Mandated celibacy is a form of violence done to those called to ordained ministry but not to celibacy. While these priests can have a profound sense of Call, celibacy never really finds a home within their hearts, regardless of the spiritual facade their bishops or spiritual directors attempt to wrap it in. Celibacy is something they try to tolerate but deep down an intense loneliness prevails. The thought of growing old as a celibate, and someday retiring in a home for priests, brings more pain than comfort. Although their loneliness may diminish at times, it is often in the background of their lives, a kind of darkness that will not go away.
Priests who fall in love can feel imprisoned within the priesthood as they watch others freely celebrate their love and openly show affection for their significant other. They cannot deny that their love is a holy experience and find themselves perplexed as to why it has put them on a collision course with the priesthood, when, in fact, being in love has brought them new joy and enthusiasm for life. They experience a deep yearning within, not simply for sex, but for the union of two hearts and souls lived in the sacred mystery of love and companionship for the rest of their lives. Mandatory celibacy, however, forces them to face difficult choices. They can secretly embrace this love in the dark and shaming shadows of mandated celibacy, force this love out of their lives, or extract themselves from the priesthood and pursue the relationship. None of these choices seems appealing, but true freedom is found in the latter.
If a priest is in love, it’s hard for him to understand why this love is disqualifying him from the priesthood, especially in light of I John 4:8 where we read that “God is love”. So, why is love an impediment to ordained ministry? Yes, we all know the old party line “Celibacy frees you to love everyone”, but, we also know it’s not true. Married people can and do love others just as passionately as celibates.
The fact is, when celibate priests fall in love they find what has been true all along: they are owned by an ecclesiastical institution which has turned romantic love into a force of evil and has an odd obsession with controlling their sexuality, to the point of bordering on a kind of a master/slave relationship. Disguised in religious jargon and contrived theology, mandatory celibacy is really about radical patriarchy, misogyny and an obsession with control.
On the other hand, Christ has no interest in mandated celibacy and even cured Saint Peter's mother-in-law in respect for Peter's marriage. Understanding this, the transitioning priest is justified in separating the will of God from the practice of the ecclesiastical institution.
For a reflection about the decision to marry click here. To see the positive role women would have on the priesthood, click here.
What about the vows and promises taken on the day of ordination? Things change and change is inevitable. To live in a dynamic relationship with God is to live in the midst of change. We could not stay in the priesthood because it prohibited changes God was calling us to make. The papacy has made mandatory celibacy into an idol to which many of us could no longer bow.
How can one find visionary leadership in a church that’s reluctant to change? Most of its bishops, especially during the past thirty years, were chosen precisely because of their aversion to change and their willingness to attempt to restore the church to some former golden era. Pope John XXIII, Vatican II and countless dedicated priests and bishops worked hard to pry open the windows of the church to let in some fresh air only to find them being closed by a new generation of priests who refer to Vatican II as “Vatican too much”. There seems to be little room in this new Church for reasonable, Spirit-guided change, so many priests find it necessary to leave. Their journeys, prayerfully embarked upon, are inspired by the Holy Spirit. One of the oldest teachings of the church is one’s obligation to live according to the dictates of their conscience.
When leaving the priesthood, it is wonderful, but not always possible, to have the support of family and friends. I found it very difficult to talk with my brother priests about leaving, even after being in a support group with some of them for over 12 years. I heard how they referred to other priests who had left and knew confiding in them would bring more pain than support. Besides, I might have been whisked off to a counseling program if they had reported to the Bishop that one of his priests was about to jump the fence.
I’m still amazed that I didn’t feel free enough to discuss something as important as leaving the priesthood with guys I had been meeting with in my “support group” for so long. For me, it became apparent that whatever fraternity we had was a mile wide and an inch deep. But, I think something else was at work. Leaving the priesthood is so taboo that even discussing it with “faithful” priests is perceived as sinful. Deeper still, even the thought of leaving is avoided by those who are repressing it, giving credence to the saying “Sow a thought, reap an action”.
If a priest is serious about leaving, it will be helpful for him to associate with others with whom he can honestly discuss his fears, hopes and dreams. It is important that he confide in people who are not brainwashed with Catholic fundamentalism, which eliminates his Bishop / Superior and most if not all his priest friends and other conservative Catholics. The most understanding people I found were from the Corpus organization. If he can find a Corpus group meeting in his area, that would be a great help. Corpus is comprised of priests and women religious who have transitioned out of ministry as well as other Catholics who are interested in significant change within the church. He may also want to find a good counselor who is supportive of his journey. On the day of my marriage, as I spoke my vows to my beloved, I felt nothing but joy and happiness in the freedom to live my personal life out from under the oppression of mandatory celibacy. These vows made much more sense than the previous ones I had made in front of my bishop seventeen years earlier. The purposes of those were obedience and control, while the purposes of these were for love and companionship. Making the two mutually exclusive is an abuse of ecclesiastical power, an injustice to priests, and contrary to the will of God as found in the scriptures and first thousand years of Catholic Church tradition. The sixteenth century reformers were correct when they taught marriage is a divine right that no ecclesiastical law can negate. When you read the arguments against the practice of mandated celibacy these reformers made, you will find little has changed during the past 500, or so, years. You can find their arguments by clicking here.
Abused children are not the only victims of the sex abuse crisis in the Church today. Every priest in active ministry is a victim. Prior to leaving, I remember walking through an airport wearing my collar, when a mother pulled her young child closer to her as I approached. That hurt, and it had everything to do with the stigma of mandated celibacy.
Mandatory celibacy defines a priest primarily by sex and places an inordinate amount of attention on his sex life. When the typical lay person meets a priest, they perceive him first and foremost as a “celibate” and have an internal dialogue that goes something like this: “Is he really celibate? I wonder what he does with his sex drive. Is he gay? He must masturbate a lot. God, I hope he’s not a pedophile.” If he’s attractive, they think, “Father what-a-waste”, and, if not attractive, they think, “No wonder he went into the priesthood”. Those who think this occurs because our society is preoccupied with sex are mistaken. It’s always been this way. People are now just more willing to talk about it. The fact remains that, because “celibate” primarily defines a priest by his sex life, he is viewed and understood primarily by sex and for this he suffers now, more than ever. Priests are not “celibates”; they are “human beings”.
Priests who leave to marry are not looking only for sex. From some of the emails received, many Catholics seem to think their quest is all about sexual union. They cannot seem to see beyond sexual intercourse to the quest that a priest has for love, emotional intimacy and nurture. For them, it is all about f**king, which reveals what their marital lives must be like and one can only feel sorry for their wives. The primary quest for priests who leave to marry is mutual love and intimacy with their spouses of which intercourse is only one part. I find it offensive when someone implies that a priest leaves because "he can't keep it in his pants". No, the issue is "he can't keep the rock wall around his heart".
The term "mandatory celibacy" implies that a priest is to abstain from sexual activity. It objectifies sexual intercourse and separates it from the union of heart and soul that a healthy marriage entails. "Mandated celibacy" gives the impression that f**king is what marriage is all about and tends to turn women into sexual objects. Yet, that is not what most priests are after. They simply long to have another person to love and share their life with like any other normal human being. Mandated celibacy shames priests for having this desire, and because celibacy is all about sexual abstinence, their sexuality is shamed too. This is a dark cloud that hangs over the priesthood, which all priests are forced to enter upon ordination. They are forced to publicly declare that they will forever deny this important part of their lives. This isolates them and makes them into an oddity that people often pity more than respect. The problem is forcing celibacy upon priests. The dynamic would change if celibacy was optional.
People may object by saying, "But celibacy is optional. No one was forcing you to be ordained." But you are mistaken. Our Call is from God and it was profound. The Church has imposed celibacy upon God's call. Mandated celibacy was not part of the early Church (Jesus cured the mother of Saint Peter's wife. Mark 1:30-31) and never became a law until around 1000 AD. Mandated celibacy is not the will of God and it has caused tremendous problems in the Church.
It’s ironic that church officials, obsessed with controlling priests’ sex lives by mandating celibacy, have themselves created this sex abuse crisis. For centuries, they have constructed a mystical facade around celibacy and their efforts brought welcomed protection and privilege. But, like Toto in the Wizard of Oz, this crisis has pulled back the curtain and no amount of incense can hide the little man pulling the levers. Mandated celibacy is far more integral to this crisis than the Pope and bishops are willing, or perhaps able, to admit.
Click here for a reflection about how mandated celibacy hinders healthy sexual integration. Click here to see the statement extolling the superiority of priests by Lacordaire and how it has created an atmosphere of clericalism, which has allowed sexual misconduct to become more prevalent within the priesthood. Click here to see how celibacy is a necessary component to a clerical culture that enables sexual abuse. Click here to find where the ultimate responsibility should be placed for this crisis. Click here to find a history of sex, choice and Catholicis. The Vatican’s public response to this crisis was the promise to screen out gay candidates for ordination during their seminary preparation. With this statement, they made homosexual priests the scapegoats in this crisis, even though they know pedophilia is a separate issue. They have taken the easy way out by exploiting society’s homophobia and sacrificing these priests on the altar of self-preservation. This is a far cry from Jesus, who stood with the marginalized and was crucified because of his solidarity with them. It’s revealing that the Vatican intentionally tied pedophilia to homosexuality in order to exonerate mandated celibacy and avoid having to make the systemic changes necessary to find real solutions. For more about scapegoating homosexual priests, click here and here. Recently, the hierarchy paved the way for the ordination to the priesthood of numerous married Protestant clergy. Most of these clergy left their denominations over the issue of homosexuality. Their primary desire was to find hierarchical support for their homophobia, and sadly, they have found it within Catholicism. History will soon prove the Catholic Church wrong on the issue of homosexuality as it has on so many other issues. Even then, the hierarchy will continue to proclaim itself “Infallible” and those in the pew will again look the other way in order to maintain their illusion of faith. Click here to see how the Bishops have lost credibility with the majority of Catholics when it comes to the issue of homosexuality. Click here to read a story about the pain the Bishop's homophobia has caused one man and how their teaching causes many gay people to commit suicide.
I have known I was gay from the time I was four years old, even though I could not articulate it to myself, let alone anyone else. I thought everyone felt the same as I did, but gradually as I grew up and then went to school and observed others, I realized slowly over time that I was different. And so did my classmates when I reached a certain age because I did not have, nor have any desire to have, a "girlfriend." Naturally, I became the butt of jokes from my male classmates from a very early age. I became an altar boy at the tender age of seven and noticed immediately the profound respect I had from the older people in the parish that I never had before. When I announced to my classmates at an early age that I thought I wanted to be a priest, it helped to stop the ribbing (at least from the Catholic ones), now; at least, they saw a reason why I stayed away from girls. When I entered minor diocesan seminary with other students, we were surrounded by men who gave us an attention, respect, and honor that I had never experienced before. Never once did they question my sexuality or make me feel uncomfortable.
Within the Roman Catholic priesthood, a high percentage of bishops and priests are bisexual or homosexual. One should not be surprised at this. As the priest cited above attests, the acceptance and respect shown to celibate priests is a strong drawing card for boys who feel alienated and demeaned because of a homosexual orientation that they themselves probably don’t understand. The seminary environment is, itself, conducive to nurturing the emotional needs of homosexual men. From the moment a man enters the seminary, he is surrounded by men and expected to associate primarily with men throughout his formation.
From the time a man enters the seminary and throughout his priesthood, special friendships with women are discouraged and often perceived as scandalous, while associations with males are, of course, acceptable. Eyebrows are raised if a priest goes out to lunch with a woman, but he can live with other men and vacation with other priests, with no questions asked. If he is gay, this is also a drawing card, as it would be for a heterosexual priest if the situation were reversed and he could freely, without raising any eyebrows or suspicion, associate with women.
In no way do we want to imply that an all male environment influences men to become homosexual, because sexual orientation is genetically predetermined. However, within a male environment, it is understandably easier for a homosexual or bisexual man to have his intimacy needs met than it is for a heterosexual man.
Because homosexual relationships are frowned upon in most areas of society, welcomed in very few and completely rejected in others, the priesthood is, and has been throughout the history of mandated celibacy, a refuge for gay men. But, there is another reason why gay men are attracted to the priesthood, they are very good at it.
During our years in the priesthood, we found homosexual priests to be some of the most pastorally gifted and successful people in ministry and learned to respect them deeply.
Although it is easier for gay priests to have their intimacy needs met, they risk public ridicule if their sexual orientation becomes public knowledge. Therefore they must keep their sexual orientation “in the closet,” and that is more easily done within a community of celibate males.
If the Church’s hierarchy were honest, it would acknowledge the high percentage of priests who are gay and affirm their ministry. Instead, they appear to be ashamed of these priests and attempt to deny their existence. In so doing, they are contributing to society’s homophobia and encouraging gay priests to view their God-given sexuality with shame.
Some cardinals, archbishops, bishops and priests in ecclesiastical offices responsible for homophobic polices are themselves gay, which shows to what degree they will sacrifice their integrity in order to maintain their power.
The history of the Church indicates that even some popes have been homosexual. The hierarchy is well aware of the high number of homosexuals that minister within their ranks. Sadly, their policy has been to be dishonest and deny it. Gay priests are also expected to join in this falsehood and be dishonest about who they are.
Regardless of whether priests are homosexual, bisexual or heterosexual, the real problem lies with the hierarchy’s seeming inability to deal with human sexuality in an emotionally healthy way. Their outlook exemplifies an Augustinian view where sexual orgasm is perceived as a defiling act rendering the priest impure. This sick, medieval view of sexuality is the heart of the problem and the foundation upon which mandatory celibacy rests.
It is very difficult for priests to integrate their sexuality in a healthy manner when it is perceived as an alien force within them. My moral theology class in the seminary taught that masturbation (or even so much as thinking about it with delight) was serious sin. My professor summed it up in these words: “If you are celibate, no orgasms!” This came from a very conservative moral theologian whom the Church had elevated as an authority on human sexuality in one of the largest seminaries in the United States. The message that came through to us seminarians was: “Your sexual drive is evil and alien to who you really are and must be repressed, or you will be punished by God.” This resulted in seminarians running off to confession every few days with sex as the major “sin” with which they were preoccupied. Teaching such as this is psychologically damaging and harmful to healthy sexual integration. This is why there will always be some sort of sexual crisis within the priesthood, and the responsibility for it needs to be placed at the very highest echelon within the Catholic Church’s hierarchy. A priest who is gay and has transitioned created a blog intended to be a safe place where gay or bisexual priests (currently serving or have served) in the Church, can find support. He states, "It is my hope that, through the process of sharing the challenges that exist for being gay and priests, support and encouragement can be found regardless of dispirited rhetoric and dictums from the Church's hierarchy, which oppresses gay and bisexual men into feeling lonely and shameful. This blog is intended to allow a healing process to exist, whereby priests can find understanding, hope and a sense of peace." Click here to find the blog "Make It Known".
The experience of falling in love is overwhelming for anyone, but especially for a priest. When love erupts in a priest’s heart, he realizes everything he has worked for is put at risk – his ministry, reputation, the esteem of parishioners, other priests, his bishop and possibly family and friends. He risks losing his job, home, health insurance and, sadly in some dioceses, his retirement. On top of all this is the fear of spiritual condemnation by the Church who claims to wield the power of God Himself. So, rather than romantic love being a treasured gift from God, it becomes a threat to a priest’s very survival and puts him in crisis.
Even though they know this, most priests still yearn for a significant other with whom they can have a close, intimate relationship. If gay, they long for a male, and if straight, a female companion who will see beyond the curtain of their professional lives into their hearts and embrace them with tenderness, nurture and unconditional love. Their primary desire is not for sex, but for the warmth, tenderness and nurture that a healthy relationship of love offers. Unfortunately, mandated celibacy makes all of this "sinful", or at least, the near occasion of sin, which priests are trained to avoid.
It is true that there are priests who are primarily looking for sexual gratification and are willing to use others for this purpose. But these priests are emotionally troubled and do not represent the majority. Those who have been recipients of their abuse would call them criminals and possibly even attempt to sue them or their diocese or religious order for their behavior. Mandated celibacy can and often does attract dysfunctional men who are emotionally and sexually confused. Furthermore, it can arrest what would have otherwise been healthy psychosexual development because it prohibits the very intimate interaction necessary for this development. This is particularly true for priests who are “lifers”, i.e. they entered the seminary during high school when the psychosexual factors of their lives were being formed.
Women who fall in love with priests—and the same is true for gay men who fall in love with priests—often find a sort of “schoolboy” mentality, which is indicative of men whose psychosexual development has been arrested. But it is also a product of the environment in which priests live for all the reasons mentioned in the first paragraph of this section above. A priest in love must keep it hidden and often the first person he tries to hide it from is himself. What love he is able to show cannot be overt, and like a schoolboy he is awkward trying to express it, feels shame if anyone notices it, and if asked would strongly deny it exists. What is going on in his heart is euphoric and at the same time frightening.
Rather than run from this love, priests may find it helpful to have a good trusted counselor with whom to discuss it. They may find that attempting to run from love is actually running from God's greatest gift and something they will someday regret. On the other hand, careful discernment is necessary to see if he and his companion have the emotional maturity to make a marriage work.
Because mandated celibacy prohibits this relationship, proper discernment while in ministry is difficult.
If a priest finds that he would like to pursue the relationship, he may be better off leaving the priesthood. In this way, he can be honest and express his love in the light of day, rather than in the shaming shadows of celibacy, where now his lover is also required to live. I fail to understand why a priest would expect the person he loves to also live in this oppressive environment that perceives their relationship to be sinful. She is susceptible to verbal and other emotional abuse if word gets out that they are in love.
Such is the sad situation of the Roman Catholic priesthood.
In order to leave, the priest needs to look at everything he does as a stepping stone out of the priesthood. This begins in his own heart with a clear intention to leave, i.e. “Sow a thought and reap an action.” Finding emotional support is helpful, but if he is looking for priest friends or his bishop to validate his desire to leave, he will be disappointed. He must believe, not only in God, but also in himself.
To someone outside of Catholicism, they may think, "What's the big deal? If you want to leave, just leave!" But it's not that easy. Click here to see more reasons why it's hard to leave. He can leave with or without going through the laicization process. If he and his beloved want to continue within Catholicism, get married and receive the sacraments, he will need to be laicized and this process can be lengthy, but it can occur after he leaves. Further information about being laicized is available on this website’s blog, “The Laicization Process”. The first step to transitioning out of the priesthood is for the priest to have a theology that allows him to leave. He must also perceive that he has the internal resources necessary to create a new life elsewhere. Even if he finds that this particular love relationship does not end in marriage, it has served to help him mature and begin a new phase of life. Once a priest tastes the sweetness of intimate romantic love, it becomes the benchmark for other relationships. He has been to the mountain top of romantic love, where, perhaps to his surprise, he has found the presence of God and a whole new dimension of life. It changes everything and he begins to see forced celibacy for what it is – an oppressive ecclesiastical law that stands apart from the will of God. Of course, the situation would be completely different if celibacy was optional.
It takes tremendous courage for a woman to confide to a priest that she is in love with him, or for a priest to confide to a woman that he is in love with her. And of course, the same would apply to gay relationships.
When a priest is in love, his love is often expressed with innuendo and under the table, so to speak, which is indicative of the schoolboy dynamic. If the woman has reached a point in the relationship where she wants to be honest and express her love to him, she will be hurt if it is not reciprocated. The rejection may occur for several reasons:
- The priest is not in love with her and she has read more into the relationship than was there. In this case, he must ask himself if he intentionally led her on. If this was the case, he joins the ranks of other abusive priests.
- The priest lacks the courage to admit his love for her, though he may come around to it in time.
- The priest may truly love her, but not enough to face the possible ramifications of developing a deeper relationship. At least, he should admit this.
- The priest truly loves her, but is too steeped in Catholic theology to ever seriously consider leaving because he fears putting either of their souls in jeopardy. He feels that by remaining a priest he is practicing “sacrificial love” and awaits their perfect union in Heaven. In this situation, in the mind of the priest, the ecclesiastical institution may have been divinized.
By discussing the nature of their relationship, the woman has been the mature one by admitting her love, no longer willing to play schoolboy games. She has been honest and called him to honesty too. Like so many women in the history of humanity, she is the hero but is often viewed as the villain. To all the women who have been hurt by priests who love them but are afraid to come out from behind their collars: your honesty, integrity and courage are an inspiration. He is a slave of the institution. Hold your head high and move on to a man worthy of your love. Healing will come in time.
A priest in love normally wants the relationship to continue under the table, because of the crisis it involves for him to be honest about it. Often when in love, his denial is primarily to himself about the blossoming love relationship, but he cannot deny the joy he feels while in her presence. It’s time for him to man-up and face the truth. It may be costly but such is the price of true spiritual growth and maturity.
He needs to wake up and see how he has been brainwashed by the Church and embrace this love as a gift from God. Regardless of what the Church says, this is the real conversion where he takes responsibility for his own life. Just as he found Christ present in ministry and now in romantic love, he will find him also present and guiding him into the future. Faith is confidence assurance about things hoped for and conviction about things unseen. (Hebrews 11:1)
Mandated celibacy forces a priest to live a sort of schizophrenic relationship with himself when it comes to romance and nurture. Intimacy lurks beneath the surface of his life and he dreams of someday finding someone with whom he can share it. If he does come across someone that causes the violins to sound off, he feels both attraction and fear of where it may lead.
This can be a challenge for married couples as well, who find their hearts being touched by someone other than their spouse. It is less an issue if their need for love and nurture are being met with their spouse, and this involves much more than sex. But, for a priest, there is no one filling this void in his life. While it is true that some find their needs for intimacy met in their spirituality, many do not. Christ longs to bring these priests love, nurture and intimacy through another human being and they have a right for this. Ecclesiastical law can never nullify the divine law to marry and experience the union of two people coming together as one.
There are women and priests in love who have made a mutual commitment to somehow live this love within the context of the priesthood. Some of these relationships are celibate and some are not. I don’t know how, over the long haul, they do it. They live in fear of their love becoming public and must sometimes have to lie to keep it hidden. I don’t think living this way is emotionally, spiritually or physically healthy. Yet, some have managed to make it work. Love will have its way, even if it must be lived within the shaming shadows of celibacy. However, priests who ask their beloved to live in this way must examine themselves to see if it is truly mutual or the result of a lack of empathy. In some countries, a priest having a concubine is tolerated, perhaps even expected, but that is not the case in the United States.
Only in the Roman Catholic Church is God's gift of love perceived as evil.
Some priests find their needs for love and intimacy met within their life and ministry but many do not. An obvious solution to this would be to make celibacy optional. Unfortunately, the Church is entrenched and blind to this, and it’s time for priests in love to move on with their lives.
Ecclesiastical leaders eager to pass judgment on priests who seek companionship need to understand that they have turned God's gift of love into a force of evil. This is one of the greatest perversions of religion today and they would do well to remember that turning God’s gift of love into a force of evil is the real sin. By so adamantly maintaining the current law of mandated celibacy, they are mainly responsible for the pain suffered by priests and women in love and for whatever scandal might ensue from these relationships.
A question women who fall in love with priests must ask themselves is, "Am I part of a fantasy world he is creating?" Most priests have no intention of leaving the priesthood, but welcome a romantic relationship, whatever the degree, because it provides relief from the loneliness of the priesthood. Women involved with these relationships can find their lives on hold sometimes for years only to find the relationship to be going nowhere.
If a priest is really in love, he would leave. Period. No, "Well, if only..." Or, "I would leave if ...." Many women who enter into the world of mandated celibacy and romance end up deeply hurt. Romance and the priesthood are indeed an oxymoron. If a priest is unwilling to be honest and discuss the relationship with the one he loves, it is an indication that the relationship is going nowhere.
Father, if you are in a romantic relationship, whether gay or straight, you are fortunate. Giving and receiving romantic love is a huge part of what it means to be a human being. It is an experience where the presence of God cannot be denied if one is honest about it. If you are still active in the Catholic Church, no one needs to tell you how complicated the relationship is given the fact that you have to live it within the shaming shadows of mandated celibacy. It is unfortunate that now the one you love must also try to express their affection within this oppressive system. Your options are to force this love out of your life, or strive to secretively nurture it within the confines of the priesthood, or leave and live the relationship openly in the light of day. True freedom is found in the latter. Romantic love opens up a whole other world. Your superiors will demonize this relationship, but how can love be evil? Realize they and their predecessors have turned romantic love into a force of evil, which is the ultimate corruption of religion. How can this corruption be the will of God who identified himself with love? Because mandated celibacy is not the will of God, you are free to leave.
Since this Website was launched in the summer of 2009, many women and priests have been in contact to share their experience of falling in love. The article below is from the perspective of Marie, a woman who was in love with a priest and he with her for several years and how their romantic relationship developed and, sadly, ended. Marie shares many insights into the dynamic of romantic love in her and the priest's heart. Her experiences are not unique and will be helpful to other women in similar situations.
Catholic Priests’ Emotional Instability Toward Women
One area in which many an otherwise capable or even gifted priest falls short is having a basic understanding and relationship with women. In particular, if he develops feelings for a woman or a woman falls in love with him, most priests will lack the compassion, maturity, and knowledge that comes easy to them in other areas of their ministry. This article explores possible causes of this deficiency, as well as the devastating repercussions it can have for priests and women.
When a Young Man Receives His Priestly Calling
Most priests enter the seminary at a young age, often shortly after high school graduation, having begun to discern the vocation as early as middle school. Young men are attracted to the vocation by the promise of an instant community with like-minded peers, a belief that Jesus has personally “called” him to this lofty status, and the ego-boost of instant respect and recognition for making such a noble choice. Such attractions are hard for a cradle Catholic to resist, especially if he was born into a deeply religious family. The adulation of family and parishioners, coupled with confidence in his having chosen “the better way,” and the promise of a rich reward in Heaven make a heady brew indeed; and this, for some, even before the sexual awakening of puberty.
Older and respected priests are sometimes encouraged to evangelize aggressively young men and draw them to the vocation. A young man is often caught off guard and believes that an invitation to the priesthood is a “sign” that God is calling him.
When a man enters the seminary, his interaction with females (other than those in his immediate family) is cut off completely, both by his physical isolation in an all-male institution and by strict prohibitions against associating with women during his vacations. This happens at the very time when feminine influences in his life are so critically important for his psychosexual development, which is consequently stunted. Although some men do leave the seminary prior to ordination, many are already on auto-pilot, having received donations and encouragement for his education by his family and others.
The average age for a man to be ordained is 25; however, if he has been exposed to no other lifestyle than the seminary, he probably has not experienced enough of life at that age to discern the entirety of his commitment. A commitment that by definition forces him to deny his basic emotional needs, desires, and intimacy that are God’s most precious gifts to us—for the rest of his life. Thus, in the black-and-white world of Roman Catholic sexual morality, many seminarians and priests instinctively come to regard women either as Virgin Marys or whores.
Priests are Dehumanized in their Role
After ordination, the priest basks for a while in his newly found acceptance, adulation, and mission, convinced that he has one of the most important vocations known to man—for, who else can administer the sacraments? The busyness of priestly ministry, the belief that he is saving souls, and the contact with others that it affords, serve to keep a priest from getting lonely. For a while.
After a few years, the repressed instincts of his adolescent years start to assert themselves, and many priests yearn for the intimacy that their mandatory celibacy has denied them. They witness the happy glow of couples being married and the joy of family celebrations, then return to the loneliness of an empty rectory. Diocesan priests are also at the whim of the bishop to take required assignments, and some of these may not be desirable to the priest—not all priests “fit” well with a certain parish or with fellow priests in their living quarters. Eventually, their black-and-white view of life starts shifting to shades of gray.
Meanwhile, pedophile scandals have caused parishioners to be more cautious in the invitations that they extend to a priest. He is no longer automatically on a pedestal, as he had heretofore been viewed. This increases his loneliness profoundly. He often must rely on extended family for friendship or holidays, and not all priests have family who live nearby.
Most of all, a priest longs to be seen for who he is beyond his priestly role—a human being with feelings who needs to connect intimately with others by sharing his joys, sorrows, and tears. He longs for authenticity with another human being so that he can express his innermost thoughts, share a warm hug, and have a shoulder to cry on. But the unwritten rules of the celibate lifestyle and his role to protect the power of the Catholic Church have forced him to keep himself aloof from women in his peer group.
At some point, he may meet a woman who sees his essence and humanness, who invites him to share his true feelings about life in general, who has that shoulder to cry on. At first, he may deny to himself that his feelings for this special woman could affect his priestly vocation—if he feels love, he will likely deny this to himself initially; he cannot name it, but when it comes along, he will certainly recognize it in time. Inevitably, there occurs a sudden breakthrough into intimacy, regardless of how expressed.
In short, the priest falls in love.
Three Choices for Priests in Love
If a priest falls in love, he has three choices for his future lifestyle:
1)The Celibate Way: Keeping his sexual urges under control and unexpressed. He prays that his feelings will stop. He cuts off all contact with the woman. This leaves him lonelier than he was before. 2)The Marital Way: Marrying the woman. This option demands, in Roman Catholic ecclesiology, leaving priestly ministry, and is usually frightening and unacceptable to his theology. It’s worth stating that this option is the only “sin” that automatically disqualifies a priest. And that sin only applies to cradle Catholics. A former Anglican priest who is already married can become a Catholic priest. 3)The Third Way: The Third Way means that a priest can interact with a woman in a celibate but otherwise intimate way, or even carry on a clandestine sexual relationship while maintaining his role as a priest. As long as nothing becomes openly scandalous (thus possibly diluting the power of the Church), the Third Way allows the priest to “have his cake and eat it too.”
The Third Way can only last for so long before the woman will eventually want a concrete answer as to whether he is willing to leave the priesthood for marriage. If the priest has no intention of leaving the priesthood, he is deeply conflicted as he goes through cycles of unchastity, confession and attempts at amendment. If the priest is uncertain, he must opt for either celibacy or marriage.
Stockholm Syndrome in the Priesthood (aka the “Patty Hearst” Syndrome)
“Stockholm Syndrome” is defined as: An extraordinary phenomenon in which a hostage begins to identify with and grow sympathetic to his/her captor. (Wikipedia.)
Nearly everyone experiences Stockholm Syndrome at some point in life. The “captor” need not be a threatening entity, though it must be perceived as one. Even fear of change can trigger a lesser level of the syndrome. For example, someone in a bad marriage may stay in it for fear of leaving, even if they are free to do so. People stay in jobs they hate for the same reason.
In normal circumstances, the relationship between a couple will rise or fall on its own merits. With a priest, it is different. He can’t go through the normal channels of dating to discern whether he should marry a particular person or even marry at all. If he mentions his amorous feelings to a priest counselor, he will probably be advised to pray more and avoid the woman at all costs. If he is truly engulfed in Catholic teaching, he will also equate defying church law as defying God (i.e. mortal sin) and, for the sake of his eternal salvation—and the salvation of his beloved—he will not choose marriage. He will instead return to celibacy, believing that this “sacrificial love” is for the woman, ending their time together on earth for the “perfect eternal love” he hopes to share with her in Heaven. In short, he will not have the theology that permits him to leave the priesthood, no matter how strong his love for the woman may be.
The four characteristics of Stockholm Syndrome can apply to priesthood.
1. The hostage views the captor as giving life by not taking it. The captor is in control of the captive’s basic needs for survival. The priest is promised eternal life if he’s a good priest and remains celibate. He relies on the church for life’s necessities, and he may feel that he would not have the skill or connections to survive in the outside world, especially if he has served as a priest for a long time. Thus, he allows the church to control both his life here on earth and his salvation in the Hereafter.
2. The hostage endures isolation from other people and has only the captor’s perspective available. The outside world’s response is either hidden or renounced to make the captive more dependent. Priests are brainwashed with the theory that the church is always right. One consequence of this is that they cannot even allow themselves to think about anything that would threaten their celibacy.
3. The captor threatens to kill the victim and gives the perception of being able to do so. The captive judges it safer to align with the captor than to resist and face murder. For the priest, eternal damnation is considered infinitely worse than being murdered. If a priest decides to leave, he faces an enormous uphill battle, with condemnation and shaming by the institution who has held him captive. It’s much safer for the priest to pray for his demon of love to end.
4. The captive sees the captor as showing some degree of kindness. Captives will suppress their anger at the captor’s terrorizing and concentrate on his good qualities in order to protect themselves. For the priest, all is forgiven if he repents. He is well supported in a middle-class lifestyle, and is exalted within the institution far more than he is in the outside world, especially today.
When Love is on the Table
If a single woman (or a woman in a bad marriage) wants to receive absolution in the church, where does she go? She must go to a priest. A long term spiritual issue could involve several sessions with a priest, telling him her darkest secrets and personal problems. Both parties are vulnerable—the priest, who rarely experiences intimacy on any level, and the woman, who seeks spiritual counseling because she already has issues to resolve. The natural outcome of such a scenario between a lonely, celibate priest and a troubled woman whom he finds attractive, is that he wants to “save” her and she is wanting to be “saved.” Inevitably, a bond forms between them.
When love strikes a priest and a Catholic woman, it’s often much more powerful than when people meet through normal channels, simply because neither of them are seeking a relationship, but are accidentally finding someone to love. It is not due to simple infatuation or forbidden temptation. (This is a myth that I find offensive.) In fact, the opposite is true. The Catholic woman is afraid of her feelings and hates herself for having them just as much as the priest does! She has likely been fed the same black-and-white worldview that he has. She knows that it is wrong and impossible to love a priest. Neither party wants to admit, to the other or even to self, that they feel more than platonic love, and this repression only leads to strengthened feelings. Down the road, it is usually the woman who finally admits to herself that she has feelings for the priest. The priest may admit it to himself, but be convinced that any feelings of romantic “love” are from the devil.
Admitting to myself that I loved a priest took me almost a year. Most women in a similar position feel that it’s their duty to pull back immediately because that’s the only way to have a clear conscience if you believe that loving a priest is sinful. I started going to other parishes instead, and he was hurt. Then we became very close and he pulled back, and I was hurt. This endless cycle, being sinfully close (in our minds) and then backing off, went on for over three years. We craved each other’s company. Our wills were strong in trying to stay apart, but our hearts were unable to deny our feelings, and we became obsessed with thoughts of the other, but afraid of getting hurt and terrified of eternal damnation.
If he begins to discern his vocation, the priest has much more to lose than the woman he loves. The thought of leaving the priesthood can be terrifying because it removes the only form of financial and societal support the priest has known. Worse, he runs the very real risk of debasement in others’ eyes, or even in his own, for having failed in his vocation. Women, because they can never be priests, know conceptually that priests are off-limits, but cannot relate to the actual experience of marriage to an institution versus marriage to a flesh and blood human being.
Eventually, the woman will consider forcing the priest to discuss the relationship, and call upon him to choose between severing the relationship and staying in the priesthood, or leaving the priesthood to marry her so that they can have an above-board, open and public relationship.
Really, it cannot be otherwise.
If a priest has been showing obvious signs of love for the woman, and she loves him, eventually she must choose between three options. One, she can continue in the Third Way which becomes extremely painful and degrading the longer it continues. Two, she can sever all ties with him, which is more painful in the short term. Or, three, she can tell the priest where she stands, which results in his entering a time of discernment as to whether he should leave the priesthood or sever the relationship altogether. In today’s climate, the latter usually ensues.
Often, one person or the other will attempt to stay in touch, and the other will back off completely. In my case, I backed off completely, which hurt like hell. The outcome, if marriage is completely off the table, is always painful for both the priest and the woman.
As a result, polarization and guilt or anger usually occurs. The priest may become even more entrenched in Catholic ideology to prove to himself that he made the right decision; since the Church cannot be wrong, his feelings of love must be. The woman may leave the Catholic Church altogether, believing that the feelings of God-given love are not wrong, and so the Church must be.
The Aftermath (For the Priest) of Rejecting Love
Having known other women on the receiving end of this religious abuse, I can say with some certainty that the priest will act much like a schoolboy once honesty or an ultimatum is presented to him by the woman. This may well be the first time he has had romantic feelings for a woman. As I mentioned before, his psychosexual development may have been arrested when he entered the seminary as a teenager, and as a result he treats the woman as would a teenager.
Her openness evokes not love, but fear. Fear that she, angry at his rejection, will report him to the bishop. Fear of losing his job, his friends, his reputation. Fear of the unknown, the “outside” world. He is angry at the woman for causing this Fear to arise, for ending (in his eyes) their relationship, for being nothing but a temptress after all, just as he had been taught to believe. He might even be angry at her for wrecking his image of her as an obsequious admirer who dared to look past his Role as priest and into his humanity. How dare she!
He must act before the woman does. He can’t rely on her to keep her mouth shut. He’ll go to his priests’ support group and tell them that a woman declared her love for him. He may even tell them terrible things about her to defuse the situation in the event that he is denounced. He will be praised by his counselor for his sacrificial love. Sooner or later, he will receive a new parish assignment.
He’ll go on as if nothing had happened and as if he’d never known love. But the catch is, he has. Once the dust has settled and he realizes that the woman didn’t report him to anyone, that his vocation and reputation are intact, he will feel deep grief and longing.
Regardless, the priest knows that he must get over his beloved. The easiest way to do this is to convince himself that she would have been wrong for him anyway; his initial anger and subsequent aloof or even nasty behavior toward her help to ensure the death of any tender feelings that may linger between them. If she leaves Catholicism as a result, he’s further convinced that he made the correct decision to remain a priest.
From a woman’s perspective, it’s hard to say what the long term effects might be; these will differ for each individual and depend on many factors. I do believe that the shades of gray he experienced will always remain with him, despite a renewed show of stoicism. Time and physical distance help to heal, but no matter where life takes him, the priest will always go to bed alone.
The Aftermath of Rejection for the Woman
The woman is shocked that a man who was so kind to her, her closest confidante, who loved her (and perhaps always will), has suddenly turned as cold as a block of stone. She is deeply wounded when the priest rejects her. Typically he goes even further to treat her badly, overcompensating for his earlier, too romantic behavior. Such a hurt can last the woman a lifetime.
Many of these women leave Catholicism as a result of witnessing such painful hypocrisy. Many never marry (or remarry, if they were seeking counseling for a bad marriage). Both of these courses of action are as life-altering as having loved a priest, if not more so. When she sees a priest, she no longer thinks of the Lord, she thinks of the Pharisees. She thinks of the man who hurt her beyond repair. How can she, a cradle Catholic, reconcile her love of God with the twisted dictates of the only faith she has ever known?
For weeks, months and even years, the woman will wonder what she did to deserve being treated so poorly by the priest. She may try to reach out to him with little or no response. She may regret opening the door of love for him. She often wishes they could return to the Third Way and feels in her darkest moments that she ruined the happiness she had known with the priest. Her self-esteem takes a serious hit. Time will heal her wounds, though never completely. No matter what course her life takes afterward, she will always hold that love, and that hurt, somewhere deep inside.
The hierarchy's claim that God requires celibacy and offers it as a gift to all priests is nothing but patriarchy dressed in piety for the purpose of keeping the Catholic Church in the firm control of celibate males. Not only do they believe women to be unfit for ordination, the hierarchy believes priests should remain unmarried so they will be free of any female influence in their lives. Why? Because of patriarchy and misogyny. Patriarchy defined: "A system of society or government in which men hold the power and women are largely excluded from it." Misogyny defined: "The hatred of women by men as in 'struggling against thinly disguised misogyny'". Undeniably, at the heart of mandated celibacy for priests and the foundation on which it stands, is patriarchy and misogyny all carefully wrapped in religious piety. This is a serious sin and a dark cloud that hangs over the Church.
The Inquisition of the LCWR
Misogyny and patriarchy have also been seen in the bishops' recent Inquisition of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) in the United States and elsewhere. Keep in mind, these are the bishops who turned their backs on children who were being sexually abused by priests. Many of them moved abusive priests from one congregation to another, violating State and Federal law. Why did they act so irresponsibly? Because of patriarchy, which had incarnated into "celibate male clerical privilege" they and their predecessors had systematical fostered over the years. These bishops are the men who have brought great scandal and crisis to the Church, not Women Religious.
One of the few shining lights within the Church today are Women Religious who are present where there is human suffering. They are the hands and feet of Christ in nursing homes, hospitals, soup kitchens, among immigrants, the poor and other marginalized people. They are the ones who built the Catholic school systems and hospitals throughout the country and did so in poverty, receiving very small stipends for their hard work. These are the "Nuns On the Bus" who traveled throughout the United States shining light on the plight of poor and marginalized people. But sadly, not far behind were bishops in limos harassing them.
These pompous bishops, in an attempt to divert attention from their clergy sex abuse crisis, demand Women Religious bow in homage to their authority and submit to their demands. They have accused them of "radical feminism", when in reality, the bishops' "radical patriarchy" and the atmosphere of privilege it has created for them, is the real problem. Rather than the bishops investigating the LCWR; the LCWR should be investigating the bishops for their immoral behavior. Many should be kicked out of the episcopacy and some would be in prison were it not for celibate male privilege.
Radical patriarchy will tolerate the presence of women and even praise them, but only if they are docile, submissive and obedient, not to Christ, but to patriarchy. Radical patriarchy and misogyny cannot tolerate the presence of strong, decisive and well educated females, which is to say, the LCWR.
I remember driving through town shortly after ordination, wanting to stop at McDonalds for a hamburger; I avoided doing so because of lack of money. That may sound strange, but it’s true. My salary as a newly ordained priest was about $400.00 per month plus mileage and I was making monthly payments on a student loan, a car and other personal items. “What had I gotten myself into? Why does the bishop allow this?” I thought. It was the beginning of my disillusionment with the priesthood.
My bishop could be best described as a miser. He squeezed the nickel so hard that the Indian was riding on the buffalo’s back. During his twenty-five year administration, he socked away millions of dollars for the diocese, but when asked for anything involving a financial expenditure, he acted as if you were asking him for one of his kidneys. The chancery was decorated in the style of the 1940’s with technology and theology to match. He made sure his priests were kept poor.
My life as a parochial vicar (or, as we were called, “assistants”) was a challenge, and that for more than merely financial reasons. I was living in someone else’s house with people that I would not have chosen for housemates. The pastor, however, was a nice guy and treated me well enough; nonetheless, this forced living arrangement for grown men made me feel like a child. As a parochial vicar assigned to this living arrangement, I felt the church didn’t trust me and that I needed supervision. Having ministerial supervision as a young priest made sense, but the presumption that I needed supervision in my living arrangement was an intrusion into my personal life. It presumed an enmeshment with the church with which I never felt comfortable. Even as a senior pastor in a large congregation, being forced to live in a rectory was demeaning, giving me the impression that I was not trusted. It underscored the fact that I was being controlled, but I think “owned” would be a better term.
Perhaps the real issue is that the Catholic Church presumes to own its priests, like masters who own their slaves. This is part of the infrastructure that priests are expected to embrace. Priests are reluctant to complain because, at this point, they have prostrated themselves on the floor in front of their bishops in diocesan cathedrals and monasteries and professed obedience to him as they would to God himself. All of this has been carefully orchestrated by the hierarchy over centuries to make sure priests understand that they are but pawns in the hands of their bishops, who claim to wield the power of God himself. This was driven home painfully clear with their demanding a promise of celibacy, by which they proclaim that even the priest’s sexuality is under the control of the Church. When you are owned sexually, you are owned at the deepest part of your being.
While in the priesthood, I helped conduct a few retreats for priests in various parts of the United States. This was long before I had awakened. In preparation for my presentations, I found that if I really wanted to know what a priest’s focus in life and ministry should be, I need to study the ordination rite. It shows that the priest is an extension of his bishop in whatever ministry he serves in the diocese. It is very clear that priests have no identity or ministry apart from their bishops. This is one reason why it is nearly impossible for bishops to separate themselves from priests who are involved in sexual misconduct because they are acting on the bishop’s behalf. The fact is, the clergy sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church is built upon many things, not least of which is the hierarchy’s need to be enmeshed with their priests in every way possible.
Most priests have heard horror stories from parochial vicars who have had to deal with pastors who were veritable tyrants. It was not uncommon for them to be barred from the kitchen except during dining hours. Locks were put on refrigerators. Some vicars were locked out of the rectory after the curfew hour of, say, 11:00 PM. The Christmas collection, which should have been divided equally among the priests in the parish, went entirely to the pastor, who managed to toss a few crumbs to the vicars. Sadly this nonsense still continues in some places. One counselor states:
In my daily dealings with clergy, especially younger clergy, celibacy is NOT usually why they consider leaving. It is often unreasonable bishops or the outmoded rectory life and all that goes with it that concerns them. Dealing with older unreasonable pastors who force them to live by their rules. They are told where to stay, how to act, what to eat, everything! Financial concerns are also a major issue.
And so the drama continues. Comments from others would be welcomed. Of course, confidentiality and anonymity will be maintained.
Pastors have it much better than the lowly parochial vicar. Pastors of large parishes have it even better, their salary nicely supplemented by more stipends, larger Christmas collections, and other perks.
My experience as a parochial vicar did end on a happier note. After that miserly bishop retired, he was replaced by one with a much appreciated understanding of the Second Vatican Council; under his leadership the diocese moved forward, though still not nearly far enough in my estimation.
Priests who awaken to realize how far the Church has intruded into their personal lives often find themselves frustrated. In time, many of them discover the freedom to live their lives in a way they feel called by God, which means that they must leave the priesthood. Is this selfish? Is it sinful? No, it’s part of their maturing in faith and taking responsibility for their lives. Their journey in, through and with Christ will continue, albeit on a different path than the one prescribed for them by the hierarchy and its medieval institution. Many active priests understand how they are being oppressed but choose to stay and work for reform from within the system. Our prayers and encouragement are with them too.
Another transition priest shares experiences that led him out of the priesthood:
Though the proximate cause of my leaving the priesthood was an ultimatum from the bishop to either abandon my lover or not return to ministry, with hindsight I now can see other reasons that influenced my departure. These reasons would have themselves been enough to leave if I would have had the courage to do so.
I’ve had lots of problems with Church teachings and practice, mandatory celibacy being only one example. Difficulties in these matters go back, at least, into the second decade of my priesthood. Had push come to shove then, I would probably have been forcibly defrocked as a heretic and an insubordinate, had I spoken honestly about what I believed. Some of this concerned practice, but there were also issues in matters of faith.
In its history, there are examples of the Church changing its teaching on certain issues. For example, up until the 16th century, it taught, based on Lev. 25:37, that it was immoral to charge interest on a loan. Galileo was sentenced, as a heretic, to house arrest for life for holding that the earth revolved around the sun, whereas the Bible explicitly states otherwise. Nor could I accept the teaching that sexual sin, for example, willfully enjoying the sensation of sexual arousal, even for just a moment, is always mortal sin, deserving of eternal damnation. But the clincher is that, in the face of these glaring contradictions, the church has declared itself infallible, that is, never capable of an error in matters of faith and morals. Well, folks, if I remember my study of logic correctly, all that is needed to disprove a universal statement like the claim to infallibility is to cite a single case or incident in which it doesn't hold. That having been done, I find the doctrine of infallibility to be disproven and unable to prevent me from legitimately doubting or even denying something that the church teaches, if I have good reason to do so. My first obligation is to be a person of integrity, true to myself and my conscience, as the Church itself teaches.
And other teachings, indeed, are being called into question. I no longer believe in original sin, purgatory (and indulgences!), fallen angels who tempt us, that the Church cannot ordain women to the priesthood, nor a host of other doctrines that logically flow from the concept of original sin, such as the redemptionist necessity of a savior to reopen the gates of Heaven to “fallen” human nature. It’s all based on a fable (Genesis 1-11); it’s an analogy to teach us something about the God “whom no human has seen or can see” (1 Tim. 6:16). When such fables are interpreted as factual history, we are in big trouble! That’s not to say that Sacred Scripture is without value—it is, indeed, a treasure trove of truth and wisdom. What is needed is a basic revision of our biblical interpretations—reading the Bible as it stands, full of metaphor and adaptation of its story lines, and not as literal and factual history. When we do, a very different picture emerges!
I can empathize with men who leave the priesthood because they have such doubts of faith. Sometimes I wish I would have left because of my conflict with Church teachings, practices and dogmas, rather than for the simple reason of having a lover. But nonetheless, I’m glad not to be in the pulpit any longer, because I’m afraid I’d be spending more time at the chancery, called on the carpet for my heretical notions, than at the altar!