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Celibate from...?

Dec. 7, 2005

I suppose it's no mystery that an agnostic like me would have a somewhat foggy notion of the mysteries of the Roman Catholic Church. Of late, though, I wonder if the average Roman Catholic would not echo my confusion.

Apparently the Church, in its quest to seek out the core of evil in our society, has decided or at least announced that homosexual priests are a no-no. Interesting. Is this an upscale philosophical version of Woody Allen's confusion about what not to believe in?

Roman Catholic priests are, of course, supposed to be celibate. My dictionary says that means abstaining from sexual relationships. Apparently the Vatican's dictionary has something in it about what kind of sexual relationships one abstains from. It would seem that having no heterosexual relationships is morally better than having no homosexual relationships. Abstinence is apparently colored by what one abstains from.

At the risk of sounding overly flippant, if I turn down another celebratory glass of champagne this Solstice, am I more sober than if I turn down another glass of beer? Or maybe I would be more virtuous if I did not speed in an 80 km. zone than if I did not speed in a 60. Gee, this opens a completely new world of Solstice resolutions to me. I won't eat chocolate covered ants this year. Does that make me more or less virtuous than if I avoid chocolate covered peanuts? If I don't have chocolate is my moral state different because of what the chocolate I might have eaten would have covered? And if I avoid pure chocolate...?

Surely, you can see the rich field of speculation that this opens for an agnostic. We love questions that don't have answers. Our philosophy is based on not answering (makes me wonder why there aren't more of us in politics, but then that involves false answers, not "no" answers). If there were levels of agnosticism leading to some kind of Buddha-like state of perfection, would that be based on the quality of questions one didn't answer?

That would hardly be fair since then our fate in the universe would be determined by the quality of our questioners -- a condition that would leave most of us firmly anchored in the lower echelons of that type of agnosticism.

The Church, of course, is closing the barn door a little belatedly. There is that pesky archaeological evidence of tiny skeletons buried around medieval convents and in tunnels between nuns' quarters and those of priests. Based on this, heterosexual celibacy was not quite perfect in the Church past. On the other hand, similar evidence of the imperfection of ancient homosexual celibacy is, naturally, unavailable. More recently, the breach of trust committed by some Roman Catholic priests in their exploitation of children is much more tragic evidence of imperfect celibacy.

Is the quality of abstinence determined by what one abstains from rather than by the degree of abstinence? Now, I can see that refraining from really anti-social acts is more benefit to society than refraining from petty ones. One who refrains from murder improves the state of society more than one who refrains from shoplifting. But, does this make the non-murderer more perfect than the non-shoplifter? I think not. If there is no difference in perfection between abstinence from acts so qualitatively different than murder and shoplifting then there can't be any difference in perfection between abstinence from acts that have no qualitative difference.

Moral quality is determined by what we do, not by what we do not do. If celibacy is part of our commitment to bettering the universe, then perfect celibacy is perfect morality. Not having heterosexual relationships is not better morally than not having homosexual relationships.

No, this is just another case of discrimination by the Church. Not being active homosexually is a lesser state than not being active heterosexually according to this edict. But then, the edict is not stating the obvious. If the aforementioned imperfections in celibacy were not a problem, then there would be no need for the edict. A celibate priest would be a celibate priest -- end of story. This is but another cloaked admission by the Church that its clergy are not perfect and this is not a surprise.

Doug Thomas is an English teacher and novelist who lives in Elmira, Ontario, Canada. He is an agnostic member of the Kitchener-Waterloo, Cambridge, Guelph Humanists Association (KWCGH) and of the Humanist Association of Canada (HAC). He is the author of The Bloody Boy. Doug sometimes describes himself as a "Canadian Nationalist Fanatic"; the only qualification for this title is knowing all the words to the Canadian National anthem in both official languages. His column on humanism in Canada appears weekly at

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