Pope Francis finally admitted the Catholic Church’s problem with priests who abuse children and others.
This problem has surfaced over many years, but the Pope finally took responsibility for the failure of the Church to protect the innocent. To say it was long overdue would be an understatement. The question is, ‘Where does the Church go from here?’
To be fair, the Catholic Church is not the only organization that has had to deal with this problem. Recently, a well-known Protestant pastor, considered to be the guru of the ‘seeker-friendly’ model of church, was exposed for having abused several women sexually over many years of ministry. While he denied many of the accusations, there seems to have been an ongoing pattern of abuse going back over two decades. And many other Protestant leaders have been exposed for sexual indiscretions over the years, making it obvious that this is not a problem exclusively with the Catholic Church. Apparently, lust is no respecter of persons.
But on another level, the Catholic Church has exasperated the problem by its insistence that all of its priests remain celibate. The Church was a thousand years old before it definitively took a stand in favor of celibacy in the twelfth century at the Second Lateran Council held in 1139, when a rule was approved forbidding priests to marry. And since that time, it has been the official position of the Church that all priests remain celibate. And that is the source of the problem. Until the Church recognizes that this ungodly and unscriptural position is a major reason for the sexual abuse of its priests, it is unlikely that the problem will be properly addressed.
Both the Lord Jesus and the apostle Paul addressed this issue of forced celibacy in Scripture. Once, when teaching about divorce and remarriage, the disciples concluded that it is better for a man not to marry (Matthew 19:10). Jesus responded by saying that “not everyone can receive this saying, but only those who to whom it is given” (19:11). He went on to talk about the fact that some have been given by God the ability to remain unmarried. The apostle Paul picked up on this and in his instructions regarding marriage in I Corinthians 7, spoke of the unmarried state as far better than the married state when it came to serving Christ (I Corinthians 7:6-7). Unmarried people are unencumbered by worldly things; thus able to serve the Lord without distractions. But Paul is quick to recognize that such a state cannot be forced on others. To remain single throughout one’s life is a gift which God has given to some and cannot be forced on everyone. To do so is sin and ultimately leads to a life of frustration.
And that’s exactly what the Catholic Church has done in forcing all of its priests to live celibate lives; it has forced this state on people who do not have the gift of celibacy. That means that people without the grace of sexual abstinence are forced to live that way, thus causing tremendous sexual frustration. To live a certain way without grace from God is a sure way of leading to bondage and frustration. Could this not be a major reason so many priests in the Church have succumbed to sexual abuse?
The Bible is clear in teaching that the only way to overcome lust is by the transformation of the heart. In his salient teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus exposes the false idea that outward restraints alone can deal with the problem of lust by focusing on the condition of the heart as the real issue. Adultery begins (according to Jesus), not with the actual act, but with the thought of the heart (Matthew 5:27-28). Forcing celibacy therefore on those who are not gifted with it assumes that outward restraints alone can deal with the problem. This lies at the heart of legalism: the belief that adopting outward behavior is all that is needed to live a life of holiness. Don’t get me wrong; a changed heart will always lead to changed behavior. But one is able to adopt outward restraints without a corresponding transformation of the heart by the grace of God. This always produces frustration and in the end breaks out against the very restraints it previously adopted.
This is what lies at the heart of Paul’s teaching that law, far from restraining sin, only exacerbates it (Romans 3:20, 7:9,13-14). Only grace can truly transform so as to remove from the heart the inward propensity to sin. That’s why men can preach against adultery and sexual sin, while they themselves are captive to it. I knew a man who majored in preaching against it who was finally exposed for living a compromised life.
I do not write these words with any malice in my heart towards Catholics. It’s just that as long as men and women are deprived of the true grace of God, there will be no way they can overcome temptation. The only weapon against lust is a full and complete embrace of the grace of the gospel and a walk in the Spirit, which alone empowers believers to overcome the flesh (Galatians 5:16).