National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  July 2, 2004

HBO documentary casts critical eye on celibacy

When a documentary called Celibacy superimposes its title card over the image of a pile of skulls, you can assume that its writer-director, Antony Thomas, is not going to find much good to say about the subject. The skulls in question are at the Orthodox monastery of St. Catherine’s in Egypt, where one finds, narrator Thomas says, “the remains of thousands of unwarmed and nameless men who passed through life without family bonds or the experience of human love.”

The HBO documentary touches on celibacy in the Orthodox tradition, as well as in Buddhism and Hinduism, but its real target is the Roman Catholic church, making the case -- unconvincingly -- that celibacy is much worse there than in any other faith tradition. It does this by making some shaky selective comparisons: for example, matching up the entirety of Buddhism with one Christian denomination, and implying that celibacy for Buddhist monks and nuns is the exception rather than the norm.

Once the documentary turns its full attention to the Catholic church, Thomas argues, as many have done, that Catholic enforcement of celibacy for its clergy, monks and nuns excludes women from power structures in the church and is a direct cause of the sex abuse crisis -- linking the crisis to ties between celibacy, religious ecstasy and sado-masochism. This section of the program is the most engrossing, and provides some moving personal stories. But the opening section, with its superficial treatment of other faiths, made me wish for an in-depth, more balanced portrayal of celibacy, its history and its practice today, in various religious traditions worldwide.

“Celibacy” debuts on HBO June 28 and is repeated throughout the month of July.

-- Teresa Malcolm

National Catholic Reporter, July 2, 2004

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