Exploring Human Potential

Key Question For Catholic Hierarchy: “Is Celibacy The Problem?”

Posted on | August 17, 2018 | 9 Comments

Mike Magee

In the British Medical Journal in 1950, “expert” Dr. S.L. Simpson stated without evidence that “It is perhaps of clinical interest that for every one case of organic impotence that comes my way, I see at least 10 of psychological impotence.”  Three decades later I published a paper in the journal UROLOGY titled “Psychogenic Impotence: A Critical Review”. In that paper I argued for the use of scientific nomenclature (“erectile dysfunction” versus “impotence”), additional research to define the physiology and pathophysiology of erectile function and dysfunction, and for the demystification and greater transparency around this essential bodily function.

As is clearly evident in this week’s stunning disclosures of system-wide abuse touching thousands of young lives in Pennsylvania, is that the Catholic Church’s problem is systemic. The three failings that victimized those suffering from erectile dysfunction, namely sloppy nomenclature, weak or absent research and non-transparency, have now trapped leaders of the Church in a downward spiral.

The critical question that remains unanswered is whether the Church’s practice of enforced abstinence from sexual activity, either by skewing selection for the priesthood, or by subsequent creation of deviant behaviors and a range of mental illnesses, creates an unacceptable risk for the future priests and for their parishioners.

Words matter in science. Celibacy? What exactly does it mean? It is a religious, not a scientific term, surrounded by controversy. It is derived from the Latin word “caeleb” which means single. Some interpret it to mean “unmarried”; others define it as “refraining from sexual intercourse”; and others still believe a celibate life commits one to refraining from all sexual life including masturbation and sexual ideation. This lack of basic agreement on the meaning of fundamental definitions, as with the definition of “impotence”, cripples scientific research from the onset.

If the nomenclature is weak, so is the body of research. What passes for research in this field, on both sides of the argument, is as weak and unsubstantiated as was Dr. Simpson’s opinions on “psychological impotence” in 1950. Research has been hampered by limited access to the priests who are the subjects, poor study design, and rapid labeling of scientists who would dare tread into this dangerous minefield. As a result, we really don’t know whether mandating control over expression of one’s natural sexuality results in higher rates of sexual abuse, mental illnesses including depression and crippling anxiety, and higher then normal levels of drug and alcohol abuse compared to comparative control subjects.

Finally there is non-transparency with its clear record of institutionalized cover-up, information released in bits and pieces under duress, secrecy and the force of litigation which could threaten the Church’s survival.

So, drawing on my past experience, and as a Roman Catholic who would like to see the Church survive and become healthy, here are my suggestions to the Church’s leadership.

First, make your priests available to researchers to rigorously and scientifically study the connection, if any, between mandated restrictions on adult sexual function and abnormal sexual behaviors and mental illness. As a derivative of this research, as occurred in the study of erectile function, rigorous scientific terminology to define the meaning of “celibacy” will be well defined.

Second, commit to the publication of these peer reviewed studies, whether positive or negative results.

Finally, should it be determined that this practice of restricted sexual expression places the priests themselves and their parishioners at risk, commit to eliminating mandatory sexual abstinence as a prerequisite for entry into the priesthood.

If careful scientific examination is able to establish that the risks associated with this practice far out distance the benefits, have the courage to admit and correct the error, which is certainly the road that Christ would travel.


9 Responses to “Key Question For Catholic Hierarchy: “Is Celibacy The Problem?””

  1. Carmen Nevarez
    August 17th, 2018 @ 10:49 am

    Please send this to Pope Francis, a fellow scientist. Well Done!

  2. Mike Magee
    August 17th, 2018 @ 11:37 am

    Thanks for your support and encouragement. My contact list these days doesn’t include the Pope. But perhaps one of the extensive list of PHI supporters does. If not, would appreciate your spreading this throughout your large and influential network. In an age of “Me-Too”, this kind of action is long overdue.

    Thanks, Mike

  3. Don Detmer
    August 17th, 2018 @ 12:56 pm

    Mike: Thank you for this compelling commentary. I think the evidence is close enough to be compelling. How many other demoninations of the Christain faith that allow their ministers to marry have anywhere near the reports, damaged lives, and legal entanglements from sexual predation? Problems, yes, since humans are involved.

    The question is when and what it will take for the Roman Catholic church to allow both women and married people to become priests? This is be the study that is needed. My reading of the Holy Scripture certainly doesn’t suggest that Jesus Christ was demanding celibacy. It is tragically well past time for this needed reform.

  4. Mike Magee
    August 17th, 2018 @ 1:02 pm

    Thanks, Don. I couldn’t agree with you more. Public disgrace, abandonment, and even prosecution haven’t worked yet. Vows – including silence – are a pretty effective handcuff. We need daylight and a dose of #Me-Tooism”. Best, Mike

  5. Bob Shea
    August 20th, 2018 @ 8:48 am

    Thoughtful and on point, Mike. I’d add how, at least historically, the movement to priesthood often began or may still begin as early as “pre-seminary” high school recruitment or entering the seminary while still, effectively, in adolescence; that time of searching and exploring identity. It seems being unable to honestly address human sexuality in all its forms has been and continues to be the Judas strain in the hierarchy since at least the Holy Roman Empire. And for how many centuries has the Church hierarchy simply another form of political and economic power intertwined with its secular counterparts? Borgias are only the most famous example.
    Henry VIII and the Pope were merely dueling royalty.
    Keep up the good work.

  6. Mike Magee
    August 20th, 2018 @ 9:01 am

    Thank you, Bob, for your excellent points. I remember as a youngster in elementary school, two teen eighth graders committing to the priesthood and heading off to the “pre-seminary” the year after (shudder). The practice alone stands out now as a clear example of institutionalized child abuse with parents complicit, even rejoicing, that their children were “chosen for the vocation.” As with all syndicates, the Church relies on silence, which is slowly but surely being pierced. I am hopeful, in this and other pervasive areas of evil that that now dominate our American political scene, that goodness will ultimately prevail. Best, Mike

  7. Arthur Ulene
    August 20th, 2018 @ 11:32 am

    I cannot help but wonder if the very process of selecting young men who are willing to accept celibacy as the price of being a priest is not a factor. I suspect that this condition might result in the selection of some young men who don’t appreciate the consequences of that decision, and who are not capable later of resisting powerful sexual impulses that are bound to arise and which they are incapable of resisting.

  8. Mike Magee
    August 20th, 2018 @ 12:12 pm

    Thanks, Art! I suspect you are correct. If so, the Church then places them within a highly secretive structure, filled with nooks and crannies, incantations and incense, magic and mysteries … and children seeking forgiveness for sins they never committed. It’s a pretty toxic brew.

  9. JULIA
    May 14th, 2019 @ 2:00 am

    Really useful for me.Thanks for posting.

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