Priests answer church's call but ask questions

Saturday, July 20, 2002

The Washington Post

Unlike generations ago when devout Catholic boys were encouraged to enter seminaries at an age when they presumably knew little of love and sexuality, now priests typically get ordained in their mid-thirties, according to a study by sociology professor Dean Hoge at Catholic University.

Modern seminary teachers make it their business to speak frankly about sexuality and to try to screen out men who seem to have a problem forming healthy relationships. Never having been on a date is not necessarily a plus.

The Rev. Bill Parent, director of priestly vocation for the Archdiocese of Washington, is in charge of recruiting priests. He is used to fielding questions about celibacy.

At the core of celibacy, isn't there just a little fear and loathing of sex?

Not at all, says Parent, 42. "It's precisely the holiness of sex within marriage that makes this sacrifice noteworthy. There's no virtue in forgoing something that is poisonous to the spirit."

Are celibates unsexual?

No. All humans are sexual beings, and Catholics believe God expects you to give your sexuality to the church in one of two vocations: marriage or celibacy, as a priest or nun, or even as a celibate, single layperson living a life of service. Sublimated sexual energy can infuse a priest's work with extra passion and devotion, they believe.

Homosexuals, however, are not offered a church-sanctioned option to practice their sexuality. Many have entered seminaries. Some research suggests the percentage of priests who are gay is larger than the gay share of the general population. One theory is that some devout gay men seek the celibate culture as a holy refuge from the Catholic condemnation of homosexual sex.

Is perfect celibacy possible? Richard Sipe, a former married monk who did a study of celibacy, estimates that, at most, 10 percent of priests are celibate their entire lives. Some skeptics suspect that many priests deal with sexual frustration by masturbating, then confessing to fellow priests.

Parent scoffs at the notion that there is widespread adultery or fornication involving priests. As for masturbation, he says, "it is no more of a problem for priests than it is for married men."

Are sexual dreams allowed?

Yes. "You are not culpable for your dreams," Parent says. But conscious sexual fantasies are a violation.

Does this gift from God come with a price?

Yes. "It isn't that you reach a point where you don't want to be married," Parent says. "You reach a point where you're willing to sacrifice the good of marriage for what you believe is an even greater good."

Parent and other priests describe three phases of the downside of celibacy. The young priest realizes sharply that he will have no sex for the rest of his life. The slightly more mature priest feels the absence of a close confidant at the end of each day. And the older priest begins to feel the pang of never having had children.

Why not marriage?

Why not permit married priests, to attract more candidates?

Because. "Celibacy is a tremendous help in testing one's seriousness about this commitment," Parent says. "In my experience it raises the quality of the candidates who come forth because it provides a natural screen for those how are not as motivated."

Not all celibates agree. Early in his days as a Jesuit priest 20 years ago, the Rev. Patrick Conroy was visiting parishes in Washington state with a bishop. Conroy ventured that it might be easier to recruit pastors if priests didn't have to be celibate.

The bishop was thunderstruck. "If celibacy were optional," Conroy recalls the bishop asking, "wouldn't only gay priests remain unmarried?"

That's when Conroy began to suspect that many in the church see celibacy merely as a rule, not a divine gift. For if celibacy is a divine gift, then presumably God would bestow it on plenty of priests, gay and straight. By making celibacy a requirement, is the church diminishing its power as a sign from God?

"I believe I have a vocation to be celibate," says Conroy, 51, now a chaplain at Georgetown University. "But if everyone out there thinks the only reason I'm celibate is because I have to be, then my vocation is absolutely lost as a sign."

Conroy, who also believes married people can have a genuine call to the priesthood, is something of a free spirit. He is as likely to be clad in his golf shirt as in his priestly collar. Yet the ancient ideal of celibacy captivates even the cool campus priest. "I'm one of the happiest people I know," he says. "I want people to puzzle over how I can be celibate and be so fulfilled."

He believes that when people puzzle over it, their imaginations will be enlarged and they may encounter the reality of God.

Celibacy for Conroy also has this quailty: "The level of intimacy with men and women I think is far beyond the intimacy a married person has. What I don't have is the intensity with one person. ... In my judgment a married man gives up a lot more women than I do. I tell guys, 'Guess what? If you're getting married, you're giving up women.'"

Who is to say which vocation is more difficult? This Father doubts he has what it takes to be a good father and husband. "I think a successful marriage and leading a good life, that's the miracle," Conroy says. "Having to grow together, change together, then a child comes along, or a sick one -- to me that's heroism."

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