Clerical Errors

A new documentary questions the Catholic Church’s views on celibacy.

Still from Celibacy
Sex: It is a big, big problem

The basic contention of Celibacy, a new documentary by the Emmy-winning director Antony Thomas (tonight at 10 p.m. ET on HBO), is that sexuality is the Galileo of today’s Roman Catholic Church. In 1632, when that Italian physicist published his revolutionary heliocentric theory, he was threatened with torture by the Inquisition. Galileo recanted, but it would take until 1992—the year of the Rodney King riots and Bill Clinton’s defeat of George H.W. Bush—for the church to admit that, yes, perhaps the earth really did revolve around the sun. The doctrine of imposed celibacy for all ordained clergy seems to be stuck in a comparable limbo, a lapse between theory and practice. If Roman Catholicism wishes to survive, shouldn’t it rethink its mandate of complete abstinence for priests and nuns?

Celibacy is part of HBO’s America Undercover documentary series, a program with a penchant for controversial and often titillating subjects. (Past installments have included Oliver Stone’s Looking for Fidel and Parts 1 and 2 of Cathouse, a film which documents the goings-on at a Reno brothel called the Moonlite Bunny Ranch.) In that tradition, Thomas pulls no punches; the opening credits, for instance, end on the word “celibacy” superimposed over a shot of a pile of human skulls. These turn out to be relics at the charnel house of St. Catherine’s in the Sinai Desert, where the Catholic tradition of celibacy began. But Thomas’s message is clear: For him, the culture that has imposed this restriction on its believers for nearly a millennium is a culture in love with death. If nothing else, the church’s rigid adherence to laws of celibacy first established in 1139 may signal the death of the institution itself: According to the film, over half a million priests and nuns have left the church since the early ‘60s, a loss known among Catholics as “the bleeding.”

The first part of Celibacy is a National Geographic-style travelogue, a brief tour through the sexual doctrines of major world religions. Lest our finger hover near the remote control, Thomas gets in an early gross-out scene, in which an Indian sadhu wraps his penis around a wooden pole and winds it in a punishingly tight spiral, as if rolling a cinnamon bun. But things never get that graphic again; when a Tibetan nun is shown having her breasts ceremonially bound, the camera remains discreetly above her shoulders. There’s also brief visit to a sort of gymnasium-monastery in India, where a group of shaved, beefy Hindu monks in tight loincloths wriggle up ropes and grope each other, as their guru attests that “this gym is a spiritual place. Everyone here is celibate and dedicated to wrestling.” As two monks are shown lathering each other in the shower, Thomas, who provides the voice-over narration for his film, notes with barely perceptible irony that “perhaps this center of muscular monasticism offers its own compensations.”

At times, the film’s scholarship seems a bit sketchy, as when it claims that Hindu respect for celibacy “harks back to an ancient Greek myth.” Since when is Aristotle an author of “myth”? And doesn’t India have its own mythological tradition? Still, Thomas is on the mark with his point that, while most major faiths include some individual orders of celibate monks or nuns, only Catholicism requires abstinence from all members of the clergy.

Though Thomas has professed his admiration for aspirants to celibacy in an interview with a Catholic news service, declaring that he finds celibacy “a beautiful thing” when viewed as a “gift” rather than a “rule,” his perspective here is unabashedly secular. A neuroscientist testifies that the sex drive has more “representations” in the human brain than even food consumption does. (I could have done with a quick science primer here on what he means by “representations,” but based on a few dates I’ve been on, I’m inclined to believe him.) Thomas has lined up an impressive array of scientists and psychologists specializing in religion and sexuality, most of whom subscribe to a simple hydraulic model: If repressed, the basic human drive to reproduce must find its outlet somewhere, whether in the Filipino ritual of performing bloody Passion plays on Good Friday (shown here in gruesome detail, right down to the real nails through the hands and feet of the simulated Jesus) or through what one researcher calls the “erotic elements built into the Christian worship system” (the ecstatic contemplation of Christ’s stigmata, the nun’s symbolic “marriage” to Jesus, etc.).

The film’s central and most persuasive section is devoted to interviews with a group of current and former priests, all of whom testify to the havoc the celibacy doctrine has wreaked with their physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being. One former priest describes his first wet dream as a young adolescent in an Irish seminary, from which he awoke certain that he must be bleeding to death. Having received no instruction on human sexuality or anatomy, he had no idea what was happening, except that, since it had to do with his genital region, it must be something bad. A group of adult survivors of abuse in an Irish Catholic children’s home tell heartbreaking stories of their systematic subjection to scenes of group humiliation and sadism at the hands of priests and nuns. Another interview focuses on “Robert” (though the subject’s face is blurred for anonymity), a priest who sexually abused a boy in his parish for seven years, until the young man ended the relationship at the age of 18. Dreading that he would act again on his pedophiliac leanings (the knowledge of which drove him into the priesthood to begin with), this priest had himself first chemically, then surgically, castrated. Tormented by guilt, he continues to lust after boys, but now, free of testosterone, he feels confident he will no longer act on his desires.

The narrator goes out of his way to point out that it would be a mistake to assume that the child sex-abuse scandal “represents the whole picture.” Then, just when you’re expecting a reassuring anecdote about the vast majority of well-behaved clergy, the film goes on to document a panoply of other sexual practices that, while forbidden by the church, rage unabated. Thomas speaks with a woman who bore two children by her priest before he was shipped away to another parish, never to see his daughters again. In one of the moments most likely to draw Catholic ire, a priest-turned-psychotherapist muses on the different motivations that draw men to the priesthood. The categories he mentions: those who legitimately want to serve their fellow man and regard sexual abstinence as the best way to do so; those who are ashamed of their homosexuality and drawn to the monastic life as a way of staying in the closet; and some who, in his words, are simply “sociopaths,” looking for an institutional cover for their desire to prey on children and other vulnerable individuals.

Though at times harsh in its judgment of the church, the film is resolutely respectful toward the individual clergymen and women it interviews, including two Romanian nuns and eight young Irish seminarians who are about to take lifelong vows of celibacy. The film concludes at the Vatican, where, in a frankly sarcastic coda, it juxtaposes soaring shots of the dome of St. Peter’s with the rigidly orthodox boilerplate of American Archbishop John Foley: “I think that the church has been correct in matters of sexual morality. We say that it is wrong to engage in extramarital activity; premarital activity; homosexual activity; autoerotic activity.” Asked about the relationship between enforced celibacy and child sex-abuse scandals in the church, Foley flatly replies, “I do not see any connection.” Like Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, Celibacy is an unapologetically polemical piece of work. But like that documentary, it presents us with a few incontrovertibly troubling facts and a crisis severe enough to warrant lively public debate.