The Common Good
July-August 2002

Beyond Crime & Punishment

by Richard Rohr | July-August 2002

Male celibacy isn't the problem here. But for the Catholic Church to achieve a healthy system, things have to change.

Hearing confessions is a rather dangerous and lethal profession. It creates a kind of patience with sin that is often scandalous to outsiders. But confession is a very good thing about my Catholic tradition that might not be recognized in the midst of our shame about the pedophilia scandal.

Good confessional practice does not encourage you to read a situation in a forensic or argumentative context, and in fact quite the contrary. The whole purpose is healing and reconciliation. Ours is not "innocent until proven guilty" but actually "guilty and declared innocent." We start with the conviction and move therapeutically from there.

This wonderful pastoral practice is now to our severe disadvantage inside of the entirely different set of assumptions of the secular social order. This is a good reality check for us, but we Catholics (and all Christians) deserve to understand our own partly ignorant and partly vulnerable position in the world today. We have a very different agenda than the world. Some priests have surely been wolves among lambs, but we are also lambs in a very wolfish system of law and punishment. That is the world as it must be, exactly what Jesus promised us.

The confessor and the Christian judges evil in terms of its possibility for transformation and openness to grace; the dualistic secular mind knows only crime and punishment, quid pro quo—an "eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth." We are grateful for a certain sense of social order that it gives us.

But Saint Paul would call the Christian position "justification by faith," where Christ dies once and for all and because of that there is the possibility of universal amnesty. No one else has to "die" to achieve justice or justification. It utterly changed the equation of how justice is achieved. Paul would call the secular situation "the justification that leads to death." Always someone, somewhere must "die" for the crime to be "erased." The secular mind must have a victim, a perpetrator, a defendant to bring closure to the case and to speak of justice.

I understand and accept this, but I also know its severe limitations, precisely because of the freedom that the gospel has offered me. I must use Paul's enigmatic phrase "Sin takes advantage of the Law to condemn" (Romans 7:11). The "sin system" for Paul is a larger category than law is prepared to deal with. In our desperate need for control, "the sin system" co-opts laws and uses them for its own egoic purposes. We obey good and moral laws, but instead of freeing anybody they keep us all inside the sin system of anger, judgment, righteousness, and unforgiveness. This disguise of evil is so constant and so subtle that even though Paul took great pains to teach it in Romans and Galatians, most Christians fail to get the point even to this day.

On the level of the soul, we Christians do not need scapegoats or victims. After Christ, we recognize that we are all victims and all perpetrators, just in different ways and at different times. A good confessor does just the opposite of the secular system, announcing amnesty and breaking the cycle of crime and punishment whenever possible. For us "grace takes advantage of the Law to enlighten us." Right now, we are caught between the utterly different secular and Christian ways of dealing with good and evil. Both have something to say to us. The secret, of course, is that sinners confess and own their sin—as sin—for Christian transformation to take place. The law system does not and cannot really demand this. It is powerless.

On the level of society, we are in a new historical situation of awareness of victims' rights, of the apparent "unhealability" of the pedophile personality, of the "safe" harbor that priesthood has been for both victims and perpetrators. This awareness should have made the church assess these situations very differently over the past 20 years; we are at serious fault for not learning quicker. But along with our ignorance or blindness about the pedophilia issue, we had much innocence about the cutthroat system, its limited capacity for restorative justice, and ignorance about sexuality itself (an ignorance we shared with the therapeutic community until 20 years ago). The whole picture is now re-framed; our learning curve is at an all-time high.

Our Christian goal must still be the healing and reconciliation of the individual and, by implication, of the society. Mercy, patience, forgiveness, absolute trust in the possibility of growth and transformation, and God's power to save are our specialties, our primary products. We dare not be so hard on ourselves that we forget that we are much more protective of the individual and confidentiality than the system is, even though, most unfortunately, we did not protect the victims in this case. Yet, I have done the same in giving pastoral advice to wife abusers, murderers, and rapists at the county jail. I tell them what they must do, yet I have no access to the offended party—except through them! I just pray and hope that the absolution and advice have some salutary effect. There is much room for anger and a sense of betrayal in today's situation, but people must be fair and know that this is the "also good" framework that we confessors worked out of for most of our lives.

Our goal is restorative justice, while the best the system can do is retributive justice. The Law cannot ever promise God's restorative justice, much less offer true transformation. We have something much better to give, and we had better not lose it out of fear of lawsuits or fear of looking foolish. We dare not lose our compassion, our patience, our trust, our solidarity with sinners, our capacity for simple kindness, or we have lost everything Jesus taught us. We must both protect victims and heal sinners on both sides, an awesome task in this context.

"The Myth of Male Celibacy"

THE REVELATIONS OF the last year seem to be the beginning of the end of what some call "the myth of celibacy." It's not that male celibacy was always false or deceitful, but it was in great part an artificial construct. Men, with the best of original intentions, found out that they were not the mystics that celibacy demanded. That is exactly the point. Celibacy, at least in the male, is a most rare gift. To succeed, it demands conscious communion with God at a rather mature level, it demands many transitions and new justifications at each stage of life, and it demands a specific creative call besides. Many who have ostensibly "succeeded" at it have often, by the second half of life, actually not succeeded—in the sense of becoming a God lover, a human lover, and a happy man besides.

Practically, however, the demand for celibacy as a prerequisite for ministry is a setup for so many false takers. Not bad men, just men who are still on a journey: young men who need identity; insecure or ambitious men who need status; passionate men who need containment for their passions; men who are pleasing their pious mothers or earning their Catholic father's approval; men who think "the sacred" will prevent their feared homosexuality, their wild heterosexual hormones, or their pedophilia; men with arrested human development who seek to overcompensate by identification with a strong group; men who do not know how to relate to other people and to women in particular.

None of these are bad men; they are just on a many-staged journey, and we have provided them an attractive way-station that often seems to work—for a while. But then they go on to the next stage and find themselves trapped, searching, conflicted, split, acting out, or repressing in, and often at variance with their now public and professed image.

The process lends itself to a Jekyll-and-Hyde syndrome, even among men who are very honest and humble in other areas. The price is far too high once you have committed your life publicly and sacredly. I know how hard it continues to be for me, my closest priest friends, and many that I have counseled and confessed. Many of us stay in not because we believe the official ideology of celibacy anymore, but because we believe in our work, we love the people, and we also know God's mercy. But that loss of belief in the very ideology is at the heart of the whole problem now. We cannot prop up with law and social pressure what the Spirit does not appear to be sustaining. The substructure has collapsed. "Unless the Lord builds the house, they labor in vain who build it" (Psalm 127:1).

Add to that a rather large superstructure of ascribed status and security, and we have a system that is set up for collapse. Studies of male initiation say it is dangerous to give ascribed status to a man who has not journeyed into powerlessness. He will likely not know how to handle power, and may even abuse it, as we have now seen.

In general, I think healthy male celibacy is rare, and it probably is most healthy as an "initiation" stage to attain boundaries, discipline, integrity, depth, and surrender to God. In the long run, most men, as the Buddha statues illustrate, need to have one hand touching the earth, the concrete, the physical, the material, the sexual. If they do not, the other hand usually points nowhere.

WE SHOULD MOVE ahead reaffirming our approach to grace, healing, mercy, solidarity with sinners, patience, and transformation—while also cooperating with the social system whenever there are true victims' rights to be redressed. We should do this generously, magnanimously, and repentantly.

We Catholics should also see celibacy as primarily an intense initiation course of limited (one to 10) years, much like the monks in many Asian countries. Celibacy has much to teach the young male about himself, about real passion, prayer, loving others, and his True Self in God. We dare not lose this wonderful discipline and container. (Who knows, maybe both Jesus and Paul were still in that early period of life?!) It could be a part of most Catholic seminarians' training, and during that time much personal growth could take place. Some would likely choose it as a permanent state. Most would not.

How differently the entire process of priestly formation would be configured. What a gift to the religious orders (where celibacy is essential). Our precise charism would become clear, although we would surely become much smaller. What an opening to the many fine men who are attracted to a marriage partner. And what focused intensity this could give to spiritual formation during that celibacy period, instead of all of the hoop games, telling the directors what they want to hear, mental reservations, non self-knowledge, acting out, and "submarine" behavior that make many seminaries a haven for unhealth. Seminaries would not drive away sincere spiritual seekers, but would attract them. Not men looking for roles, titles, and uniforms to disguise identity, but men looking for holiness and God through which to express identity.

Male sexuality does not go away. It is not easily sublimated or integrated. It is either expressed healthily or it goes underground in a thousand different ways. Sex is and probably always will be a central issue for most males, and it can never develop honestly inside of a "hothouse" of prearranged final conclusions.

We should not be looking for a system where mistakes can never happen, but just a system that can distinguish health from unhealth and holiness from hiding. Like no other institution, the church should be the most prepared to deal with mistakes. That is our business. The steps to maturity are necessarily immature. Let's start by mentoring the good and the true, and also surrendering to that mystery of grace, forgiveness, and transformation that is our birthright as Christians. Many priests and seminarians have always done this, and I hope this gives them the courage to know why and how they are both "sons and heirs" of a true wisdom tradition. Such disciplined sons, and only such sons, have earned the authority of "fathers."

Richard Rohr, OFM, is founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, New Mexico. His latest book, with John Bookser Feister, is Hope Against Darkness: The Transforming Vision of Saint Francis in an Age of Anxiety (St. Anthony Messenger Press, 2001).

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