The Catholic community was once again rocked by scandal after a Grand Jury released a report of its probe into sexual abuse allegations against several Pennsylvania Dioceses. Originally convened by the PA Attorney General in 2016, the Jury’s 1,356-page report presents a comprehensive review of testimony and documentation going as far back as the 1940s. Ever since the Boston Globe brought the issue onto the international stage in a 2002 exposé that eventually earned The Globe a Pulitzer Prize, the Catholic Church has been increasingly mired in controversy as more and more allegations and details of systemic abuse emerged across the world.
In times like these, any organization infected with such a rampant disease would surely enter into a period of soul-searching, introspection, and the contemplation of a viable path forward. Though several figures have been removed from their positions and some have even faced litigation over the past 16 years, one fundamental problem that may have given rise to this behavior remains unaddressed. While the Church has moved from consistent denial – both internally and externally – to levying punishments against offenders, the root issue at the core of these scandals must be considered further if Catholics are ever to be confident in the priesthood again.
In the Beginning…
For much of the history of Christianity, the focus has been placed squarely on men as leaders of the church, and it has been accepted as fact that there were only 12 Apostles and that they were all male, though there are indications from bible passages like 1 Cor. 9:5 as well as documents from early church clerics indicating many of these men were married and that women once presided alongside the men during the early eucharistic rituals.
According to “A Brief History of Celibacy in the Catholic Church”, what follows next is roughly 2,000 years of sometimes conflicting ideas about marriage and celibacy, increasingly trending toward condemnation of women, marriage and sex for those in the priesthood. Further, Church officials hold that the exclusion of women not just from marriage to priests, but from positions of authority in the Church is expressly stated in the New Testament, and that women are not even allowed to question or challenge these teachings. In today’s Catholic Church, celibacy is the rule because as Fr. Jerome Bertram states in The Catholic Herald, “Celibacy, the choice of unmarried men for the priesthood, became normal, precisely because marriage is holy and a sacrament.”
Though those in the priesthood may claim to have chosen a life of celibacy in order to humbly serve the Church, thousands of accounts have now emerged from Ireland to Australia indicating it simply was not possible for them to maintain this particular vow.
The Endocrine Factor
Neuroscientists have been amassing a vast repository of data on the characteristics and effects of different hormones on both the physical body and our behavior. While there is still much to be discovered in the fields of Endocrinology and Neurochemistry, Oxytocin has been identified as an important neurotransmitter that controls behaviors such as social interaction, trust, empathy, favoritism, prejudice and even depression. The various activities of human contact ranging from platonic to sexual can affect our oxytocin levels and our ensuing behavior.
The absence of behaviors that stimulate this particular hormone can impact the levels of Cortisol or other hormones like Dopamine and Serotonin that can adversely affect the body and subsequent behavior and decision-making processes. Chronic lack of basic human contact can either lead to or reveal disorders like alexithymia or depression, and studies indicate that specific tactile deprivation during childhood can lead to impaired emotional and physical development and even excessive masturbation issues.
Putting the “Hu” back in Man
While those in the church may argue that a personal relationship with God somehow supersedes neurochemistry, thousands of lawsuits, formal inquiries, and internal Church documents from across the globe suggest otherwise. The true consequence of removing the priesthood from the natural conditions of humanity is now coming to light.
By denying thousands of men worldwide the right or approval to participate in familial relationships and putting those same men in charge of the spiritual leadership of the masses, countless people’s lives have been irrevocably damaged. While each and every sex abuser is responsible for his actions, when an organization is revealed to have such a systemic pattern of sexual abuse in its ranks, one must question the organization that gave rise to such a culture in the first place.
Ideally, religion can provide its followers with tools to transcend the physical experience of reality and come closer to God. Yet, those who follow the Bible can read that the human form was created in God’s image. That includes our neurochemistry, possession of reproductive organs, and all of the physical mechanics that govern our empathy, sense of connection to others, and emotional wellbeing. To decree that the human experience must be completely invalidated and renounced in order to come closer to God seems to have bred a deep-rooted sickness in the heart of one of the largest religions in the world, and to maintain this decree with the expectation that the fear of punishment will heal this sickness seems to be folly.
Putting the “Wo” back in Man
Though scorned by mainstream ecumenical scholars and clergy, texts not accepted into the biblical canon give us the idea that early Christianity might have been much different than modern iterations of the Church, and may have exhibited a higher degree of gender parity. There are over 7.6 billion people in the world today; roughly half of those people are women. Yet, in Islam, Judaism and Christianity, which combined represent half of the entire population as well, women are excluded from the clergy and upper echelons of power.
In one of the most compelling and articulate arguments for the inclusion of women in religious organizations, Jimmy Carter noted in a 2009 speech to the Australian Parliament, “It is ironic that women are now welcomed into all major professions and other positions of authority, but are branded as inferior and deprived of the equal right to serve God in positions of religious leadership.” He continued, “The truth is that male religious leaders have had – and still have – an option to interpret holy teachings either to exalt or subjugate women. They have, for their own selfish ends, overwhelmingly chosen the latter.”
It is quite possible that in doing so, the men of the Catholic clergy have also indelibly harmed themselves: their credibility, their sanity, and their holy stature, all because they subjugated and marginalized the role of women and familial relationships in service to God and community.
With all that has transpired, can Jesus save the Catholic Church? Perhaps this time, it will take both Jesus and Mary together to get the job done.
Exclusion of Women: https://www.jstor.org/stable/2578076?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents