Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Celibacy debate: the arguments

Last night's debate sponsored by the Universe which promoted an end to mandatory priestly celibacy had two main speeches. Baroness Helena Kennedy spoke for the motion; Bishop Malcolm McMahon against.

Kennedy's was obsessed with sex and power. The Church, she said, sought to "control women's reproduction". Celibacy was "about power and control". The imposition of sexual abstinence required an unhealthy act of will; sex, she said, was a "primal life-force"; without it, priests suffered loneliness, perversity and guilt. Celibacy was rooted in cultic pagan ideas of uncleanliness and only became mandatory because of the Church's need to hold onto property and money. Celibate priests, she said, were cheap; but their cost was enormous. Sex should not be compulsory, she made clear. But celibacy should not be mandatory. Seminaries were homoerotic environments, like boarding schools, where child abusers sought sanctuary. "Paedophile men often find their way into the priesthood", she observed. Was Rowan Williams less holy, being married? she asked.

Bishop McMahon said celibacy was rooted in the example of Christ, who united the role of priest and victim. Where priesthood has gone wrong it was because the "victim" part had been forgotten. Jesus had abolished the functionalism of priesthood; a priest isn't what one does, but what one is. Jesus was from a culture which had a keen sense of the value of marriage; his celibacy, like his prohibition of divorce, was revolutionary. At the beginning, Christian priests chose sexual abstinence; later, priesthood became reserved to those men with the capacity for celibacy. Through the Sacrament of Holy Orders, a priest becomes configured to Christ -- not a symbol of power, but naked and dying. 

There was some discussion of holiness. Speaking as a "man from the pews" Frank Skinner said he wanted the priest to be holy, "a little nearer the light"; that meant having time to read and pray, and being radically available to others, and therefore celibate. He said he was in favour of women priests, but thought they, too, should be celibate.  Kennedy said holiness wasn't gendered. Jack Valero said holiness, not priesthood, was the objective, and that holiness was available equally to lay people; but the priest's way was through celibacy. Fr Stephen Wang laid out practical benefits of the celibate priesthood, but said these were less important than having an "undivided heart".

Many people spoke from the floor, but it was clear the audience was overwhelmingly stacked against the motion. A vote was taken, which overwhelmingly reflected the bias. Skinner asked if anyone had changed their mind as result of listening to the speeches; only one had.

It was not clear if the Universe believed its money was well spent.

Tina Beattie's account of the debate is here