Problems of the catholic church

Sexual Abuse, Homosexuality and Celibacy in the Church. What Is “the Most Widespread Problem? Identity.” Interview with Psychologist Father Stefano Guarinelli

The new President of the Italian Episcopal Conference has announced the re-launching of the Church’s action, and the fight against abuses is news again. A burning topic, at least in so far as the formation of future priests, celibacy, generalized homosexual ideology and inability to transmit the faith to young people. Interview with psychologist Father Stefano Guarinelli.

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Written by: Simone Varisco

(ZENIT News – Caffe Storia / Rome, 07.06.2022).- Priority is given to the pain of the victims. A report of the Church in Italy has been published on the activities for prevention and abuse cases communicated or denounced to the network of diocesan and inter-diocesan services over the last two years. An analysis of the data on alleged or proven crimes committed by members of the clergy in the period 2000-2021. It’s the “Italian way” in the fight against the rotten apples that ruin the Church, a different way from that of France and Germany and far from an “Italian focus.” 

It is an expression of the 76th General Assembly of the Italian Episcopal Conference; the change of rhythm already has a new interpreter in the recently elected President, Cardinal Matteo Maria Zuppi. Burning topics, which came to the fore not only in the first hours after the elections, but also in the media coverage guaranteed by the Italian press on the conflict in Ukraine. But also decisive, both in the Church as well and in relations with the Pontiff – if the cooling is true with previous leaders of the Episcopal Conference and Pope Francis’ reconfirmed approval of Cardinal Zuppi. It is, undoubtedly, a small revolution in the Italian Episcopate, now far from that lack of “legal obligation [for the Bishop] to inform the State’s judicial authority of any news received on illicit deeds,” claimed in 2012 and questioned immediately by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith at the time of Pope Benedict XVI. 

The fact is that to cast light on the multiple responsibilities, not only clerical, for sexual abuses to minors and vulnerable individuals and the suffering inflicted to the victims also means to address with determination other issues that wound the Church. Issues that, it’s assumed, will emerge forcefully during the synodal journey undertaken by the Church in Italy, with the hope that here also there will be the courage to find an “Italian way” to synodality, an alternative to the “disappointed” and disappointing way (and, it’s said, with multimillion costs) in which the Church in Germany has been moving for a long time, which, in its way, has manifested serious deficiencies in the selection and formation of future members of the clergy, a widespread homosexual ideology, a thrust against ecclesiastical celibacy and in favour of the Ordination of women; an inability to awaken interest in the faith in the new generations, and the “systematic” and personal crisis of many members of the clergy , including outstanding ones. 

I spoke about it with Father Stefano Guarinelli, member as clinical psychologist  of the psychological orientation team of Milan’s Archbishopric Seminary and Extraordinary Permanent Professor and Director of the parallel Section of the Faculty of Theology of Northern Italy of the same Seminary, where he teaches Introduction to Psychology and Pastoral Psychology. With a Licentiate in Psychology from the Pontifical Gregorian University, he teaches at La Sapienza University, is Professor of the School of Formators of Salamanca, Spain and guest Professor of Rome’s Pontifical Gregorian University, the Pontifical Salesian University and Turin’s Adleriana School of Psychotherapy. In addition, he is editor of the Tredimensioni [Three Dimensions] review of psychology, spirituality and formation. 

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Question: Father Guarinelli, the Church is going through a crisis, which some attribute to certain causes among them, especially, obligatory ecclesiastical celibacy. Is it really the cause of so many evils?

Answer: Look, if we have problems and we want to investigate their roots rigorously, we must do away with prejudices and pre-conceived ideas, otherwise the investigation will be defective and its result not very reliable. Is celibacy the cause of so many evils? Do we want to understand how things are? Perhaps yes, perhaps no, but the only way to understand what path to take is by reasoning, reflecting, investigating and, above all, by examining the very many variables in play. 

This whole premise isn’t to avoid answering – as is the case! – the question, but to stigmatize what, in my opinion, is the twofold way of reflecting (but it would be better to say of “not reflecting”) on the celibacy that characterizes  the discussions on the topic. On one hand, the tone is often accusatory, which implies that the problem has already been diagnosed. On the other hand, the form is apologetic, which is like saying : let us reason, but whatever it is, “that” can’t be the problem. Hence, in a topic such as this , it seems to me that the discussions within and outside the Church are often like those that happen between opposite soccer fans. Many words, much animosity, all come out of the “discussion” with the same convictions they had before entering it. So, it’s of no use whatsoever. 

Personally, I believe celibacy isn’t a value in itself, and that it does become so if it’s celibacy “for the Kingdom.” This qualification is very important and cannot be ignored. If it’s lacking, celibacy can be a real problem. Therefore, in a celibate priest one must assess if his celibacy is truly “for the Kingdom.” It’s not obvious and much less automatic. 


Question: “Bachelors,” more than celibates, to use an expression of the Pope. From the psychological point of view, what does celibacy imply for a priest? 

Answer: In extreme synthesis I would say, in the first place, some limitation from the affective and sexual point of view, but these are well known. In the second place, some limitations from the point of view of identity: they are less known, but aren’t less important than the affective and can cause important problems if they are not recognized. In the third place, a singular approximation to the reality and to inter-personal relations, which can become very important and significant for the spiritual and social life, where, however,  it means that that step isn’t a given and, therefore, must be chosen and, above all, cultivated. 

Otherwise, the risk is run of understanding only the “limiting” nature  of celibacy and, of course, to live thus becomes painful and frustrating, unless we exalt the penalization and mortification as if they were a value and, what is worse, a Christian value. I don’t exclude the fact that in the history of Christianity this has occurred, with the risk of making asceticism coincide with a kind of more or less veiled masochism. It’s clear that in these conditions celibacy has no meaning so that it’s not even sustainable. I would like to stress that at the center of Christian ethics is the gift of oneself and not mortification, which are not the same thing. 


Question: There seems to be almost a maniacal focus on celibacy in the media, in the public and in some sectors of the Church. Don’t you think? 

Answer: I think there are many variables in play, and when relating some to others they awaken and revive that interest, which, in fact, almost seems out of the ordinary. There are problems, and it would be imprudent to ignore that they exist. However, in my opinion, some of those problems don’t stem directly from celibacy, but from the way that the culture presents affectivity and sexuality. 

A Christian cannot remove himself from certain instances of culture, even if he so wishes, given that the culture – whether he likes it or not – is somewhat like the air one breathes. Culturally, the link between the emotional experience  and the sexual experience is no longer a given. Extra marital sexuality, including “extra-personal” sexuality, has always existed, but today they enjoy an important legitimation that they didn’t enjoy before. Personally, I consider this state of things a trivialization of sexuality and an “anthropological error,” even before being theological. 

However, there is no doubt that one who opts for celibacy and lives in this culture cannot remain insensible to certain messages, which in any event are persuasive and end up by attracting even those that wouldn’t subscribe to it and that, in word, perhaps continue not subscribing to them. Hence the threat of the risk of living them in a transgressive way or in the condition of a double life. And, in the end, this creates many problems. And when one is aware of them, they appear in the headlines.

Symmetrically, I would say that celibacy can be a more or less veiled challenge to that affective and sexual culture. And to question it, especially when it is evident that “it doesn’t work,” could respond to an attempt to legitimize the inalienability of a certain way of living one’s sexuality, with or without an affective relationship, which is then a way of justifying oneself or of justifying one’s right to decouple.

Question: Celibacy is often also questioned when it has to do with sexual abuses in the Church. Would doing away with obligatory celibacy be a solution?  

Answer: I don’t see a direct connection between celibacy and abuse, but there is a strong analogy between abuse and harassment. In both cases – the abuser and the harasser – it is, basically, about two impotent persons, at the general level and, therefore, also at the psychosexual level. In this connection, celibacy can be an accomplice, at least, in covering up the problem, silencing apparently that impotency. 

Given that, unfortunately, abuse is also widespread within non-celibate experiences, in my opinion it’s necessary to evaluate different forms of carrying out formation in regard to abusive conducts. If we eliminate one of the accomplices – celibacy – we do not eliminate the criminal. Therefore, the crime can be perpetuated. Whatever the case may be, the Church has the duty to guarantee that this complicity is intercepted at the formative level.


Answer: Let us clear the field of misunderstandings: homosexuality and sexual abuse aren’t a couple. This said, the data of reports on abuses in the Church report systematically that in a great number of cases the victims are adolescent boys and their aggressors are adult men. What relation exists, if it exists, between homosexuality in the clergy and the tragedy of sexual abuses? 

Answer: As I wrote in the book “Homosexuality and Priesthood,” I consider that that of homosexuality is a label that without appropriate interpretation says very little about what really happens in the personality of that person that says he is so, but perhaps is not so; that he is so, but doesn’t say it; that he is so, but doesn’t know it, etc. At present, including from the cultural legitimation of homosexuality, I would like to say the same of heterosexuality. 

This said, I would add a second important premise: when we talk about sexual abuses, at least from a clinical point of view, we should distinguish between paedophilia and ephebophilia, but rarely is this last category mentioned in the media , whereas the first – paedophilia – is used as if it coincided in the Church with the phenomenon of abuse by priests. Instead, the contrary occurs. 

This said, in the statistical correlation between abuse and homosexuality, it must be recognized, therefore, that in that case it’s about homosexual behaviour, but not necessarily of individuals with homosexual orientation. This might seem as a clarification of a persnickety character, but it isn’t. In ephebophilia cases, in fact, it’s more probable that the affected person orients him/herself to another of the same sex. However, this depends on the underlying dynamism and not on the orientation in itself. Hence, once again, it’s necessary to interpret the data. 

Moreover, in the case of priests, the correlation must be evaluated which is also linked to other variables. For example: it’s probable that a priest has more frequentations with groups of boys, in contexts of proximity, than with girls: a summer oratory, a camp, an outing with altar servers can create situations of proximity, which would be more difficult to produce with girls. However, pathological conditions, such as paedophilia and ephebophilia, have a problem with limits, both psychic as well as physical. And when these are broken – sleeping in the same room, accompanying boys to the pool, the vulnerability and risk of losing control can be greater. 


Questions: Sexual abuses are probably the most dramatic phenomenon the Church is living, but not the only one. Among priests, drugs, suicide, prevarication and loneliness seem to be increasingly frequent. Is there a common root? 

Answer: Sexual abuse is, in the first place, a tragedy for the victim, but it’s not the most dramatic problem. What it does have is the repercussion in public opinion, in part because of the ineptitude with which it has been managed in the Church. Neither can I say if phenomena, such as drugs, suicide or prevarication are really increasing. I think that geographical contexts stress some problems and not others. For example: alcoholism is a very widespread addiction among priests, especially in geographical areas in which, however, alcoholism is generalized in different segments of the population and states of life. 

I believe the most widespread problem is that of identity, namely, the perception of a certain social insignificance that, unfortunately, isn’t resolved in a spiritual way, as I believe it should be. The “fault” is in the centuries of history that have given the Church and her ministers a role, including social, which has privileged them but, unfortunately, also in detriment of the Gospel. The psychological identity – the I – is a central dynamism of the personality and its weakness eases the path to compensations. Power is one of them and, as opposed to popular belief, weakness is born, not strength. 

As I mentioned earlier, the power of the bully is that of the impotent. It’s not an act of strength but of intimidation. If we don’t understand the necessary evolution in a genuinely spiritual sense of that loss of identity, we don’t resolve those problems, regardless of the form they adopt. 

Question: What advice would you give as a priest and psychologist to the faithful facing this moment? And perhaps some priests and seminarians? 

Answer: At the end of the 90s, the Institute of Psychology of Rome’s  Gregorian University carried out a projective test called “Summary of the Gospel.” The examiner had simply to write a summary of the Gospel trying not to exceed what could fit in an A4 page. The protocols turned out to be very interesting, and in many aspects also surprising, because each person saw personal and also very different things about the Gospel. 

 It’s no accident, I believe, that the first sin of the Decalogue is, precisely, that of idolatry. Speaking psychologically, it would be as if saying: be careful with projections! We put on God or make of Him what He is not, giving way to unacceptable deformations that weigh on people and that make it difficult for them to perceive the Gospel as “good news.” The advice? Let us return to the Gospel exactly as it is. We’ll unmask all the projections – personal and social, that we have been put on it. Current Christianity is a minority … perhaps; but in what Gospel does that minority believe? And that majority, in what Gospel does it possibly not believe? It’s understood that everyone has the right to believe or not believe. I would say to Christians to do everything possible for the Gospel to be proclaimed as what it is, without thinking that, because we are Christians, we really know what it’s about. 

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