"Confessions of a Former Celibate"

By Eugene Kennedy


Salon Staff
March 21, 2002 1:00AM (UTC)

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I was born and raised a Catholic and have struggled with doubts about this bewildering religion since I was 12. For a long period of time I simply stayed away from the church, but always returned in one sense or another. In 1993, my archdiocese was embroiled in the worst clergy sexual abuse scandals imaginable. I stayed away and even tried to seek out another religion entirely. But again I returned. When I did I found that nothing had changed and my problems with the church weren't part of some adolescent rebellion after all. Now I wonder how these powerful church officials will deal with this scourge of pedophilia, denial and the defiant, defensive silence. If they don't resolve this, I will drift over to the Episcopalians and join the rest of the 21st century. It has become harder and harder to remember the good priests and nuns in my community who are suffering because of the callous, willfully ignorant actions of powerful people like Cardin -- à la Lay, another who is so desperate to hang onto power that he won't do right by all the victims.

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The time has come for church authorities to account for themselves. In my own eyes, priests no longer have the authority to tell anyone how to run their sex lives, plan their families or gauge their morality. I take no pleasure in watching the Catholic Church bury itself alive, but if certain topics like mandatory celibacy for the clergy, the ban on birth control or homosexuality remain closed to any discussion, this will be the last will and testament of the Catholic Church.

-- Mia Bell

Having spent several decades as a priest myself, I can appreciate some of Eugene Kennedy's insightful points. But my experience compels me to report that the image of a bunch of straight, mature, deeply committed, highly involved and "high-spirited" celibate males corresponds to no rectory or religious house I've ever encountered. It is a romanticization on a par with Bing Crosby's and Barry Fitzgerald's portrayals, or the pleasantly inane chaplain on the old "MASH" TV series.

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Make the following subtractions from the total number of priests: those who are alcoholic, psychosexually immature, more interested in administrative promotion than in ministering to the faithful and finally those sexually active (whether straight or gay). You've already deeply culled the herd.

The problem is that being a priest mostly requires skills from the feminine aspect of personality. So holding forth the possibility that there can be, or ever was, a mature straight priesthood in numbers sufficient to meet the needs of the church, is unrealistic. This is not to assert the preeminence of gay men as capable priests. Between the repressed and closeted, the hyper-"queens" and the sexually active, the very, very large "community" of gay priests has its own issues to deal with.

Permitting priests the option of marriage will do some good; acknowledging homosexual orientation would help the already large number of gay priests to maturely embrace their responsibilities; and admitting women to the priesthood would certainly widen the candidate pool. There is no easy solution, but romanticizing a golden era will only distract us from constructively addressing this serious situation and from developing the powerful potential of a capable and committed priesthood.

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-- Joseph DiStephano Champion

While Eugene Kennedy's article mentioned in passing one salient fact -- that celibacy was established as a requirement for the priesthood in order for the Catholic Church to hold on to property -- the details of the plight of heterosexuals is beside the point. While much ink has been spilled in recent years over a small wacko fringe group called the National Man-Boy Love Association (NAMBLA), the largest, most protected and well-financed pedophile cult in this culture, namely the Roman Catholic Church, has been ignored. This situation is clearly changing, but the lives this cult has ruined remain as abject as ever. As a former Catholic and an out-and-proud gay man of 55, I have witnessed with no small degree of outrage the way this cult has attacked gay and lesbian youth and adults who live their lives with moral honesty as being "intrinsically disordered." The church should look in the mirror when speaking those words.

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-- David Ehrenstein

Eugene Kennedy (described as a former priest, if there is such a thing in the rigid Catholic view of things) somehow never mentions the existence of gay men, who according to conservative estimates now make up most of the priesthood. Though I was fortunately not brought up in this weird religion, I have encountered many Roman Catholics along the way including a number of priests and brothers (almost all gay). It is clear why gay men are drawn to the religious life: It gives their lives a dignity and authority that would never be possible if they were forced to marry women and compete in the business world. And the genius of the religion is to forgive each and every sexual episode, as long as the petitioner is truly sorry he did it. What more can you ask? The pedophiles are only a minority, I'm sure, but how often do you hear about priests molesting adolescent girls? Priests are usually gay men deprived of their own adolescence when they could not admit to their real desires. So it's inevitable that some of them will find adolescents attractive even into their own 60s and 70s. The true pedophiles are those who prey on preadolescent children. Those who prey on 15-year-olds are just trying to revisit their own lost sexuality, which is as sad as it is immoral and illegal.

-- Jim Humphreys

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It's quite clear from empirical evidence that even if men don't have sex, they think about it constantly. The less sex a man actually has, the more these thoughts become obsessions. Apologists for the Catholic Church often mention the statistical vindication that the number of priests (revealed to be) indulging in the sexual abuse of the young is small, compared to the volume of priests who do only good. This may be true, but comparing the percentage of priests accused of sexual abuse to the percentage, of, say, astrophysicists accused of the same leads to a fairly damning conclusion.

-- Steven Augustine

What about the tyranny of the marital state? In a world of divorce and unhappy marriage, it's ironic to see the longing of the other side. I have been a cynic, thinking that the confessional was invented to inform the confessors that life is not so peachy on the other side.

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How many women (and men for that matter) married because it was expected -- marriages and families the product of substantial exernal social and family (not to mention economic) pressure? Perhaps this still happens. Have you ever asked a Protestant minister how possible it is to progress in the ministry without a wife, a necessary appendage to resolve any questions over whether the minister has any sexual or social "issues"? Or what happens when his wife -- her own person -- goes through a separate "journey" of faith, doubt or even renunciation?

Celibacy is a form of tyranny. So is marriage. Let's face it, any kind of personal commitment of the magnitude of marriage or priesthood can tyrannize individuals.

-- B. Ryland

Celibacy is a practice employed in other traditions besides Catholicism, and it is worth noting the difference. In the Eastern traditions of Buddhism and Hinduism, the mendicant or monk takes vows of renunciation of worldly pleasures as a means of self-purification and meditative practice. Celibacy is practiced in conjunction with a number of other daily pursuits such as prayer, fasting, physical work, meditation, chanting, reading scriptures, yoga exercises, begging, etc. The relationship of the monk, or mendicant, to the society as a whole is not considered one of power, as it is in Catholicism. Abuse can obviously occur in the context of these traditions too, but it is more likely to happen in the institutional patriarchy of Catholicism. One of the truths expressed in Buddhism is the principle of impermanence: Anything that has a beginning has an end. The Catholic hierarchy stresses that the church was founded by Jesus Christ, savior of mankind. It was actually founded by men who followed Jesus. I believe Jesus was a great being, but savior of mankind is a pretty tall order. I prefer the Eastern approach, that the God-realized, or enlightened, state is available to all, and can be attained through dedicated practice. I don't need a priest to stand as gatekeeper. One of the luckiest things that ever happened to me was flunking out of being an altar boy.

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-- John Hamilton

The rule on celibacy for Catholic priests should be reinforced rather than abolished. For if priests cannot live up to their vows, doing away with celibacy will not make them more self-disciplined than before.

Priests lacking in self-discipline when married will then also violate their marriage vows. When that happens, will they move for the abolition of monogamy since it is difficult to maintain a monogamous marriage in thoughts, words and deeds?

Infidelity among laymen is quite common. Should they not also move for polygamy if priests no longer want to be celibate?

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-- Gras Reyes

A new monk arrives at the monastery. He is assigned to help the other monks in copying the old texts by hand. He notices, however, that they are copying copies, not the original books. So, the new monk goes to the head monk to ask him about this. He points out that if there were an error in the first copy, that error would be continued in all of the other copies.

The head monk says "We have been copying from the copies for centuries, but you make a good point, my son." So, he goes down into the cellar with one of the copies to check it against the original.

Hours later, nobody has seen him. So, one of the monks goes downstairs to look for him. He hears a sobbing coming from the back of the cellar, and finds the old monk leaning over one of the original books crying. He asks what's wrong.

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The old monk sobs, "The word is celebrate."

-- Ed


Salon Staff

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