PERSONAL STEPS AWAY FROM THE PRIESTHOOD: Why I Left the Priesthood (Pt. 3)

 Besides alienation of youth, another “sign of the times” of the late sixties and early seventies was the sexual revolution. Here too the church had lost a great deal of credibility in its refusal, especially at the conciliar level, to discuss clerical celibacy. Charles Davis helped me realize this with his A Question of Conscience justifying his own exit from the priesthood to marry.

The situation deteriorated following the publication of Humanae Vitae in 1968. Many of us wondered how Paul VI could simply reiterate the church’s traditional position on birth control in the face of statistics showing that something like the sensus fidelium had long since decided the question in the opposite direction. Sensus fidelium it should be remembered refers to a widespread harmony of belief and/or practice among Christians; such accord is considered infallible even according to official church teaching.

In any case, polling consistently showed that Catholic couples were practicing artificial birth control according to the same percentages as their non-Catholic counterparts. Was Humanae Vitae just another case of celibate, out-of-touch old men legislating behaviour in a field about which they knew virtually nothing? The answer seemed obvious even in 1968.

As far as I could see, something like the sensus fidelium had also kicked in among priests regarding clerical celibacy. The phenomena were showing that many of them had concluded that if the church were not going to remand legislation exacting clerical celibacy, they would decide the matter for themselves. This, of course, had long been the rumoured situation in Africa and Latin America.

From 1967-1972, while I was in Rome, the situation moved beyond the rumour stage to one of overt practice within the clerical sub-culture there. Dating and other more developed relationships between priests and women friends became common. “Dispensations” in the form of brotherly pastoral advice from priestly peers condoning the morality of it all were also normal. Failing that, approval took the form of wink and nod.

Despite such unofficial permission, the internal tension resulting from the contradictions evident in such relationships proved too much for so many. One by one they (we) left the priesthood, eventually to marry. I recall discussing all of this with Cardinal Wright of Pittsburgh in the Vatican itself, and his getting red in the face exclaiming, “And don’t tell me that the best priests are leaving!” Despite the cardinal’s visage and raised voice, my personal observation and common sense told me he was wrong.

All of this represented chickens coming home to roost. The training we had received in the seminary was truly inadequate regarding the integration of sexuality with our chosen vocation. How could it have been otherwise? Celibacy, I’ve come to understand, is a gift that “happens” to some as their spiritual lives develop. As this occurs, some evidently become so attuned to the unity of all creation and to their own undifferentiated oneness with the Source of Life that they experience little need for intimate sexual expression. Their lives are so consumed with service of others in a community that far transcends couples and families.  

However, the church and seminary training had gotten all of that backwards. Instead of nurturing a truly spiritual life and allowing the charism of celibacy to emerge naturally for those called, the church imposed celibacy on uncomprehending young men, and then asked them to develop a spirituality that would support that heavy burden. It did not work. It could not.

That was true especially for youths with my own background. I had entered the seminary at 14 years of age. My overwhelming desire at that point was to become a priest. Nothing else mattered to me. Celibacy was a sine qua non condition for realizing my dream. I remember as a high school freshman hearing our rector, Dan Boland, explaining that “You can’t carry a chalice in one hand, and push a baby carriage with the other.” At that point in my life, Father Boland’s words made sense.

However, the result of all this was a terribly distorted attitude towards sex. Everything connected with it seemed mortally sinful — thoughts, words, deeds in that field could send you to hell. I recall going through three periods of “scrupulosity” before I was twenty-five. And all of them revolved around sex. Scrupulosity is a type of obsessive-compulsive disorder that has its subjects worrying themselves sick about sin and going to hell. Seminary spiritual directors unwittingly cultivated this disorder in young seminarians by explaining elaborate methods for determining whether one had “given consent” to “impure” thoughts or feelings. I remember those periods of scrupulosity and their attendant sessions in the confessional as truly hellish.  

In accord with all of this, I had no real relationships with girls or women before ordination. I was not allowed to have thoughts of them, much less any friendly interaction. Once at the age of fifteen or so, when I had remarked to my own sister in a “happy birthday” letter that a picture of herself she had sent me was “pretty,” the seminary dean called me to his office to admonish that such remarks were inappropriate. I apologized, said the equivalent of “What was I thinking?” and continued to suppress a dimension of life absolutely central to personal development.

Such suppression was to exact its inevitable retribution later on in the form of immature expressions of developmental stages in a 30 and 40 year old that should have been left behind in my early twenties. For instance, once outside the seminary walls and in Rome more or less on my own, I remember being truly astonished by the beauty of Italian women.

Again, the insanity of all of this came home to me in some vague form just before ordination to the diaconate. I went to my spiritual director for advice. I had been reading about “reluctant celibates” somewhere or other, and came to the conclusion that I was one. My spiritual director advised me that I was merely experiencing pre-ordination jitters. Anyway, he seemed to agree with me, all of this was going to change soon; the days of mandatory celibacy were strictly limited.

Just nine years later, I found myself confessing to that same spiritual mentor (whom I still admire greatly) that I was indeed a reluctant celibate, and had decided to leave the priesthood.

Revocation of mandatory clerical celibacy seemed then, and seems today as far away as ever.

 Next week: Spiritual Steps away from the Priesthood

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Mike Rivage-Seul's Blog

Emeritus professor of Peace & Social Justice Studies. Liberation theologian. Activist. Former R.C. priest. Married for 40 years. Three grown children. Four grandchildren.

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