastical legislator and every court official has up to date been a celibate male. We may conclude that it is inevitable that there have been fostered interests of highly voyeuristic character among the collective clergy. But what of the millions of women who already have been and the thousands upon thousands of women who still continue to fall victims to this collective legal perversion? What has anyone’s hymen got to do with Christ’s teaching to love and care for one another?

It may be conjectured as to whether women and their male sympathizers are becoming overly sensitive about laws which affect them. Some may counsel that we should bring more understanding to the issues, to excuse them. That tactic unfortunately does not lead to change and we need changes desperately. An attitude of total forgiveness would also be our luxury: All generations before us had no choice but to cooperate and believe blindly. We have a moral obligation to vindicate the past millions of women who were given no choice, and we have responsibilities toward the future, to see to it that future millions are given a choice.

Presently, there is no reason to suppose that the Church will revise the rule of celibacy. As recently (for the canonist) as 1919 and 1920, Benedict XV declared that the law of celibacy “cannot be permitted to be in any way brought into question,” that it “must be retained inviolate in all its purity,” and that “the Holy See will never in any way mitigate, much less abolish, this most sacred and most salutary law.” Forty years later, the Second Vatican Council reiterated this stance; it has since been affirmed by Pope Paul with the declaration that celibacy “should today continue to be firmly linked to the ecclesiastical ministry,” (Sacerdotalis Caelibatus, Article 14). The political significance of this uncompromising attitude for women is that as long as the Church insists on a chaste clergy; it can hardly admit women to the priesthood on equal terms with men. Since celibacy has proven to be such a weak proposition, the Church will feel it necessary to seg- regate men and women, and it cannot afford building female seminaries. The Church will continue to feel obliged to create sterile environments both physically and attitudinally to keep women away from priests, which involves communal living, prohibitions against attendance at movies and dances, and mandatory clerical dress.

The women’s movement in the Church may be persuaded by a quite perverse form of reasoning that it should be able to demand that, if the Church insists on celibacy, it should exercise better control over the clergy and create for them environments where priests are not exposed to temptations and cannot - however unintentionally - harm women. Perhaps the Church is indeed a loving mother and sagacious teacher in setting down limiting rules; if these were observed, many women would be spared many heartaches. The problem with this course of reasoning is that the clergy will continue to make up our legislators, confessors, and judges, and that the cycle of breeding ignorance must be stopped at some point in history.

It may be entirely unnecessary to preach revolution. Modern times are slowly corroding even the most adamantly backward notions of the Church’s leadership. Especially, notions of safeguarding anyone’s chastity by design are continuously being undermined. They were much better suited to a European life-style of hundreds of years ago when theories about personal freedom and responsibility, democracy, co-education, and television had not even been conceived of yet.

It is today practically impossible not to be influenced by general society and thus to various alternatives. Any woman today could easily get rid of a chastity belt by reaching for a can opener. Any TV set invites celibate men to look closely whether the panty hose are really snug or whether the woman alighting from the airplane has in fact forgotten her eighteen-hour girdle. Today, any priest at a university is very likely to become friendly with any number of women, and vice versa. Not every man or every woman can forever resist being interested in the other and submitting to a possible attraction. Neither should anyone be put into the position of having to.

The problem of the matter is obviously celibacy itself, and the question to be asked is: “Why does the Church feel it is so important for a group of men to have no contact with women?”

There are theories which propose economic reasons as the prime motivation, and those which hold that control and manipulation of the men in the priesthood pure and simple are at the heart of the matter. I am rather convinced that the Church’s insistence on sexual purity is rooted in the primitive concept of menstruation as defiling, and on an exaggerated notion of a requirement for ritual purity for sacred things and persons. Remnants of this thought process are still discernible today. When Sacerdotalis Caelibatus speaks of the chaste clergy, for example, it speaks of celibacy as a staying away from flesh and blood (Article 21). Flesh yes, but blood?

We may, therefore, conclude by stating that the seemingly harmless concept of celibacy has coaxed Catholic culture onto a merry-goround of self-perpetuating petuating evils. “Celibacy” means “stay away from women,” and flowery descriptions, such as “a golden law” or “a sweet yoke of Christ” (Pope Paul VI), hide realities which are particularly insulting to women. Simple prohibitions against marriage for the clergy in many insidious ways cause women to be called names and have kept us away from the mainstream of Church life until we are today politically totally disenfranchised.

There are actually people who believe that the Church will welcome women into the priesthood within the next half-century. Does this mean we would have to accept celibacy? If the above observations vis-à-vis celibacy laws and the necessity to devise rules in support of them are true, then what rules might be introduced to enforce celibacy for women ministers? The prospects are mind-boggling. Visions déjà vu are crashing in upon me: the history of deaconesses, widows and virgins and their systematic suppression until any woman who desired to spend her life in service of God could realize her ambitions only from within the convent.

But there is every reason to anticipate that the Church will be forced to accept a married male clergy long before it will come to accept the idea of women priests. That eventuality would afford us at least a minimum of influence, for then we can close the door at night and, charging at our man with flying colors, we can say: “Listen, Mr. Big Shot. . . . !”

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