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Photo of Frank Skinner and Jack Valero
Celibate priests are cheap

Posted on 15 September 2010, 6:42

The Pope’s cruising into town in a couple of days, so tonight saw a big debate over priestly celibacy in the Odeon West End. Appropriately, the event was sponsored by Christian Connection, the online experts in bringing Christians (but not Catholic priests) together for a little agape and probably a lot of eros.

We were first treated to a screening of the 2001 film, Conspiracy of Silence, in which a young Irish chap has to choose between his girl and his church, with subplots involving gay priests, HIV cover-ups, the church protecting its own at all costs, and a pantomime Bishop. There was a wonderful moment when a gay seminarian invited a buff fellow student up to his room with the words, ‘Why don’t you come along? We’re studying Paul’s second letter to the Thessalonians.’

Just when you think you’ve heard all the classic euphemisms, another one rushes up wanting to hump your leg.

Then the debate. On the pro-celibacy side was Bishop Malcolm McMahon of Nottingham, a darkly Da Vinciesque Jack Valero (communications supremo for Opus Dei UK) and comedian Frank Skinner. Jack and Frank kindly posed as I snapped them (above). On the anti side was an assured Helena Kennedy QC, the fragrant and witty Prof Tina Beattie, and film director John Deery, whose work we had just viewed.

Helena Kennedy opened the batting by saying that issues of gender, reproduction, sexual identity and celibacy are not about sex, but power. Similar to the issue of rape, it has taken us a long time to understand this distinction. ‘The imposition of sexual abstinence is a mode of control over the interior lives of priests. It is inhuman and infantilising.’

She added that it is and always has been about the money: ‘Celibate priests are cheap!’ Huge laughter and cries of agreement from the audience. I was sitting in the front row with writer Simon Parke and he leaned over to say, ‘That’s the evening’s soundbite.’

I was looking forward to hearing the pro-celibacy arguments, but Bishop Malcolm McMahon’s opening statement was long, cloudy and didn’t cut much mustard with a restless audience. His arguments were drawn from church tradition and obscure passages in the book of Hebrews. I’m sure they’re convincing and potent among priests, but they sound very eccentric outside the cosy world of the presbytery.

He did say something I found sympathetic and striking about how priests ‘configure themselves’ to Christ the high priest, who is not clothed in splendid robes, but instead is naked, carrying nails and wearing a crown of thorns. He said celibacy was not about power, but sacrifice. Good point.

Thereafter, we had a lively debate, with plenty of audience clapping, jeering and ironic laughter, but sadly no peanut-throwing. At one point, a nun dressed in white robes and asking a question from the floor was heckled. Frank Skinner: ‘You can’t heckle a nun!’

One of my favourite observations was by Tina Beattie, in a fiery riposte to the opposite team who were saying that priests model themselves on the celibate Christ: ‘It seems the defining characteristic of God incarnate is that he had a penis he didn’t use.’ When I twittered this (I was tweeting pretty much continuously throughout the debate) @davidmkeen shot back with ‘must have had one heck of a bladder then’.

Most mysterious moment of the evening was by Jack Valero, who said, ‘Chastity is like throwing yourself onto a hand grenade to save your friend.’ Personally, I think that’s taking Opus Dei-style self-mortification a bit far.

Like most people in the audience, I enjoyed Frank Skinner’s contributions which were witty but also heartfelt and appealing. He said he supported celibacy because he wants the priest to be a holy man. ‘I want someone who has the time in his life to follow the two basic rules: to love God and to love one another. Because we, the laity, don’t have time to risk that level of holiness, I want him to be that.’

As the debate digressed into women and the church, he said, ‘I think it’s a disgrace we don’t have women priests. At some point in the future the Pope, whoever she is, will be apologising to women just as the Vatican apologised to Galileo in 1992.’

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I thought the most interesting point of the evening was that only one member of the (large) audience admitted to having their mind changed by the debate. Like so many debates, I’m not sure that the two sides really engaged with each other’s arguments.

If the traditionalists had been defending a tradition that (say) priests must not wear underwear or use deodorant because Jesus didn’t and this signifies, in a mystical way, the freedom and simplicity of God, there would have been no point in saying that this would be unhygienic or antisocial: you’d have to respond by saying that tradition is irrelevant (or at least that that particular one is) and that mystical associations are all nonsense. But the anti-celibacy lobby didn’t dare.

Huw, Wed 15 Sep, 14:31

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