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Loss of healthy affection is the hidden tragedy


Last week a friend described a recent encounter with her pastor at a large parish event. “Can I give my pastor a hug?” the woman asked the priest as he made his way, greeting people, through the parish hall. “Sure, I’ll take hugs from anybody,” the priest replied, “as long as it’s in front of 300 people.” Everyone within hearing range laughed. But afterward, several parishioners commented that the dark humor is one of the sad byproducts of the recent sex abuse scandals.

When the Chicago archdiocese was rocked in the early ’90s by the first major wave of abuse cases and subsequent removal of more than 20 priests from ministry, priests already were talking about the ripple effects, which they predicted would change priest-parishioner relationships forever. “I’m afraid to tousle the hair of an altar boy in the sacristy after Mass,” a priest friend said. “How do I know that 20 years from now he won’t come back and say ‘Father X abused me in the sacristy when I was 10’?”

These sad anecdotes pale against the horrific reality of sexual abuse of children by clergy. The pre-eminent tragedy is what has happened to our children, compounded by the justified outrage at chancery cover-ups of known cases, “musical chairs” with assignments of offenders to parish after parish, and the payoffs and settlements to keep things under wraps.

No one can downplay the reality of these evils. We have lost our innocence as a church (perhaps long ago), and we mourn it. But I also grieve for what could be another casualty of it all -- a flight from healthy affectivity, friendships and deep human relationships by priests.

Nothing brought this home to me more clearly than reading the letter of Milwaukee Archbishop Rembert Weakland to Paul Marcoux, the man whom archdiocesan officials confirm received a $450,000 settlement from Weakland. (See NCR, May 31). Marcoux alleges date rape more than 20 years ago; Weakland acknowledged the settlement but categorically denied there was any abuse.

One almost feels like a voyeur reading the text of Weakland’s handwritten 1980 letter to Marcoux; the text has been widely published. But several newspapers, including The New York Times, omitted perhaps the most telling sections.

What is clear from the letter is that the archbishop fell in love. He had a romantic relationship, possibly a genital one, with the man. What is also evident is that Weakland reflected on the direction the relationship was going, and despite the pain it would inflict on himself and perhaps the other person, recommitted himself to his promised celibacy and his ministry:

“During the last months I have come to know how strained I was, tense, pensive, without much joy. I couldn’t pray at all. I just did not seem to be honest with God. I felt I was fleeing from him, from facing him. I know what the trouble was: I was letting your conscience take over for me and I couldn’t live with it. I felt like the world’s worst hypocrite. So gradually I came back to the importance of celibacy in my life -- not just a physical celibacy but the freedom the celibate commitment gives. … I cry as I write this: They are personally the greatest renunciations the Lord has asked me to make for his kingdom. I don’t ask you to understand, but I do ask you not to ridicule … ”

My anger at the financial settlement was almost eclipsed by anger that Marcoux exploits this intensely personal self-communication by Weakland by making it public. I could just imagine shredders working overtime as nervous bishops and priests hurried to destroy any correspondence containing even a remote hint of self-revelation or affection.

For many priests and religious, it has taken the decades since the Second Vatican Council to help achieve well-integrated psychosexual health. Boys and girls who entered high school seminaries at 14 often found themselves, in their 20s and 30s, in a state of arrested adolescent development, experiencing for the first time crushes and romantic behavior most people go through as teens. Religious people don’t have a monopoly. The human heart is a fragile but real school of life, and the human condition being what it is, I’d bet that most of us -- married and single, gay and straight, lay and religious -- muddle awkwardly through relationships on our way to wholeness and integration. Some of us, unfortunately, never get there; pedophiles are a case in point.

If it’s a tossup between Father A, who is cold and disconnected from people, and Father B, who has “fallen” by having had an adult romantic relationship but who has become a pastoral, prayerful and efficient leader, most Catholics would take Father B any day.

Priests -- like all of us but perhaps more than those of us with family and spouse -- need strong, healthy relationships, because celibacy is not about avoidance, but about loving. In the 1984 anthology, Celibate Loving, An Encounter in Three Dimensions, Jesuit L. Patrick Carroll summed up the challenge: “In every generation [of church life] there have been too many crusty bachelors and mean old maids masquerading as celibates, going to their graves without once letting sex rear its head. Too often love was squelched in the process, and they witnessed to nothing but will power.”

In this difficult time our priests, feeling weighed down by public scrutiny and under siege by the ongoing but necessary news coverage, could be tempted to be overly cautious, to stifle healthy intimacy and any expression of genuine affection for the people they serve. As Weakland’s letter demonstrates so powerfully, being a celibate who strives to be a loving person means being vulnerable, making poor choices at times, able to hurt and be hurt, but ultimately to be honest and make choices that are life-giving.

“Perfect love casts out fear,” Jesus told his disciples. Most of us will never love perfectly. But working on it throughout a lifetime, even amid the messiness and pain, certainly beats the alternative.

Pat Morrison is NCR managing editor.

National Catholic Reporter, June 7, 2002