Some Thoughts on Abuse and Celibacy

Some Thoughts on Abuse and Celibacy

This is not a fully-formed or well-articulated idea but something I want to try to work through to hear myself think out loud as it were.

I’m slowing reading through Kathleen Norris’ The Cloister Walk, it’s a rich book and each chapter is a sort of stand-alone essay so it’s very easy to pick up and put down. A while back I was very struck by her chapter on celibacy, “Learning to Love: Benedictine Women on Celibacy and Relationship,” and knew I’d want to chew on it for some time before I could really understand what I thought.

That chapter came back to me tonight as I read Amy’s blog post about the the release of the final report of the “Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse” in Irish institutions from the mid 20th century on. That terrible chapter in Irish history is also a topic I’ve thought about more than a few times as I spent a couple of years steeped in Irish history, literature and culture while completing my MA in Irish studies; but until tonight I hadn’t thought to connect the two.

Now I felt like Norris’ chapter might have overlooked some important aspects of the theology of celibacy. (Don’t ask me what they were but I recall thinking that at the time I read it.) But that’s forgivable because theology is not really her focus. Still, what she does write about many of the practical aspects of celibacy from her interactions with many Benedictine nuns yeilded some fascinating insights that have stayed with me.

She opens the chapter describing a conversation with a sister who speaks quite frankly about her life as a celibate woman and an experience of infatuation with a priest with whom she corresponded.

“I learned to accept my need for love,” she said, “and my ability to love, as great gifts from God. And I decided that, yes, I did want to remain in the monastery, to express my love within a celibate context. It was not difficult to see falling in love as a part of seeking God. But it was also good to realize that while infatuation might be an impetus to seek God, it puts you out of balance, and therefore is something to be treated with care.[…] I finally realized that I had to keep in mind that my primary relationship is with God. My vows were made to another person, the person of Christ. And all of my decisions about love had to be made in the light of that person.”

Norris was surprised to discover that weathering such infatuations was a common experience for most of the nuns she spoke with. Most interestingly is the agreement among all the nuns Norris speaks with that infatuation and falling in love are seen as important, necessary part of developing a mature celibacy. To be clear, when the sisters speak of falling in love, they mean the emotional experience, not having an affair. Norris makes a clear and important distinction between the emotional experience of falling in love and sexual intimacy:

It was clear to me that when the sisters spoke about “falling in love,” they did not mean engaging in sexual intimacy but rather coping with the emotional onslaught that infatuation brings. Several women spoke of the goal of celibacy in terms of “having an undivided heart” and said that they’d learned to be wary of any relationship that seemed out of balance with their goal of seeking God in a religious community.


Falling in love, the sisters say, is a necessary part of human development and thus of formation as a celibate. If it is denied or repressed it hurts both the individual and the community. To fall in love is to deal with the collapse of self and if one can move beyond projecting onto another person it can lead to a mature self-awareness. This is not to give license to sexual activity but an invitation to understanding the complexities of celibacy. “The worst sin against celibacy… is to pretend to not have any affections at all. To fall in love is celibacy at work,” says one prioress. “Celibacy is not a vow to repress our feelings…. It is a vow to put all our feelings, acceptable or not, close to our hearts and bring them into consciousness through prayer.”

Several sisters spoke to me about emotional frigidity as a mal-adaptation that celibate women especially are prone to. “It seems a distorted image,” one sister said, “of the nurturing quality that to me is so much at the heart of our identities as women.” I suspect that many of the horror stories people tell about nuns in the parochial schools of the 1950s are about women who adapted to celibacy by closing up their emotions and refusing to love. As one sister said to me, “I’m always so sad to experience women who are not loving people, but they’ve been celibate their entire life. To be celibate, it seems to me,” she added, “means first of all being a loving person in a way that frees you to serve others. Otherwise celibacy has no point.”

In the years before Vatican II and especially in Ireland where the Church was heavily infected with the Jansenist heresy the attitude toward sexuality and celibacy were very different than those expressed by these nuns. Repression and ignorance were the rule and one can see that mal-formed celibacy that resulted from poor formation of religious resulting in turn in the abuse of children in orphanages, the abuse of unmarried mothers in the Magdalene laundries and the stereotype of the harsh, rigid nun.

It seems to me that the questions about, the proposed explanations for, and the proposed solutions to the abuse crisis being brought up in Amy’s comments have a mistaken understanding of the nature of the problem at the root of the abuse. It is not that celibacy itself is bad but mal-formed and misdirected celibacy that results in an inability to love, to have friendships, in nuns to express mature spiritual motherhood and in brothers and priests to express mature spiritual fatherhood. What the report reveals to me is generations of religious who were not properly formed and were incapable of truly living out a mature vocation to a celibate life. There were certainly institutional factors that contributed to the perpetuation and cover-up of abuse; but the core of the problem seems to me to have more to do with an understanding of celibacy and formation than with the hierarchical nature of the Church as many of Amy’s commenters propose.



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