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Issue Date:  May 20, 2005

By Jane Anderson
The Continuum International Publishing Group, 215 pages, $24.95
The secret life of priests


Jane Anderson has done the Catholic church a great service with her book Priests in Love. She has won the confidence of a significant number of priests, especially of priests in love. This confidence allows them to speak to the church through her book in a way that has not been done before, at least to my knowledge. She brings into the discussions about priestly celibacy the voices of priests bound by a law of celibacy but conflicted by the human experience of love. She offers these priests anonymity to facilitate their speaking the truth of their experiences to the whole church, a large part of which is not yet ready to listen to their stories.

Their stories are profoundly sad and dancingly happy, constricting and gloriously liberating, generating both despair and hope for the future of the Catholic priesthood and the church. Dr. Anderson, an anthropologist from Western Australia, looks at the reality of the priesthood today, with all the attendant problems of sexual abuse, homosexuality and love affairs, and has this to say: “[T]here is a story that moves beyond negativity and mere titillation. That story belongs to priests who love their friends and treasure the priesthood. In caring for both, they are attempting to find a pathway toward a happier future, not just for themselves but also for the church and the world.”

Dr. Anderson takes us on a kind of Chaucerian pilgrimage toward that future by presenting the tales of some pilgrims who are priests and their lovers and some other friends. One of the men who speaks to us is Fr. Matthew. He tells us:

I’m in my 30s and love so very dearly the precious gift of priesthood. However, I also value very dearly this wonderful and intimate relationship with someone. … I fell in love with [Naomi]. Since then, we have sustained a deep, fulfilling, mutual relationship. … Through her, I am able to experience so deeply the beauty of the intimate God that has colored the essence of my existence. And so in turn I have been enabled to offer a God of truly unconditional love not just through cold words or black and white symbols but through an animated, integrated, intimate, personal experience and response in a richer and truer loving faith.

Not all “priests with friends” (the phrase Dr. Anderson uses to identify priests and their lovers, be they hetero- or homosexual) manage to arrive at the integration of their loves as Fr. Matthew describes. Such relationships lead some priests to this kind of contentment while it leads others to confusion, anger or despair.

Dr. Anderson places these experiences in the context of seminary training, the idealism of young men, the intransigent stand of the hierarchy in favor of mandatory celibacy, philosophical currents over the centuries, church history and church documents. She roots the present stance of the church in Platonic idealism and the rigid categorical thinking characteristic of Thomistic philosophy. Out of these philosophies come a denigration of the body and the feminine element of creation. Even though at the time of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) some progress was made, she maintains that there has been a conservative retrenchment and the church remains an heir to these attitudes.

The author is critical of the hierarchy for a patriarchal style of governance and a rigidity and narrowness that stifle the Spirit. The refusal to discuss publicly the many issues surrounding mandatory celibacy is producing a malaise and a discontent that ultimately harms the church, she contends.

Starting on Page 159, we find a telling commentary by Fr. Thomas, who left the active ministry to marry. He tells us that after he left the priesthood, several of his classmates contacted him. He learned that in his ordination class of 10, three had had heterosexual relationships and three had had homosexual relationships. The secrecy of these relationships underscored the superficiality of the “priestly fraternity.” The paucity of genuine personal communication in the clerical world makes it easy for priests to maintain all sorts of relationships without their fellow priests being suspicious, let alone fully aware.

The reality evident in just this one ordination class ought to impel the pope and the bishops to encourage discussion about celibacy in the Catholic priesthood. There is much healing to be done, a healing that will never take place as long as honest discussion is forbidden. There is a richness of ministry available to the church that we will never see as long as the sincere request for dialogue is denied, as happened to priests in Milwaukee in August 2003, when they asked that the question of mandatory celibacy be placed on the agenda of the U.S. bishops’ conference.

Dr. Jane Anderson’s book acknowledges the legitimacy and value of a freely chosen celibacy but asks also that we come to recognize the legitimate and holy aspirations of “priests in love.” Her book is sure to spark a conversation in the church that cannot be ignored. Let’s hope that the conversation is undertaken in a spirit of humility and openness. The church can only benefit from our being honest with one another.

Fr. Andrew P. Connolly is a priest of the Rockville Centre, N.Y., diocese and national coordinator of the Priests’ Forum for Eucharist, a forum on optional celibacy.

National Catholic Reporter, May 20, 2005

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