In his recently released book, “Celibacy in Crisis: A Secret World Revisited,” former priest Richard Sipe likens the Catholic Church’s teaching on sexuality to its former belief that the Earth was the center of the universe.
It took two centuries after the discoveries of Galileo for the Catholic hierarchy to quietly concede that the Earth orbited the sun. And it wasn’t until 1992 that a pontiff, John Paul II, issued an apology for the church’s treatment of the 17th century astronomer, who was forced to recant his beliefs and was placed under house arrest until his death.
Sipe, a psychotherapist, believes scientific advances in the field of sexuality have similarly left the church lagging. According to Sipe’s research, about 50% of its clerics are sexually active despite the requirement of celibacy.
The church “is using Scripture as a basis for explaining the science of human sexuality,” Sipe writes in “Celibacy in Crisis,” published by Brunner-Routledge. “That is no more valid than using the Bible to explain cosmology.”
He argues that the national Catholic sex scandal and coverup are only symptoms of a great illness within the church. He equates recent church reforms to protect minors from sexual abuse with giving aspirin to a patient with a brain tumor.
“It is a symptom of the crisis to come,” said Sipe in a telephone interview from his La Jolla home, where he lives with his wife of 33 years. “People want a quick fix, but there’s no quick fix to this.”
Sipe’s theories have drawn ridicule and scorn from many church leaders and conservatives. They contend that his statistics are flawed and that church views on sexuality reflect principles based on sacred Scripture. They therefore are unchanging and immune to the fads of the day.
In “Celibacy in Crisis,” Sipe uses the recent revelations about the sexual abuse of minors by clerics to reinforce his contention that the priesthood contains a “secret world” where psycho-sexually immature clergy ignore celibacy vows, sexual issues are pushed underground and molestation can thrive.
“The church lacks a credible theology of sexuality,” Sipe writes. “The minister is left foundering to make sense of his life and his ministry....It is because church teaching is not convincing or real that no seminary yet effectively succeeded in teaching celibacy or sexuality.”
Those teachings include contentions that sexual acts outside marriage, including masturbation, are mortal sins that condemn the sinner to hell unless they are properly confessed and absolved by a priest.
Until recently, the 71-year-old who spent 18 years as a monk in a Benedictine monastery was considered an alarmist for his disputed studies on sexuality within the priesthood.
Sipe left the priesthood in 1970, married a former nun and fathered a son. He spent the next 30 years as a psychotherapist, specializing in counseling clergy.
In 1990, he produced one of the first reports on the sexual practices of Catholic priests, which church leaders called unscientific. Sipe gleaned information from 1,500 interviews and case studies. According to Sipe’s statistics, half of the members of the priesthood at any one time are engaged in sexual relationships. And 80% to 90% of clerics are engaged in masturbation. He says he now has information on nearly 3,000 priests, and the ratios haven’t changed.
According to his research, 6% of the clergy’s members were engaged in sexual abuse of minors, a percentage that has gained credibility with the unfolding of the sex scandal over the last two years. Recently released figures on the number of molesting priests show that Sipe’s estimate was low for some dioceses.
“The crisis only confirmed all that I experienced and saw in postcard size,” said Sipe, who, by his own count, has been an expert witness in more than 150 cases against the church, including ones in Boston and Los Angeles. “Now it is being played out in the size of ‘War and Peace.’ ”
Since the church’s sex scandal first erupted in Boston in 2002, Sipe has been celebrated by victims, plaintiff attorneys and liberal Catholics as a kind of Nostradamus for his predictions of such troubles.
In “Celibacy in Crisis,” he doesn’t take a stand on whether mandatory celibacy is an ideal worth keeping. He argues only that it hasn’t worked for nearly 1,000 years, since the church first instituted the policy.
Bishop Joseph Galante of Dallas, a conservative among U.S. prelates, said that celibacy remains an important value, an earthly reminder to all that life is fleeting and our love for God should be first.
“Celibacy is also a call to love as Jesus loved,” said Galante, who believes that most priests live a chaste life. “The gift of celibacy is something that can empower us.”
William A. Donohue, president of the Catholic League, a watchdog group, calls Sipe and others like him “alienated malcontents” who want to chip away at church doctrine to eventually allow married men and women into the priesthood.
Donohue, a layman, said the church would be better off with a smaller priesthood if it could “weed out those who lost their vocation or are unable to abide by a vow that they voluntarily undertook.”
Sipe and others, he said, “want Catholic sexual ethics to mirror that of the Playboy philosophy....I want them to leave my church alone.”
Donohue said candidates for the priesthood want high standards, pointing to the robust enrollment at conservative U.S. seminaries as some liberal counterparts struggle for students.
Richard P. McBrien, professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame who wrote the forward to Sipe’s book, said “Celibacy in Crisis” probably won’t have much effect on the church for years. The church’s current doctrine will remain in place “until a new pontificate promotes a full and honest discussion of the issue,” McBrien said. “When and if that happens, Richard Sipe’s book will be seen as the great resource that it is.”