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My first year in Rome, James Kavanaugh wrote a national best seller called A Modern Priest Looks at His Outdated Church.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.


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)  

Amoris Laetitia: Pope Francis’ Recent Publication is a Real Cliff-Hanger

Amoris Laetitia

It was like a cliff-hanger novel that had me on the edge of my seat. I’m talking about Pope Francis’ latest publication – his Apostolic Exhortation, Amoris Laetitia: On Love in the Family (AL). In it the pope purposed to gather the contributions of bishops at their extended Episcopal Synod which met over the last two years. The meetings were tasked with responding to the contemporary crises of the family and human sexuality including contraception, abortion, divorce, and same-sex marriages (AL 4).

The Exhortation read as if it were the plot of a Wild West thriller:

A backward town has been taken over by a gang of crooks, frauds and perverts. They’re well-entrenched. And the Black Hats have all the locals cowering behind locked doors. Unexpectedly however, a new sheriff shows up with his shiny star and white hat. The gangsters try to bribe him to join up with them. Sheriff Frank is clearly tempted throughout most of the book. But then in the final chapter, without warning he shows his true and familiar colors. In concluding scenes reminiscent of “OK Corral,” the sheriff utterly defeats the Black Hats calling on a secret weapon no one foresaw.

That’s roughly the tale of Pope Francis, his Vatican adversaries, the Episcopal Synod, and Amoris Laetitia.

Beforehand, observers knew that many of the Synod’s participants comprised a dark gang – patriarchal traditionalists stubbornly opposed to any changes in church doctrine. They would surely uphold moralist positions which Nancy Reagan expressed so well: “Just say No!” Reaffirm tradition and law, and expect the faithful meekly to obey.

At the same time, everyone was also aware that Pope Francis’ leanings were in the opposite direction. As new sheriff in town he had won the hearts of the world from the moment he uttered his first papal words identifying him with St. Francis of Assisi — the 13th century friar whose humble simplicity has rendered him the most beloved saint in all of Christian history.

The early chapters of Amoris Laetitia are like listening to the backroom argument between Sheriff Frank and those tempting him to cross over to their dark side. It’s a back-and-forth that has readers wondering which side the pope is really on.

The Black Hat Gang insists on doing things “the way they’ve always been done around here, Sheriff.” This means:

  • No change in the church’s position on contraception (AL 68, 80, 82, 222).
  • Same with abortion (42, 83).
  • Ditto for extra-marital sex (125)
  • And trans gender identifications (56)
  • “Marriage” between same sex partners has absolutely nothing to do with marriage as intended by God (52, 251,292).
  • The divorced and remarried are objectively living in conditions of sin (292).
  • Euthanasia and assisted suicide are strictly forbidden (48, 83).

Sheriff Frank seems confused at first. He retorts:

  • Remember, we’re all just wounded human beings prone to mistakes and recovering within the Church’s field hospital (291).
  • Poverty, immaturity and lack of education force people into apparently “sinful” choices only they can understand (201, 294, 295, 302).
  • Women in particular have a tough time in this “man’s world” (54, 156). Men need to listen to them (203).
  • And if we’re truly reject abortion and euthanasia, we must also firmly reject the death penalty (83).
  • Moreover, objectively speaking, second marriages following divorce are often more loving and healthier than first. The divorced and remarried are not living in sin (301).
  • As for same sex attractions and sexual transformations, remember we’re all male and female to some extent; it’s not simply a matter of biology (56, 286).
  • And none of us needs to answer everyone’s problem (2, 38). That’s what consciences are for (37).
  • Above all, remember square everything with the example of Jesus, his universal love and his prohibition about judging others (58, 79, and 250,296,308).

There’s much more to the argument. But you get the flavor.

What’s important is where the new sheriff comes down – how he defeats the Black Hat Gang in Amoris Laetitia’s happy ending. In short, he fires his “silver bullet” – MERCY. He makes an argument that can only be called a species of  “Situation Ethics.” In the end, he says, mercy dictates that:

  • Although the Black Hat Gang is correct that the objective demands of God’s law must be recognized as applying to everyone without exception (295),
  • Human beings only gradually integrate the law’s requirements over the course of their entire lives (295).
  • This means that circumstances such as immaturity, pace of moral development, lack of knowledge, appreciation of the law, along with a whole host of mitigating circumstances (302) often excuse subjects from the law’s requirements, at least temporarily (295).
  • In the end, conscience, love, and mercy [recognition of life’s “wonderful complications” (308)] are the most reliable guides we humans have (295).

That’s the pope’s final word on the contemporary crises of the family and human sexuality including contraception, abortion, divorce, and same-sex marriages.

That, after all, is about as much as Sheriff Frank or anyone can do for Catholics. The rest, as he says, is up to us – and the sovereignty of our consciences.

The Pope’s Address to Congress: First Impressions

Pope Congress 2

It was a fabulous speech by the world’s leading spiritual and thought-leader, who has just produced our century’s most important public document, Laudato Si’, the papal encyclical on the environment.

Pope Francis addressed not just the dignitaries in the Senate chambers, but all of us – parents struggling to support families, social activists, the elderly and the young.

The pope emphasized communitarian values: dialog, the common good, solidarity, cooperation, sharing, and the Golden Rule.

He held up for emulation four counter-cultural heroes he understood as embodying the most admirable of “American” values. They weren’t Rockefeller, Reagan, Jobs, or even FDR. Instead they were:

  1. Abraham Lincoln: the champion of liberty for the oppressed
  2. Martin Luther King: the advocate of pluralism and non-exclusion
  3. Dorothy Day: the apostle of social justice and the rights of the poor
  4. Thomas Merton: the Cistercian monk who embodied openness to God and the capacity for inter-faith dialog.

Of course, Lincoln and King were victims of assassination for championing the rights of African Americans.

Day and Merton vigorously resisted what Dorothy Day called “this filthy, rotten system.” (As is well-known, she was also an unwed mother whose first pregnancy ended in abortion.)

Following the examples of The Four, the pope called for the end of:

  • Fundamentalisms of every kind – including economic fundamentalisms
  • Political polarizations that prevent opposing parties from dialog and cooperation
  • Exclusion of immigrants by a nation of immigrant descendants
  • Capital punishment and its replacement by programs of rehabilitation
  • The global arms trade and arms sales in general along with the wars and violence they stimulate
  • Violent conflict and its replacement by difficult but essentially diplomatic process of dialog
  • The human roots of climate chaos and the related problems of poverty
  • Unlimited and directionless development of technology

Throughout this gentle but radical speech, the audience seemed to be waiting for the other shoe to drop – i.e. for the pope to mollify his conservative critics by addressing their favorite “religious issues” contraception, abortion, gay marriage. But the shoe never hit the floor.

At two points the pope about to untie his footwear. In mid-speech, he stated that we must protect and defend human life at every stage of its development. This lured his audience into a standing ovation.

However, the illustration of his point was not abortion, but capital punishment. Punishment for crime, Francis said, must never exclude hope and rehabilitation. We must end the death penalty, he asserted, since every life is sacred.

Then towards the end of his address, Francis spoke of his anticipated presence at this weekend’s Philadelphia Conference on the family. Families, he said, are threatened as never before, both from within and without.

But then, instead of addressing gay marriage, the pope spoke of the “most vulnerable” in this context – not the unborn, but “the young” threatened by violence, abuse and despair. Many of them hesitate to even start families, he lamented – some because of their own lack of possibilities. Others demur because they have too many possibilities. “Their problems are our problems,” the pope said. We must address them and solve their underlying causes.

It was a masterful speech. It continually lured conservatives into standing ovations for issues they constantly oppose: the end of the capital punishment, protection of the environment, openness to immigrants, the end of arms sales of all kinds. The address summoned legislators to their real responsibility – pursuing the common good, the chief aim, the pope said, of all politics.

The pope’s basic message was be daring and courageous – like the counter-cultural activists, Lincoln, King, Day, Merton, and (I would add) Pope Francis!

Five Issues for the New Pope to Address — and to guide in his selection


So the cardinals of the church are meeting to elect the next pope. Who cares? The media obviously do. The Catholic Church is getting a lot of air time and ink. But some of us might be caught yawning.

The yawn issues from the fact that the last two disastrous papacies (John Paul II and Benedict XVI) have so tightly packed the College of Cardinals with reactionary clones of themselves that any hope of rescuing the Romans from their deepest crisis since the Reformation seems remote at the very best.

But if there is hope of such rescue it resides in electing a pontiff who will directly address five issues: (1) summoning an Ecumenical Council, (2) opening priestly ordination to women, (3) abolition of mandatory celibacy for priests, (4) retraction of the prohibition of artificial contraception, and (5) practical adoption of liberation theology and its preferential option for the poor.

To begin with, an Ecumenical Council seems required not only to overcome the impression that the Roman Curia operating in its bubble has become hopelessly corrupt. It is necessary as well to bolster the teaching of the Second Vatican Council about collegiality after the twin papacies just mentioned did all they could to undermine cooperation with rather than dictating to local bishops.

An Ecumenical Council would also demonstrate serious intent to address the crisis of clerical pedophilia which is global in nature and requires global input to solve. Additionally, a general meeting of the world’s bishops would elicit input from theologian-advisers whose creative thought has been devalued over the last 35 years (dumbing-down the church in the process) and whose collective intellectual power transcends the capacity of any new pope who might be elected.

Secondly, the new pope and his Council must address the issue of women’s ordination. Opening the ranks of the priesthood in this way would have a twofold effect. Above all, it would be an act of restorative justice. It would incorporate into roles of church leadership its single most effective and committed constituents – whose contributions have been especially attacked, belittled and denigrated over the final year of Benedict XVI’s reign.

Admitting women to the priesthood would also have the effect of putting into proper perspective papal claims of infallibility. After all, John Paul II recklessly invoked those claims to bolster his untenable position against women’s ordination. By reversing John Paul’s error, any new pope would implicitly abandon the papacy’s indefensible claim to infallibility – and its attendant inability simply to admit error and reverse other mistakes connected with priestly celibacy, contraception, and the handling of priestly pedophiles.

Priestly celibacy is the third issue crying out for attention. To pretend there is no connection between sexual deviance and mandatory celibacy represents a monumental act of denial. Common sense would dictate that suppression of the most basic of evolutionary drives is a recipe for disaster. It is not only connected with pedophilia and misogyny, but with the loneliness that is endemic to the celibate priesthood and central to the ineffectiveness of celibates preaching to congregations overwhelmingly composed of married couples and young people anticipating marriage.

Along with the opening of the priesthood to women, removal of the celibacy requirement would immediately remedy the priest-shortage of the Catholic Church. Simultaneously it would presumably allow the many who have abandoned their calling in favor of marriage to resume the work for which they were trained all those many years. There’s simply no denying that following Vatican II, the cream of the crop was lost to this senseless and counterproductive prerequisite to ordination. It’s time to welcome back the former priests who wish to return.

Equally senseless has been the top-down decision outlawing artificial contraception made by Pope Paul VI and expressed in his 1969 Encyclical “Humanae Vitae.” That document took the decision about contraception out of the hands of the very commission the pope had then appointed to review the church’s traditional teaching. In doing so, Paul VI backed away from Vatican II’s emphasis on episcopal collegiality, and set the stage for the full retreat embraced by the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Reversing “Humanae Vitae” would not only rectify a highly questionable teaching on contraception that obviously undermines the Vatican’s teaching on abortion; it would also move the church back on the track towards the democracy portended by Vatican II, but resisted by Rome since the end of the 18th century.

Finally, and most importantly in terms of relevance to the post-modern world, the new pope and the Council he summons must embrace liberation theology’s preferential option for the poor. I say “most importantly” because this item unlike the others goes directly to the heart of the Christian faith. Even the inveterate enemy of liberation theology, Benedict XVI in his days as Cardinal Ratzinger, recognized that liberation theology’s commitment to the poor is essential to the Judeo-Christian tradition. And with the majority of church members now located in the developing world, it is indispensable to the church’s relevance to insist that global economic and social policy be made on a percolate-up rather than a trickle-down basis.

Correlatively, a church siding with the poor must insist in no uncertain terms that current military expenditure (especially on the part of the United States) represents robbery from the world’s poor. It is also high time for the Vatican to get out of the banking business and its attendant ties to money laundering, the Italian mafia, and banking system’s inevitable preferential option for the rich.

The retreat from Vatican II represented by nearly 35 years of Ratzinger’s overweening influence as right-hand man of John Paul II and as Benedict XVI was premised on a false hope. Evidently the last two popes imagined that a restoration of a vaguely remembered halcyon past would somehow fill pews and restore order to a church irrelevantly led by a hierarchy of out-of-touch old men. So the two popes doubled down on the old order instead of following through on the promise and risks of Vatican II. The disasters of recent years have shown the foolishness of their wager.

It’s now up to the cardinals and the pope they will select to get the church back on track. The unacceptable alternative is to continue along a path that will inevitably lead to further disaster and continued irrelevance.