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Confessions of a Former Celibate

An ex-priest speaks out

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Let me place my card on your tray. I lived as a celibate priest for 22 years and have now lived for 25 years as a married man. While a priest, I headed the psychological panel of a multidisciplinary study of the American priesthood which was commissioned by the country's Catholic bishops. As a psychologist I have been privileged to hear from the inside how priests live the celibate commitment that is required in the Roman Church.

Some say that the church's problems in recruiting priests would end if celibacy were abolished. This is the same kind of misplaced confidence that leads people to think their troubles will end if they win the lottery. Celibacy is, I believe, a valid choice for mature men and women who want to give their lives and energy to a special cause, such as serving the poor or teaching the young. Only healthy persons -- those who give without taking back more in return -- can make such a choice, and the world is filled with dedicated priests and nuns who are models of this. Celibacy should, therefore, be made optional and should no longer be an absolute condition for becoming a priest. (Last week, the Boston Archdiocese's official newspaper ran an editorial calling for an examination of this issue.)

For the most mature of men -- that's the short line over there -- sexuality is often as much a puzzle as it is a test. It may be compared to a choir of voices that seems to have been organized without consultation with the person involved. Despite rehearsals, it never sounds like the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. There are times when the harmony is almost complete but, as in anything human, it's never perfect and stray notes and flat tones are often heard. Sometimes the choir surprises us with what they choose to sing; sometimes they refuse to sing at all.

All of this concern is so very human, attested to by every rack of magazine covers -- the women's magazines trumpeting what men want and the men's magazines explaining what women want -- month after month, year after year. One feels like the French priest who, after hearing confessions in the mud and blood of World War I, told Andre Malraux of how like children most men were.

I have, therefore, listened with a sympathy born of the at-heart innocence of so many men who have felt every emotion of obsessive self-appraisal and self-doubt in trying to live as sexual beings. Next to sex, and perhaps related to it, only golf finds men talking so much about the game -- how they play it, how they played it, how they will play it next time -- except that they play it with each other and are sometimes terrified that, if they let women into the club, they will charge into the locker room and find them all naked. There is, I believe, less sin and certainly less sophistication than is supposed concerning sex in American men.

The wider world doesn't lack for celibates. These are people so involved in their callings that they are fulfilled as they fulfill others. For many people, who give so much time to their work that they hardly recognize their own children, a secular celibacy would make sense. They could stay in their laboratories or their offices and avoid the collateral damage they do to wives and children by chronically neglecting them. Is there a story sadder than that of a grown-up who has spent all his life trying to find his father -- that man, neither celibate, married nor mature, who was never really present for his children?

When you hear good people speak honestly about their lives, whether they're priests, professors or private eyes, you are more touched by the poignancy of their accounts than appalled by the problems of their sexual experiences. You emerge, blinking into the daylight, feeling the profound truth of psychiatrist Harry Stack Sullivan's observation that "We are much more simply human than anything else."

All the tales, whether of men seeking to preserve or to lose their virginity, are touching for they are variations on the theme of how, despite years in cloistered monasteries or in wide-open modern life, so many struggle to understand their sexuality and to meet the expectations, whether heavenly or worldly, of being a man in serene and confident control of all the elements of sexuality.

How, then, do priests, forced to accept celibacy, live it? In our in-depth study of priests (The Catholic Priest: Psychological Investigations, United States Catholic Conference, 1972) we learned that well-developed men observed the celibacy requirement with great fidelity. Yet these, the most mature of priests, did not live it as this sweetly singing virtue, as much as they adjusted to it as a bland circumstance of their service to their people.

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