Sex and the single Catholic priest

A former archbishop has admitted he's gay, the latest in a series of church scandals. Is it time to get rid of celibacy?

By Frances Kissling
Published May 13, 2009 10:17AM (EDT)

There seems to be no end to Catholic sex scandals. In mid-April we learned that the former bishop of San Pedro Paraguay, who resigned from the priesthood to become president of that country, had multiple affairs with women and fathered at least one child (and probably more). Earlier in May, a tabloid caught Father Alberto Cutie, the Miami-based talk show host known as "Padre Oprah," kissing and frolicking with his girlfriend.

Now comes the news that former Archbishop Rembert Weakland has written a memoir in which he admits for the first time that he is gay. Weakland resigned in 2002 after news broke that he had paid off Paul Marcoux, an adult male who claimed he'd had a sexual relationship with the bishop. Weakland denied the charges; the payment made that hard to believe.

Coming out of the closet at 82 must be painful. It is also tragic -- so much time lost hiding from yourself and others. Perhaps most touching in Weakland’s revelations is his acknowledgment of "how lonely it is to be a bishop." Or, I’d add, an ordinary priest.

For priests gay or straight, the strictures of celibacy have created lonely, unfulfilled and often socially inept men -- the last thing we need in religious leaders. I remember back to my own Catholic parish of the 1950s where priests were either young hunks the girls swooned over or bitter old men whom we now know were drinking themselves to death in the rectory.

It got a little better after the Second Vatican Council, when religious life was reformed and some attention was paid to psychological aspects of a celibate life. Priests were encouraged to have women friends (no one talked about sex, gay or straight), but the burden of celibacy remained. Many priests left and got married or went into open gay relationships.

For many others, like Weakland, it was just too late. As he tells it, he denied his homosexuality until his relationship with Marcoux in the late 70s. He agonized over the affair and in an August 1980 letter to Marcoux, he broke off the relationship and recommitted to celibacy. He signed the letter "I love you." Makes me want to weep. In a sense, he recommitted to a life that denies our emotional responsibility to others and demands that we lie. I am sure that such self-denial distorts other decisions and contributed strongly to Weakland’s now-admitted practice of reassigning pedophile priests to other parishes, which allowed them to continue to abuse children with impunity. Weakland’s remarks on this matter indicate he has not yet come to grips with the damage he did.

I can think of at least two other bishops (both cardinals) and countless priests who have gone through similar anguish and, like Weakland, gave up the lover and recommitted to celibacy. One mellowed and grew as a humble human being, as it seems has Weakland. The other became a judgmental prick. We’d all be better off if priests and bishops did not have to choose between their love for the church and their love for a partner. Mandatory celibacy too often destroys the priest and in turn those he serves. Time to get rid of it.

Frances Kissling

Frances Kissling is a visiting scholar at the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania. She is the former president of Catholics for a Free Choice.

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