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Celibacy: Public Dignity, Private Turmoil

Public dignity, private turmoil
And how to minister to people
Who can't talk to you about sex.

by Jane Anderson

Tom fell in love with Anna. Theirs was a sweet romance, filled with engaging conversation, a sense of fun, feelings of tenderness and intimate affection. Tom and Anna were given a gift of love that celebrated the good news of their humanity.

It lasted a year before the brakes of their circumstance were applied. Those twelve months ended in a bittersweet farewell. Anna moved on, leaving Tom to consider his priesthood.

Fr. Tom's story is not unique. Behind the facade of compulsory celibacy, bishops and priests experience celibacy in a variety of ways. For some, celibacy is a way of loving that produces generosity of service and maturity of heart. For others, celibacy is an unwelcomed imposition that restricts the ability to minister and live life to the full. Then there are men, like Fr. Tom, who fall in love. The law, however, ensures that they and their troubled confreres continue to publicly dignify celibacy, while experiencing private turmoil.

Yet such turmoil is not restricted to reluctant celibates and priests in love, it can affect those who experience celibacy as a charism. These bishops and priests, in seeing good priests suffer the burden of compulsory celibacy, feel concern for their confreres.

On the other side of the facade, lay people are equally affected by compulsory celibacy, whether they know it or not. For the phenomenon of unfulfilled priests and concerned confreres has a direct consequence for their lives and the community at large.

First, let us consider some aspects of compulsory celibacy that create difficulty for the clergy. This imposition demands inflexible social and personal boundaries that control adult relationships, limit experience and contort feelings. As a result, bishops and priests can find it difficult to stand on their own two feet, be in touch with their feelings, and act out of their personal convictions. More specifically, the obligation to celibacy cannot but help repress the exploration of sexuality and adult growth and development.

In forbidding dissent, the upper hierarchy restricts the possibility of open discussion, leaving each and every bishop and priest to work out his celibacy and sexuality for himself. That private search often leads to unique ways of dealing with these issues, some of which are not life giving. The continual stream of media reports about sexual abuse evidence this to some extent: news that adds to parish tales about priests resorting to the celibacy vaccine (alcohol), gambling, other distractions and having casual affairs. But the testament remains the same: some, if not many, bishops and priests endure hardship with celibacy.

Additionally, bishops and priests, regardless of whether they realise contentment with celibacy or not, are confined by the all-male, celibate clerical culture. This culture prevents these men from formally and publicly exploring questions about sexual intimacy, man-woman relationships, sexual orientation, and the moral goodness of sexuality. They and their confreres are limited to speaking about celibacy and sexuality in socially acceptable and superficial ways.

A priesthood that cannot openly address contemporary questions about sexuality inevitably hampers the faith journey of laypeople. These pilgrims often have to negotiate various relationships in which one or more of the following may be involved: premarital sex, extramarital sex, contraception, abortion, family life, divorce and remarriage, homosexuality, the role of women in the Church and society, their ordination to the priesthood, clerical celibacy and the male monopoly of leadership.

Meanwhile, laypeople listen to homilies that reduce relational complexities to the demands of an anachronistic patriarchy. Ancient rhetoric is unable to answer such questions as: When should I leave this desperately unhappy marriage? How can I tell my mother about my lesbian daughter? When is the right time to move in with my lover? How can I persuade my partner to do his fair share of domestic chores? Is it better to marry after or before our baby is born? Significant numbers of Catholics in the pews subsequently re-examine certainties, switch off, or leave. Moreover, most Catholics wouldn't even think to ask priests for advice on these matters.

Then there are lay Catholics who are searching for a contemporary spirituality in which sexuality is not regarded as a distraction but an important component in their holistic search. These people seek a religion that advocates and celebrates sexuality as a part of God's design. As for younger Catholics - except for those who have a fundamentalist inclination - the idea that women and those with a homosexual orientation should be discriminated against is increasingly considered unjust. The idea that priests are not allowed to marry is also implausible. Civil society with its educational and legal institutions have socialised younger generations in ways that advocate sexual egalitarianism, an attitude that these progressive Catholics have integrated into their religious and moral beliefs.

Nevertheless, the gulf between clergy and laypeople may not be as great as what seems apparent. Behind the facade of compulsory celibacy, some bishops and priests are exploring sexuality in ways that are similar to that of lay pilgrims. These clergy attempt to advocate the equality of all people, and appropriately minister to those who experience sexual complexities in their relationships. Some of these bishops and priests may also recognize that patriarchy does not adequately meet their own needs and desires. Often following sincere attempts at honouring the practice of celibacy, and having usually suffered in the process, these clerics may find a special friendship that provides mutual companionship, sexual intimacy and faithful commitment.

Entrusting oneself to such a friendship while staying in the priesthood is not easy. These clerics must go through an arduous and lonely conversion that demands the renegotiation of former promises to celibacy and the priesthood, and finding different understandings that accommodate their participation in the Sacraments. They must also engage with broader religious and social change while skilfully resisting the expectations of a powerful church hierarchy and conservative parishioners who maintain fixed ideas about personal and social relationships.

Along the way, these clergy encounter major moral dilemmas and renegotiate their identity as priests. There is also a need to create strategies that counter Catholic stereotypes, imposed by a defensive and controlling Church. Yet this arduous and often lengthy quest can lead these clerics to the belief that their friendships are both moral and divinely blessed.

Such a search also bears fruit for other Catholics. Bishops and priests who have established loving and deeply committed relationships, despite the hostile circumstances, have made valuable discoveries about faith and humanity, spirituality and sexuality. Their knowledge and experience provides a valuable albeit untapped resource for our Church.

There is a sequel to Fr. Tom and Anna's story. Several years later, Tom developed an illness that required considerable care. Anna returned to look after him, which she did with much tenderness. They then decided to stay together, she living in a neighbouring parish while he continued to minister. Over the years, each helped the other in their lives and ministries, while confirming the commitment to their relationship through sexual love. That love also bears a good harvest for those in their parishes.

However, the assistant priest has just reported Fr. Tom's "affair" to the bishop, an action that leaves those concerned - and us - with a question: What will happen? Perhaps you might also ask: What can we do?

In recent decades, compulsory celibacy has caused considerable grief and concern, directly and indirectly, to clerics and laypeople. Now is the favourable time, the right time to listen, the day to help, and the moment to raise your voice for reform (2 Cor 6:2).

Dr. Jane Anderson is the author of "Priests in Love: Catholic Clergy and Their Intimate Friendships," John Garratt Publishing, March 2005

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