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Monday, December 2, 2013

Sex And The Single Priest

Bill Keller writing in the New York Times (12.2.13) talks about ‘lonely’ priests, and how for most, enforced celibacy has deprived them of fulfilling lives.  Only through the sacrament of marriage, he suggests, and the love and caring that comes from it, can a priest be free from tormenting sexual frustrations and nurture the empathy required for ministering to his married flock.

“Lots of people don’t see [celibacy] as some extraordinary act of witness,” said Thomas Groome, who heads the department of religious education and pastoral ministry at Boston College. “They see it as just a peculiar lifestyle, and one not to be trusted.” Groome was a priest for 17 years but left to be a husband and father. “The loneliness of it, I think, can drive people crazy,” he told me. “I’ve known hundreds of priests in my life,” from student days in an Irish seminary through the priesthood and decades as a theologian. “I don’t know too many diocesan priests, maybe three or four, who have lived a rich, life-giving, celibate lifestyle.”

This may be true, but up to a point. It didn’t take the recent scandals of the Catholic Church for most of us to realize that clerical cadres were overwhelmingly gay; and if one subscribed to the current canon that the gay lifestyle is normal, natural, and as rich and rewarding as the straight one, then Catholic priests must be in Seventh Heaven.  They eat, sleep, and pray with gay brethren, play and frolic with them, and have a super time. Whether or not they have sex is irrelevant.

So I don’t buy the lonely bit at all.  The Church these days is perfectly balanced.  Few heterosexual men want to lead a life of celibacy so do not join the clergy.  Gay men embrace the opportunity to be in a privileged, members-only clerical club, and they can do as fine a fire-and-brimstone job as their straight colleagues.  I remember when I was still attending church back in the Fifties, Father Donnelly was known to be ‘queer’.

My father’s friends all did a swishy version of him sweeping down the aisle in his vestments, swinging the censer back and forth with panache, and lisping his way through his sermons.

Yet Father Donnelly could give a sermon like nobody’s business. He started slowly, reading a passage from Ecclesiastes and its message about the fruitless search for contentment.  He paused and looked out over the congregation.  “I know none of you are content”, he said quietly, “but that is because you are looking in dark places.  You are, following winding paths that lead nowhere except back on themselves.  You find yourself at the beginning again, empty, bereft, unhappy, and despondent”.

Again he paused, proud of his eloquence as he saw every eye in the church on him, waiting for him to offer some hope, some offer of salvation.  But Father Donnelly was not through by any means.  He went on to talk of those dark places, full of vipers, devilish hydras, temptresses, hucksters, and murderers of the soul.

Eventually he left allegory and metaphor and got personal, which always meant sex.  “You are the generation of vipers”, he shouted, “you reprobates, sinners, and fornicators.  There is no contentment awaiting you, only the sulfurous fires of Hell”.

Here he would survey his audience and hone in on a Mr. Murphy, the Lothario of St. James parish.  Bill Murphy ran a dry cleaning store on Main Street, and took young ladies to the back room and had his way with them on the big ironing boards where Polish immigrants did shirts.  All of us used to peer through the dirty, wired windows of his shop facing the alley, hoping to get a glimpse of the titties of one of his girls.

Father Donnelly again paused for dramatic impact. Then, looking the dry cleaner straight in the eye said, “Hypocrites, liars, fornicators.  You who have the audacity to come into God’s house with the stink of lust on you.  You will burn in hell for all eternity.”

Mr. Murphy looked down at his shoes and hunched his shoulders at this withering barrage.  Father Donnelly was really good at his job even though he was queer, said my father.

Now, this was the Fifties, so most parishioners of St. James assumed that Father Donnelly was a one-off; and that all the other, younger priests were as straight as arrows.  Perhaps they were, and perhaps they, like the rest of us, suffered under the strict moral code of the age.  I doubt it. Take prisons, for example, where supposedly macho killers are buggering each other left and right.  Three priests alone in the rectory with nothing else to do but chat and read Ecclesiastes? Hardly. I am sure that the priests of the Fifties, just like those of today, enjoyed the community of like-minded and like-sexually oriented men.  And if they weren’t ‘really’ gay, so what.  Why not join in the fun?

Pope Francis realizes that this is not the issue.  It may be all well and good to have a gay clergy who are very good at what they do; but if they cannot identify with the 90 percent of their flock who are straight, then there is a problem.  As much as society has changed and become far more tolerant and accepting of gays, families still prefer straight men in the pulpit, in the confessional, and in the sacristy.  Not so much because they are concerned about groping and abuse – the recent disgrace of the Church surely has put a stop to that – but because of desire for empathy. 

It is bad enough that a straight priest cannot possibly understand what a husband has to endure from a hectoring wife, unruly children, and a vixen for a mother-in-law; gay priests have no clue whatsoever.  At least a straight priest at some point has wanted to fuck the daylights out of a woman and therefore understands how men’s dicks always get them into trouble; but a gay priest simply travels with a different crowd.  Better to have women priests than gay ones, many men think.

Pope Francis is said to be sympathetic and is considering ending the ban on celibacy.

In parts of Latin America and Africa, priests marry or have common law wives and the church looks the other way. Francis knows this well. As archbishop of Buenos Aires, the future pope befriended a radical and famously noncelibate bishop, Jeronimo Podesta, ministered to him on his deathbed.

Of course it is only relatively recently that the Vatican has taken such an uncompromising line on celibacy.  The priests back in the time of Henry VIII lived like princes in the lap of luxury with wives and concubines.  The king didn’t mind the sexual peccadilloes so much as he did the luxury. So he closed the monasteries, and the rest is history.

Different parts of the Catholic Church have dealt with celibacy and sexual matters quite differently. In Italy and France, whose societies are open and easy-going, and where presidents, royalty, and the common man all have affairs, mistresses, and dalliances, priestly sex is taken for granted.  In Ireland, however, a land of sexual repression bar none, sex is taboo.  Unfortunately the Eastern American Church has been dominated by the Irish, and those of us who grew up under their unforgiving code were hammered far more relentlessly than our friends on the West Coast where the priesthood was more Italian.

In any case, clerical heterosexual activity is not new. 

Reestablishing  a heterosexual clergy, however, will not be easy. First of all, gay priests will not take such a decision lightly.  It will break up a nice, neat club that has been flying under the radar for decades.  Secondly, few straight married men will want to belong to a gay club, and it will take the really committed, vocation-driven applicant to do so. Think of how few men wanted to go to Vassar right after it went co-ed. 

There is an even more important issue.  The celibacy of priests, regardless of how cavalierly it may have been flaunted, gave the Church a certain moral authority.  In principle at least Catholic priests were devoted only to God (and nuns ‘married’ to Jesus Christ).

One Saturday afternoon I met the priest of the local Episcopal church.  He was in his yard clothes, had just taken out the trash, and was about the clean out the garage. “Sarah won’t leave me in peace until it’s done”, he said with a wry smile; but I knew that Bill Price was pussy-whipped and suffered more than most in his marriage.  I didn’t care so much about that.  God knows that he wasn’t the only man in that category.  It was that he was a man of God who supposedly had an inside track to Jesus Christ and God himself.  What was he doing taking out the trash for a ball-busting wife? 

I understand the principle of celibacy.  It’s just that no one, except the sexless (believe it or not there are men who simply are indifferent to sex and wonder what all the excitement is about), can possibly hew to this Platonic ideal.

The old Italians and French had the right idea – don’t get married, just have a little pussy on the side.  This relaxed compromise allowed for the release of priests’ natural, God-given sexual energy, but left them plenty of time, space, and independence to focus on prayer, salvation, and tending to their flocks.

Of course in this black-and-white day and age, this elegant solution will never see the light of day in Vatican boardrooms.  You are either gay or straight, married or celibate.  Nothing in between. Once straight men can marry and become priests, so will gay men.  And since both gay and straight men in marriages stray all the time, sexual dalliances among the clergy will be common and perhaps even tolerated and condoned.  In other words, the Catholic Church will resemble the rest of the world.

However, as I noted above, this is both a good thing and a bad thing.  If the Catholic Church loses all its mystery and its priests all become like Bill Price, it will be no more than a Unitarian meeting place for like-minded people more interested in community service, fund-raisers, and the environment than in God.

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