80th Birthday Reflections Part 5: The Priesthood & Disordered Celibacy

My first year in Rome, James Kavanaugh wrote a national best seller called A Modern Priest Looks at His Outdated Church. It was a general critique of the Catholic hierarchy for not going far enough with the Vatican II reforms. For Kavanaugh, the church was still too priest and hierarchy centered. It needed more democracy. 

However, what most of us remember about A Modern Priest was its rejection of celibacy as a prerequisite for ordination. The book sparked many discussions at the dinner and supper table where our community of 12-15 young priests took our meals each noon and evening.

There, debates about scripture, theology, politics were the liveliest and best-informed that I’ve ever experienced. And I took part with great enthusiasm. My studies at the Anselmo were radicalizing me. They took me beyond post-Vatican II positions I had previously never dreamed of regarding church reform, the inspiration of the Bible, Jesus’ divinity, Mary’s virginity, the Reformation, papal infallibility, the priesthood itself, and, of course, celibacy.

Reluctant Celibates   

Intense debates about that latter issue were influenced not only by Kavanaugh, but by the more general sexual revolution that was a central part of the ‘60s and ‘70s. The contraceptive pill had been introduced in 1960. And with the fear of unintended pregnancy largely shelved, sexual freedom became the watchword of the day. Priests were not immune from any of that.

Previously, I mentioned earlier my own concerns about “reluctant celibacy.” Every priest I knew shared them. In fact, as I traveled (on motor scooter) and worked with priests in Austria, Germany, France, Spain, England, Ireland, Scotland, Belgium, Poland and elsewhere during my summers in Europe, I couldn’t help but notice that some priests had openly set aside their reluctance. For all practical purposes, they had become married priests. (Later, in Brazil, Costa Rica and elsewhere in Latin America, Africa and India I came across evidence of the same phenomenon.)

That was one aspect of the priesthood and the sexual revolution; priests were voting with their feet against mandatory celibacy; mostly informally some were getting married. Another aspect was that priests in general were leaving in droves in order to marry; they were seeking Vatican dispensations from their vows – including 3/4 of those who had entered the high school seminary with me back in 1954. In fact, thousands upon thousands of priests worldwide were abandoning their vocations.

In between those two categories were priests I knew who had girlfriends – something totally unheard of in the church I had grown up in. There, particular female companionship was absolutely forbidden. Even more, it was entirely scandalous for ordained men to seek dispensation from their vows. And no one (at least in the U.S. church) would live openly with a female partner. At least, that was the church I knew.

The Big Ed Factor

The girlfriend phenomenon showed up with a vengeance on Corso Trieste with the arrival of a character called “Big Ed.” He was a bullshitter; there’s no other way of saying it. And he changed the atmosphere in our house. Not that he lived there, but he was greatly admired by a whole clique of my friends who did.

Big Ed claimed he was a priest. But I’m not sure about that. That’s because (as I said) he was an inveterate liar. His shtick was to tell the girls that he was Tom McNeely, the 1960s heavyweight prizefighter whom he apparently resembled. (He’d tell them that as he mixed, shared and downed pitchers of boilermakers.) I suspect the ruse worked with many women. But who knows if he was telling the truth about being a priest?

What I do know is that his shtick worked with that clique I mentioned. Not that they believed him about being McNeely. But they all thought he was very cool. And they certainly admired his savoir faire with the women. For a while there, it seemed that they went out clubbing with him almost every night. All of a sudden, every conversation the next morning at breakfast was about Big Ed this and Big Ed that. Suddenly the man was a legend; he could do no wrong.

I bring him up because Big Ed epitomized the changes I’m describing here around the issue of priestly celibacy. As the years lengthened following Vatican II, we all found ourselves loosening up in relation to the restrictions that were so much a part of our seminary lives. We were drinking more, clubbing more, and interacting more with women. Eventually, I was no exception – except in my doubts, suspicions, and reservations about Big Ed. Even according to my own more relaxed standards, he seemed over the top.

My Own Crisis

Yes, eventually, I succumbed – or rather, I would say I finally appropriated my own sexual identity and acceptance of close female friends. I made the decision to do so at the age of 30. I won’t go into detail about the resulting discoveries, relationships and repercussions – things that all of us have gone through, but at ages much earlier than 30.

Before any of that, my own decision was hastened by those lively discussions mentioned earlier. I mean my growing “radicalism” had not passed unnoticed by the rector of our house on Corso Trieste. So, one morning just before my 30th birthday, he said he wanted a word with me. I remember our walking together in our residence garden ‘round and ‘round the house in deep discussion.

The rector informed me that he had written a letter about me to the Columban Superior General. Because of what he heard me saying at table, the rector had identified me to our Society’s leadership as “dangerous” and unfit to teach in the seminary after the attainment of my doctoral degree. Moreover, the rector said, he was disturbed by the fact that some young females from a high school on our street had been seeking me out for spiritual guidance. He thought that was inappropriate and suspect.

I was completely shocked. First of all, I was amazed that the letter had been written before discussing it with me. But secondly, there was absolutely nothing inappropriate about those meetings with the girls in question. I was actually proud that my Italian was good enough to do something “pastoral” other than simply offering Mass at local churches and convents. (At this point, I was involved in an alternative, lay-led church connected with the high school. In the middle of each week, its members met to discuss and prepare the following Sunday’s liturgy. It was extremely inspiring). Thirdly, I knew that unlike others in our community, I was studiously avoiding relationships I still considered ill advised.

Processing It All

I remember subsequently writing such reflections in my diary. They drove me to think more deeply not only about celibacy, but about decision-making in the religious group I had joined and generally in the church. The celibacy obligation, I knew hadn’t been imposed on priests till about the 12th century. And it had largely originated from the desire on the part of church officials to protect ecclesiastical property from inheritance by the offspring of priests.

I now allowed myself to recognize that such avaricious motivation had created an entirely patriarchal, basically misogynist and hypocritical subculture. It inflicted guilt on young people for following the dictates of the second most powerful human drive (after self-preservation) viz. their sexual instinct (or as Darwin might put it, propagation of the species). The church did that in general. Practically speaking, it reduced faith to obsession with sex. It had in the process put unbearable burdens on unsuspecting young boys like me at the age of 14. In retrospect, all of that seemed like an unwitting form of abusing children too young to give informed consent. And then by the time age of consent was achieved, we were all too indoctrinated (not to say brainwashed) to escape.

With all of that more or less unconsciously in mind, the priests I was increasingly encountering were exercising what theologians called the “sensus fidelium” about celibacy. (Something similar had happened more widely regarding contraception and divorce.) As I was coming to understand it, that theologically recognized “sense of the faithful” referred to near unanimous agreement on the part of lay believers about a matter of faith or morals regardless of what the hierarchy might say. That implicit unanimity, I saw, had already been achieved among priests across the Catholic Church; they no longer believed in celibacy. Among other Christians, that consensus had long since been reached following the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century. Regardless of what the hierarchy might say, the people had spoken. In short, I concluded that celibacy was no longer a priestly obligation.

Conclusion

As I write these words, I’m not even sure I should be sharing their revelations. It would be very easy for readers to get the wrong idea judging harshly the young priests I’ve described (including myself) as hypocrites cynically unfaithful to a vow we had freely taken. It would be very easy to be shocked, repelled and (for Catholics) to feel somehow misled and even betrayed.

In retrospect however, I see it quite differently. As I knew them, the men in question had in no way abandoned their faith. They remained very good priests – compassionate, understanding, idealistic and kind. We were simply products of our time characterized by a sexual revolution that touched everyone.

Even more (as the great German theologian Karl Rahner put it) the young men in question were not sinners; rather, we had been sinned against. And the offending party was an ecclesiastical institution whose stubborn regulations had laid a nearly unbearable and certainly unnecessary burden on the shoulders of good willed, highly motivated youths who had accepted obligatory celibacy with little notion of its implications outside the seminary’s protective walls. We simply wanted to be priests, not celibates.

I’d go even further. The priests I’m talking about were implicitly or explicitly influenced by the very theological studies I’ve been celebrating here. Following Vatican II those studies affirmed the insights of secular disciplines such as history, sociology and psychology. Freud, Jung, and their successors had shown that the celibate decision involved much more than just saying no. And yet, no one was there to help priests figure out what that “more” entailed. In other words, many of us had moved from Rohr’s first “order” box into inevitable “disorder” around our celibacy. It would take most of us a long time and many errors before we could get to “reorder.”

(Next time: Political disorder)  

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Mike Rivage-Seul's Blog

Emeritus professor of Peace & Social Justice Studies. Liberation theologian. Activist. Former R.C. priest. Married for 45 years. Three grown children. Six grandchildren.

8 thoughts on “80th Birthday Reflections Part 5: The Priesthood & Disordered Celibacy”

  1. Mike, this is an incredible inside history of a revolutionary moment in the history of The Church. It fills in a picture I only saw from the outside. Having left the Holy Cross seminary mid-Junior year in HS (which had all to do with a leading that I couldn’t/shouldn’t let the Order decide my major in college — which would have been philosophy, of course). I avoided diving into the deep end of the pool (the very deep end of the pool) and then having the task of climbing out.

    Thanks.

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    1. Thanks for reading the posting, Hank. Your comment made me remember that I had no choice about anything I studied in the seminary. That changed in Rome, but still even there much of the curriculum was “required.” Your larger point however is about that “deep end” you reference. The pool had its benefits, but so, of course, did climbing out. It goes without saying that I’m glad I did. I could have drowned, but decided not to.

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    2. Mike — I don’t have your email. Just letting you know that someone is impersonating you on Facebook. They are non-native English speaking, wanting to know, via Messenger Chat, if I know about Trump’s Grant Assistance Program. You might want to reclaim your Facebook account (if you have one ).

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  2. Thank you for your openness and honesty. And quite frankly I find nothing in your revelation surprising. It seems to me there has always existed a general unhealthiness within the RC church around sexuality and sexual ethics.
    This is applicable to me as the 67 year old mother of a gay son.
    I worked diligently within the I institutional Church from 2005 to 2011 to support and advocate for Catholic parents of gay young people and the young LGBTQ persons themselves. When discussion of sexuality would arise I was consistently forced to deny my true attitudes around the issue of gay folks and their innate desire and need for relationships potentially involving sexual expression. When my son married his partner of 10 years in 2010 I realized that no longer could I maintain any ruse around my true feelings.
    The story of my departure from that work is too laden with drama to go into here but trust me the saga was chock full of intrigue involving the Church and its warped, twisted attitudes about sex.
    Catholic groups who persist in that work continue to face challenges around how to support their gay kids without admitting that they are in relationships which involve sexual expression. It’s especially infuriating when we know priests both gay and straight who have such relationships themselves.
    Frankly it’s all quite perverted!
    You may recall I was in Rome in 1972. I have blogged on your site in the past.
    Dan McGinn a virtuous man was a dear friend!
    Best,
    Ann

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    1. Yes, Ann, I do recall our meeting and your writing. Dan helped me through the period my current blog entry describes. And, of course, you’re right about the warped attitudes about sex that continue to characterize the Catholic Church. My heart goes out to gay people and the way they’ve been mistreated — including many of my priestly colleagues. As far as I’m concerned, the Catholic Church has lost all credibility when pontificating about such matters. Most of us, either explicitly or implicitly, have clearly drawn that conclusion. Thanks for your comment.

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  3. I respected the (celibate) nuns who taught during my five wonderful years of parochial school. However, I also thought that the Protestant approach to celibacy requirements was more practical and realistic, and made my catechism teacher unhappy once by quoting a biblical passage about how the mother of Jesus did not “know” her husband Joseph until after the baby had been born. When I was growing up, the media and social environment was saturated with sexual messages.

    Later in life, I began to look back at the pressures encountered by adolescents to “display” their sexual preferences and physical power, while at the same time being goaded to stay in school, not-marry and not assume adult responsibilities until well into our 20s. I think the messages are murky and unbalanced. Wish our society could honor celibacy as well as sexuality, and encourage people to act with more honesty and integrity, instead of being directed towards casual, unintentional hyperactivity.

    Sometimes honesty and integrity, and kindness, means refraining from entering into casual relationships that may leave a rejected former partner reeling with abandonment. There is an element of “crazy” to sexuality. Casually unleashed, this “crazy” can lead to suicides, neglected children, broken partnerships, social diseases, financial ruin, crime, and all manner of unhappy experiences. Encouraging balance in all things

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