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Posted June 16, 2004

In Defense of Celibacy and Taking Offense At It Being Improperly Portrayed.

A Review of HBO’s “America Undercover” program: “Celibacy”, a television production that calls for a rebuttal.

Although not all clergy, or for that matter Catholics, agree with celibacy, it still is a part of the priesthood. Is this program just one more example of “piling on” the priesthood by an alienated secular society? Is it posssible that the errors in it are a deliberate way of sowing disunity within the Church?

The T.V. Review

The late Archbishop Fulton Sheen once observed, "Sex has become one of the most discussed subjects of modern times. The Victorians pretended it does not exist; the moderns pretend that nothing else exists."

Falling ideologically into the latter camp is "Celibacy," a new documentary by Antony Thomas, debuting Monday, June 28, 10-11:11 p.m. EDT on the HBO pay cable channel. It uses a stacked-deck approach to investigate the socio-religious roots of abstinence among various faith traditions, with a focused emphasis on Roman Catholicism and celibacy's alleged link to the church's sexual abuse scandal.

As part of HBO's "America Undercover" series, the program explores the historical and scientific aspects of celibacy, including interviews with neuroscientists, psychiatrists, sexual therapists and abuse victims, as well as both former and current priests. But what starts off as a comparative study of religious attitudes toward institutional chastity quickly becomes a polemic against the Catholic Church's entire sexual ethos in claiming that a repeat of the recent sex scandal could be avoided if the Vatican lifted its ban on a married clergy. Of course, no mention is made of the fact that married and single men of all faiths or no faith can be pedophiles, without having the excuse of religious celibacy as an explanation.

Full of unsubstantiated, anecdotal assertions, the documentary starts off on a seemingly unbiased note by acknowledging that Christianity is not unique in its practice of celibacy and examining parallels in both the Hindu and Buddhist religious traditions.

But, having thus established a patina of disinterest, the filmmaker quickly turns his critical lens on the Catholic Church, keeping it locked in his sights for the remainder of the show. And while conceding that other world religions even require it for those members who enter special states of life, the program then commits the non sequitur of saying that only Catholicism makes it mandatory for its priests.

Tracing the history of Christian celibacy back to its early monastic roots, the film contends that those ancient anchorites took their asceticism to "fanatical and self-punishing extremes," making dubious claims that "influential voices in the early church condemned sex, even in marriage, as polluted and foul. The God they worshiped demanded total abstinence." What it conveniently forgets to mention is that, while perversions of personal pieties did occur, it was, more often than not, those "influential voices" that were defending the dignity of the flesh against such heresies as Gnosticism and Manichaeism, which taught that the physical body was evil.

Thomas' underlying argument can be distilled down to the moth-eaten canard that most of the problems facing the church can be blamed on what he sees as the Catholic hierarchy's repressive and dysfunctional attitude toward human sexuality, which the show terms "the contemporary church's Galileo" -- referring to the church's rejection of the astronomer's belief that the Earth moves around the sun, and not vice versa.

It drives home this point early and often by dwelling on images -- carefully selected to support its skewed, blame-the-church-at-all-costs thesis -- of the most extreme forms of personal mortification (ceremonial flagellation, etc.), stating, "The suppressing of the (sex) drive is the key to understanding many Catholic practices and rituals." This is presented as if these acts were part of the typical Catholic's devotional life. It also attempts to make connections between Catholicism and sadomasochism, listing "pain and guilt" among the "erotic elements built into the Christian worship system."

While the film accurately dates mandatory celibacy in the Roman rite to 1139, a supposedly unbiased expert misleadingly asserts that the final decision was one based solely on questions concerning the inheritance of church property. At no point does the documentary take seriously that following the example of the celibate Christ is a motive for priestly celibacy. Primacy is always given to motives other than spiritual.

Taking Thomas to task is not a case of protesting the film merely because it paints a less-than-flattering picture of Christianity. The real problem is that HBO's documentary singles out for assault one faith's moral teachings regarding human sexuality. It is presented in a largely unbalanced way, with facts replaced by mere opinion in many cases.

While trotting out the hoary chestnuts about the church's thinking that sex is, at best, a necessary evil, it ignores anything positive in Catholic theology about sexuality, including the fact that it is an essential element in the sacrament of matrimony. In fact, Pope John Paul II made it his first catechetical project in 1979 to promote a better understanding of what he called the "theology of the body." Far from considering sex morally evil, the pope extolled erotic desire and conjugal intimacy, when properly understood, as not only "good" but holy.

Two pieces of evidence cited against celibacy are the departure of tens of thousands of men from the priesthood and religious life in previous decades and fewer vocations to the ministry today. However, never grappled with is the overall decline in all lifelong commitments, manifested during those same decades by soaring divorce rates. Ignored is the wealth of vocations to the priesthood and religious life outside Western Europe and North America, and secular polls which demonstrate that most priests are happy with their lives. In fairness, the film's handling of celibacy among nuns is treated with more nuance.

The inclusion of an interview with Archbishop John P. Foley of the Vatican's Pontifical Council for Social Communications provides another moment of faux objectivity when, in fact, his comments are edited in such a way as to minimize their effect.

Lastly, the documentary fails to put in the record any of the church's own explanations of the importance of celibacy, such as Pope Paul VI's 1967 encyclical "Sacerdotalis Caelibatus." And while those who would reduce man to a ball of biological urges may criticize such idealism as being contrary to nature, the encyclical eloquently reminds us that, "Man, created in God's image and likeness, is not just flesh and blood, the sexual instinct is not all that he has; man also has, and pre-eminently, understanding, choice, freedom." Viewed apart from the mystery of Christ, celibacy could seem "unreasonable and unfounded," as even the encyclical recognizes.

The church does not deny that certain members of the clergy have committed heinous crimes resulting in immeasurable harm by their betraying the trust of those they were sent to serve. But the show's oversimplified prognosis, which recommends ending celibacy as a panacea to the ills facing the church, is hardly convincing.

Comedian Henny Youngman once quipped, "After reading about the evils of drinking, I gave up reading." To paraphrase, after watching this one-sided screed on the detrimental effects of celibacy, viewers might be tempted to give up watching HBO documentaries.

Due to some graphic images, including genital mutilation and sexual-themed discussions, "Celibacy" is not appropriate for young viewers.

A Catholic News Service movie review.