Celibacy and hypocrisy in the Catholic Church

Catholic religious orders are full of people who are repressing their sexuality. Only people with no sexual drive at all, or people who are dismayed by their sexual drive and determined to try to repress it, would voluntarily enter a regime that demanded celibacy. Most people, even those with a deepseated religious commitment, take only a moment to realise that they could not possibly go without sex for their entire lives. Celibacy in the church, and failures of celibacy in the church, are part of the one inhumane system.
St SebastianAndrea Mantegna, 1506. Repressed Catholic eroticism is exemplified in the image of Sebastian, sometimes thought of as the patron saint of gay men everywhere. See the The Independent.

For hundreds of years, the Catholic Church has required members of its religious orders to be celibate. During the Middle Ages, when membership of the church was one of the more secure routes to power, recruitment to the church was strong, but adherence to celibacy was notoriously weak. But in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the church’s insistence on celibacy (or at least a rigorous pretence of celibacy) has been strong, and recruitment has been declining.

Why? One reason is that the importance of the church as a source of power and careers has been declining. There are fewer poor people inclined to join the church as a way of escaping their class.

But I do think that another reason is that the church proscriptions against sex have come to seem increasingly onerous (not to say absurd) to most people.

Who then seeks to embrace the celibacy of the church? One group is those with no sexual drive: those who are psychologically or physically incapable of sex. For some people in this situation, the church offers a social role and community in which their sexlessness is not deprecated, as it surely is in the secular world.

Another group is those who are, for various reasons, horrified by their own sexuality and seeking a way to repress or control it.

This group could include people who are horrified by their ordinary heterosexuality. Until relatively recent times (or even today) many young women were kept in such ignorance of their sexuality that their first encounters with sexual feeling could produce a horrified reaction, an urge to flee to a nunnery. But of course, most heterosexual people come to terms with their sexuality fairly rapidly, because society has traditionally valued and validated heterosexuality. Few people enter the church to flee their heterosexuality.

However, there are many sexual orientations that have traditionally been deprecated by society — homosexuality being by far the most common. For people with a sexuality divergent from the heterosexual convention, a regrettable but fairly common life experience has been shame, fear of exposure, and a sense of self-disgust.

Thankfully we are entering a time of sexual liberation, in which all sorts of sexual orientations and behaviours are seen as non-threatening and acceptable.[1] What I am saying is that in most times and places in the past, and even in many places now, self-disgust has been a common accompaniment to the realisation that one has a sexuality out of step with the values of one’s own society.

Put this in a context: imagine a boy raised in a good Catholic home in the 1950s. He discovers at puberty that his sexual orientation is not what his parents, his priest, his teachers or even his friends have led him to expect. He experiences sexual desire for other males; he is not interested in sex with women. He has been told what this means: he is thinking like a “pervert”, a “poofda”; there is “something wrong with him”. One potential solution might be to enter the church. His lack of sexual interest in girls will cease to seem weird and will instead become praiseworthy; his sexual interest in boys will be repressed, contained or maybe even overcome.

Australian Greens founder Bob Brown has spoken movingly of his own psychological trauma in coming to terms with his homosexuality.[2] He has described some of the extreme measures he attempted to change his orientation — all to no avail, of course. In his case, he won through to a happy acceptance of his sexuality. But he was not a church man.

Throughout the centuries, but increasingly so, many recruits to the Catholic religious orders have been people attempting to escape or censor their sexuality.
Many have been homosexuals unable or unwilling to embrace their sexuality. They have been, for the most part, locked into a life of hypocrisy, pretending not to be homosexual, often pretending this even to themselves.

We now know that many in the Catholic priesthood have broken their celibacy to commit sexual abuses of minors or people of diminished capacity.[3] It is impossible to know how much pretense there is about celibacy in the Catholic Church — not only pretense about abuse, but also pretense about consensual sexual activity between priests, or priests and nuns, priests and laity, nuns and laity.[4]

Any such sexual activity has an overlay of hypocrisy.

But I think my main point is that there is a kind of hypocrisy and psychological corruption among many of the celibate members of the Catholic Church, in that it is based on denial of something within them that would be better expressed by breaking with the doctrines of their religion. The Catholic Church’s repression of homosexuality is prosecuted in large part by an army of repressed homosexuals incapable of honesty about their own sexuality.

The dishonesty and absurdity of this is increasingly apparent.

Society at large is moving away from the Catholic Church’s repressive positions on sexuality and into a happier place very quickly. According to Wikipedia, same-sex marriage is now legal in Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Colombia, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Iceland, Ireland, Luxembourg, Malta, Mexico, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, the United Kingdom, the United States and Uruguay.

Gay and lesbian people are coming out, feeling free, and hurting no-one through engaging in consensual sexual activity that fulfils their desire. Fewer and fewer people feel the need to hide in the church.

So my final question is actually to the Catholic laity of the world who still lend their support to the Catholic Church: when will you realise that you are following the wrong people with the wrong message? Will you remake your church so that it is not a home of hypocrisy and repression? Or when will you leave it?

©2018-2019 Craig Bingham.

[1] I am not saying that all sexual orientations are non-threatening and acceptable. For example, people who are sexually excited by violence are threatening and non-consensual sexual behaviour is not acceptable.

[2] Hear Bob Brown’s story in the podcast ‘Bob Brown — On Optimism’ (Sydney Writers Festival, 2016), or read his memoir ‘Optimism : Reflections on a Life of Action’, published by Hardie Grant, 2014.

(http://www.hardiegrant.com/au/publishing/bookfinder/book/optimism-_-reflections-on-a-life-of-action-by-bob-brown/9781742707662 )

[3] The Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse (https://www.childabuseroyalcommission.gov.au/ ) found many instances of abusive sexual behaviour by priests. For an international and historical perspective, see: Cahill D, Wilkinson P. Child Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church: An Interpretive Review of the Literature and Public Inquiry Reports. Centre for Global Research, School of Global, Urban and Social Studies, RMIT University, Melbourne, 2017 (https://www.rmit.edu.au/content/dam/rmit/documents/news/church-abuse/child-sex-abuse-and-the-catholic-church.pdf ).

[4] For a mind-boggling glimpse into sexuality, power and hypocrisy at the highest levels of the Catholic Church, see <https://www.australianbookreview.com.au/abr-online/current-issue/247-april-2019-no-410/5384-barney-zwartz-reviews-in-the-closet-of-the-vatican-power-homosexuality-hypocrisy-by-frederic-martel>


  1. Hi Craig,

    Certainly a very thought provoking piece as we can expect from you and, thank you, it is good to read your posts.

    I look forward to us having a dicsussion about this article on Celibacy and Hypocrisy in the Catholic Church. I reckon that I might challenge some of the thoughts you express there, and an argument is always fun.




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