The child abuse scandal continues to rock the Catholic Church and Vatican. “Scandal” really is not the right word because the behavior involved is more than scandalous — it is criminal. In the past week alone, stories regarding cover-ups and the Pope have appeared in The Economist (Great Britain), Spiegel (Germany), and New York Times. This is a major international story that elicited an appropriately outraged comment by Christopher Hitchens over at Slate.
Given the systematic and prevalent nature of child abuse involving Catholic clergy, one might reasonably ask: Why do Catholic priests abuse children at a much higher rate than the general population? Part of the answer is cyclical — it is well known that a large percentage of child abusers were themselves abused. Breaking this vicious cycle is difficult.
Another part of the answer surely revolves around the vow of celibacy and prohibition on marriage. Church doctrine mandates this of all priests, thus setting up a conflict with one of the most powerful drives in nature: sexual reproduction.
If one can ascribe a purpose to “life” — by which I mean all organisms that have ever existed — it is reproduction. Indeed, the most basic definition of “life” is something which replicates itself. Given that life on earth has existed for over 3 billion years, it stands to reason that the drive to replicate and reproduce is exceptionally powerful.
Organisms reproduce in one of two ways: asexually and sexually. Asexual reproduction (i.e., cloning, budding, parthenogenesis) is efficient, but has the disadvantage of not creating much genetic variation on which selection can operate. Asexual reproduction, in other words, results in rather slow evolution.
Sexual reproduction, on the other hand, shuffles the genetic deck every generation and creates substantial genetic variation. Rather than waiting for mutations to appear over time, sexual reproduction essentially creates “mutations” each generation and thus accelerates evolution.
Although we tend to associate sexual reproduction with complex metazoans (multi-cellular organisms) possessing distinct sexual organs, the evolutionary origins of sexual reproduction are much deeper. The oldest fossil evidence we have for sexual reproduction comes from Bangiomorpha pubescens, a red algae which was found in Canadian rocks dated to 1.2 billion years ago. As Nicholas Butterfield reported in 2000, Bangiomorpha is the first occurrence of complex multicellularity in the fossil record. Here is what this less than sexy creature looks like:
Though perhaps modest in appearance, Butterfield observes that Bangiomorpha signals a major change in the history of life:
Differential spore/gamete formation shows Bangiomorpha pubescens to have been sexually reproducing, the oldest reported occurrence in the fossil record. Sex was critical for the subsequent success of eukaryotes, not so much for the advantages of genetic recombination, but because it allowed for complex multicellularity. The selective advantages of complex multicellularity are considered sufficient for it to have arisen immediately following the appearance of sexual reproduction.
Translation: sex is really old and quite important. In humans, the drive to reproduce is amplified even further by our unique cognitive abilities. We can, in other words, obsess about sex and lives can be dominated by it.
What we have, in the end, is an immensely powerful evolutionary force that animates all sexually reproducing organisms. Although it would seem unwise to create religious doctrines which thwart this drive, the Catholic Church’s requirement of celibacy for priests does just this. The results have been tragic.