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July 31, 1997


Sex and the Church

Bian Lobo

Stained glass window You have not chosen Me; I have chosen you... If you would come after Me, take up your cross. (Jesus, the son of God)

"The path is long, hard and narrow, strewn with difficulties and stones that will cut into your feet leaving them bleeding… But it is the path chosen… it is the way of the cross."

It's not easy being a Christian, to turn the other cheek, to abstain from the desires of the flesh, to carry your cross without complaint. But it's even harder to be a spiritual leader as more than a few priests and nuns who have dedicated their lives to serve God and the Church will testify. But fewer will admit to the fact that, at the end of the day when fatigue, frustration and loneliness set in, the temptation to stray away from the narrow path is sometimes stronger than the will to resist it. In recent years, the Roman Catholic Church and its flock has had to come to terms with a simple fact of life. Spiritual leaders are 'of the world'… they, too, are human!

Not so long ago, Bishop Roderick Wright vanished from his Scottish diocese with a divorcee. Later, he delivered an even more severe blow when a 15-year-old boy admitted to millions of television viewers he was the priest's secret son. The situation spelt scandal and shame for the Roman Catholic Church. The flock was shocked; the Church, on the other hand, was 'sad' it even occurred. But the reality of the situation was staring the Church in the face. Not for the first time, Catholics and non-Catholics alike were asking the all-too-obvious question --- are the vows of celibacy valid in today's world?

"I think lay people expect too much from the priests," says Cajetan Menezes, a seminarian at St Pius Seminary, Goregaon, Bombay. As far as the layman is concerned, though, these expectations have fallen a great deal; we've learnt that priests aren't superhuman. People have begun to view priests as thinking, feeling, human beings, rather than some supernatural messenger from God who is beyond being human. Several are of the opinion that it's about time the Church realises this too.

For centuries now, the Roman Catholic Church has lived by the vow of celibacy. However, things aren't the same since the norm was first introduced in the 12th century. The faith is lost and many question the vow of celibacy. It isn't as shocking to see or hear of priests and nuns going against their vows and opting out of their life in the Church.

The questions flow faster than the answers. Could celibacy be the cause of priests going sexually astray? Is it an obstacle to their vocation? Is it even right? Especially considering the fact that carnal desire is natural to human beings?

The Indian Catholic society is not an exception when it comes to questioning the beliefs and supremacy of the Church. For years now, the Church has played an all important role in the lives of the people. "Religious leaders had almost a political power over the people but, in recent times, this has undergone a change," says Fr Agnelo Gracias, the ex-rector of St Pius Seminary College.

The Roman Catholic Church has witnessed the loss of more than a few of its flock because of its rigidity and its reluctance to change with the times. With the advent of the charismatic movement, several Catholics have left the Church and joined other Christian followings.

"We feel pastors who are allowed to marry and lead a normal family life are better-suited to help individuals with their problems," says Marilyn Parel, who is now part of a Christian following known as New Life. "I think it's normal for people to have a companion to share your life with. Even psychiatrists have advised that lifelong celibacy is not healthy. But I do believe that if you have the courage to continue this way, then it is really your choice."

Though this is only one of the reasons why Marilyn has chosen to leave the Catholic Church, she does admit, "A lot of priests are isolated and emotionally detached and less fully in touch with the problems of a normal person."

"I think the Catholic Church is, in several ways, political in its working. And, in its determination to stick by ritual, it really deviates from what the Bible actually proposes," says Carlton Alves, a New Life pastor (name changed on request).

But what is norm today was once a choice of lifestyle. "The Church says that one of the reasons why priests should be celibate is because Jesus, whom they represent, was celibate. But this in itself contradicts the fact that Peter, one of the 12 apostles and the first priest, was married!" says Alves.

"Celibacy is not imposed upon individuals joining up. And celibacy isn't restricted to priests alone, there are lay brothers too who remain celibate. Celibacy is a lifestyle that is chosen by people who are called to this way of life," explains Fr Gracias. "Boys who join the seminary take their vow of celibacy even before they are actually ordained. They are aware that the life they choose is one of celibacy so, when they join, it is of their own free will. Therefore, the vow isn't imposed on them."

This indication that celibacy is actually a choice is again voiced by Melroy Fernandes, a seminarian in his second year of philosophy, "Even if we were given a choice, I would choose to be celibate." Several other boys, all still in their twenties and studying at St Pius College, agreed with him. Yet, this is what they say now. They are entitled to change their minds in the future.

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