Wednesday, February 2, 2005

Priests and Women --- A Question!

When I was eight years old, I was convinced that Catholic priests and Nuns did not walk like the rest of us. They floated. They glided. They had invisible celestial wings which flapped in a way known only to the Great God. They were surely angelic and couldn’t possibly belch, with satisfaction, after a delicious Italian meal, like the rest of us - - to say nothing of more physical behaviors so common to mankind.

The infallibility of the Religious Sister was more than legendary. The ultimate silencer of all debate was simply " Sister sez…." Sister simply KNEW. That was all there was to it! When Sister spoke, God spoke. She couldn’t possibly be wrong - - Even though she spoke gently and quietly, her power was enormous –just because of who she was. And when Father spoke from the pulpit pounding the lectern with his Godly fist, we listened in awe and just knew that this was the Very Word of the Lord Himself. We were delighted to see the Great Man get all "Worked up" ordering us to follow the Right and Holy Way.

Even up to my entrance into the Seminary in my early twenties, I was still enthralled by a "Pedestal" perception of Priests. It, however, had deepened my internal struggle when I decided to try my hand at Priesthood. It was a struggle because Priests, I thought, can’t really like girls. And I do. But priests don’t really need to like girls. How could they when they really don’t have the same kind of emotional life and physical needs as the rest of us? In the fourth grade I was emotionally captured by Marie Becker, a skinny, dark eyed girl who lived in 62nd street –far from my home zone of sixty FOIST street. In High School, the pretty girls in saddle shoes and good "bods" who danced the Lindy Hop and talked so knowledgeably about Glen Miller and Benny Goodman utterly fascinated me.

When I became a Freshman in college and tried to smoke a pipe in the then current "cool" climate, I dated the best looking girl in the parish. How she could dance! She was really " cool" even if a bit slow academically - - -that didn’t matter since she knew the latest steps and liked to smooch with me Then came these powerful scruples. Liking girls somehow didn’t fit with what I was thinking of doing. However, I was encouraged when I heard the "scuttlebutt" in the Seminary that after Ordination somehow God fitted the priest with what the Inner Circle called "Tin Pants." No longer would the Ordained Cleric in the Catholic Church have to worry about sexual attractions toward the good looking woman who wanted to discuss her "Spiritual Life" with the Young Priest (who looked so freshly scrubbed right out of the Seminary Box). He would have no need for or involvement with females beyond the strictest boundary of his pastoral obligation. He would need no input from the female world. He had it all. Any relationship beyond the immediately professional was not only unnecessary but probably highly suspect.

He would be the Clerical parallel of SHANE, the loner cowboy/gunslinger who comes into a tough town, cleans it up, straightens out a farm for a Klutz, resists the obvious lure of the wife of the Klutz who sexually pants for him, even distances himself from an 11 year old boy who idolizes him and then rides off alone into the sunset for his next assignment. He needs no one. Everyone needs him. He is the complete Mr. Fixit whose strength comes from some source distinct from those whose lives he touches. He is a kind of Christ-figure.

The collision of that somewhat romantic view of the priesthood hit me forcefully and immediately after the oils were placed on my New York hands. By God’s grace and my own good sense from then till now after 56 years of exciting and satisfying ministry I have balanced relatively successfully the aspects of my being an Alter Christus with my emotional Gaelic/Hebraic personality .I have had many wonderful women friends who were neither mother nor sister nor aunt nor nanny for me. Nor were they lovers. They were in a special category which I shall attempt to describe, at least operationally. With that goal, I have looked with empathic affectivity on the following:

Fr. W. E., a giant of a priest, powerful leader of souls, a no-drink, no-smoke, no swear, totally uncompromising celibate, had a long term "relationship" (i.e. strictly non-genital) with a Nun with whom he exchanged intimate soul secrets for years. He claimed that his masculinity was deepened by his "intercourse" (his word and so appropriate in the 1890’s for profound friendship) with this religious woman. In no way was his priesthood compromised nor was his mental life dominated by what the modern swain describes as "being crazy about her." Adding a fifth category to C.S. Lewis’s " Four Loves", I suggest Father E. and Sister M. had a great LOVE for each other which operated satisfactorily for God’s work from both their points of view, and for their own stability in their respective vocations.

Fr. J.M.G., brilliant, international orator, prolific author, will of steel, fearless in facing down any public figure on challenges to the Church, unquestioned integrity and chastity, had a Companion, a Miss C., often at his side, his secretary and more. She was a woman of great character and ability who, beyond her professional value to Fr. G. was also a listening post off whom he could bounce his prodigious ideas. Their relationship was known to all and unquestioned by all and evidently mutually valuable.

Fr. J. McS. A veritable intellectual giant. Historian/ scholar. Master Spiritual Director of women, (married, single and vowed religious). Prolific author. The essence of personal discipline. Known for his iron will. His constant companion whom he had baptized into the Body of Christ, H. M., herself a scholar, would spend hours with him each evening, talking, praying, working on a new manuscript. She referred to him as "Father" as if there simply were no other cleric in the world. Each night he would walk her to the corner on her way home, greet her Good night with a courtly lifting of his hat. Apparently, even the giants can fit their needs for appropriate gender complementarity into the glorious structure of the priesthood!

Fr. J.M. - - - -A quiet industrious scholar who wrote the most successful catechism for Enquirers up to his time. He was deep into the work of sharing Faith with others and instructed and Baptized literally hundreds of people into the Catholic Church. Among these was B., a professional woman, highly intelligent, an author who became devoted to Fr. M. even unto his final years when he regressed into a kind of mutism and childishness typical of some very aged persons. She tended him daily as companion, feeding him, walking him and seeing to his every need. What would one call this devotion? Is it some kind of love which is clearly real and obviously chaste? No eyebrow was raised in his circle. No speculation. No remarks. By some kind of intuition everyone, including me, was struck by what I am now categorizing as Fifth Love.

Fr JBS. Author. Attorney, credentialed to argue before the US Supreme Court. Editor of an outstanding Catholic intellectual magazine. Internationally respected ecumenist. V,K., an attractive, charming professional woman had a warm, close but chaste relationship with Fr JBS which was known and supported by his colleagues, clerical and lay. In my assessment, it looks like classic C.S, Lewis.

I recall my own Aunt Maggie and her relationships with priests. Unmarried, highly educated with great skills, an Irish beauty anxious to help the Fathers with their sermons and manuscripts, she entertained them in our apartment many times as they obviously came only for spiritual or professional reasons (?) Fr. B. A. S. called by many of his contemporaries a saint ( who used a HAIR SHIRT for penance reasons) would sit with her in the parlor holding her hand speaking of celestial things. We thought it beautiful. No one had any thought of the " inappropriate."

The examples are multitudinous. Tell me about Francis and Clare. Or Francis de Sales and Sr. de Chantal. Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross. It all sounds so beautiful in the pious books. But is it really as it appears to be? Is this all merely "Fifth Love"? With reasonable cynicism, it seems to me (a crotchety old priest dinosaur) to be fatuous and naïve to believe that such idyllic relationships so function every time a Catholic priest crosses the life path of a woman (especially should she be pretty and cute and slightly chasseuse de soutane). Our history is replete with the tragic behaviors of priest philanders and sexually teasing women. To our regret the Beauty of the Church has been soiled by those on both sides who have exploited the weaknesses and needs of others. Common sense and normal prudential judgment were cast aside, utterly disregarding the sage rule of "Micheleen", the little Marriage Broker of Quiet Man fame, who insisted to his clients that " the proprieties will be observed. No patty fingers."

We have been told almost ad nauseam that priests are just like the rest of men (?) - - yet I have seen some priests who do seem Shane-like, needing little from others, completely dedicated giving the boot to the modern ( really old) saw that men go "nuts" if they can’t have sex. Statistically, most priests seem happy and contented; they like themselves, laugh a lot, are likeable and seem as " normal" as the average married man. In fact, the studies commissioned for such research show a far healthier group of professional men ( priests) than the media happy presentations of ex-priest-social scientists who still battle the guilt of their leaving the priesthood. In my extensive marital counseling practice and career I have seen first hand the shallowness of the stance that " "all one needs is a sexual life to be happy." Some of the most "certifiable" clients I have treated have been males with active sexual experience. However the quality of the Catholic priesthood (out of the ken of the secular researcher) is God’s Grace Which sustains and makes possible the beauty known as celibate chastity. Cardinal George of Chicago reminded the Gay Community that to believe that Chastity in itself is impossible is to disbelieve in the Resurrection of Jesus. It is that fundamental.

Some priests are completely uninterested in a relationship with a woman - - perhaps they are homosexual, latent or otherwise. Some have low libido. Some are so self absorbed that a relationship with a woman would detract from their central focus - - themselves! I recall being shocked as a newly ordained priest when a very old and super cynical priest informed me that a then very popular media priest was too egotistical to have woman trouble!!!! I had no idea what he might have meant. Some priests carry early repressed memories of anti-women irritation, recalling their early family life when their female siblings hung their stockings and lingerie in the one shower used by the entire family.

There is a statistically negligible (but disastrous) percentage of sociopathic pervert priests who have deceived gullible and pressure driven recruiters with high sounding politically correct phrases. These few are the classic Pavlovian/John Watson stimulus/ response types who are drawn almost automatically to "touch" women inappropriately. These are the ‘Albatross" who have dragged the Goodness and Holiness of Catholicism through the slime.

Such a run through of priest tendencies might be nothing more than a description of the male population in general. Yet, in the priest population there exists, (at least ideally), a significant difference. This is in the reasonably expected total interior dedication of this man to his God. Such dedication is rightfully to be followed. The Church clearly has a right to this dedication.

Similarly and surely the married man is reasonably expected to be interiorly dedicated to his wife---alone. Adultery can occur in ways other than the physical. His wife, his family, society have a right for its own well being to demand that fidelity. We recall, with clarity, the strong admonition of Jesus, Radical for His time, that a man can sin EVEN IN THOUGHT by lusting in his heart for a woman other than his wife. Where are you, Jimmy Carter?

So as to the question which should be bluntly posed:

Is the priest to be completely isolated from women, their ideas, their suggestions, their friendship, their love? their very presence? Is he to be involved in study, prayer, reading, writing and contemplation only? Is the priest to be totally male oriented? Is he to view (even at the unconscious level) the female world as inimical to not only his priesthood, his sexuality, but also to the actual work he is called to do? Should he be emotionally locked in a symbolic Ivory Tower engrossed in some spiritual facsimile of books, animals or viruses?

Or is the priest to jettison this whole idea of being "away" from everyone? Does he now feel that he so needs women (like other men) that he can rightfully have a "relationship" (in modern context, this term implies genital behavior)? Is he now the Regular guy, the Big Ha Ha, who hangs out with the secular gang, drinking, smoking, telling the blue story, with a little occasional sex (or maybe a little grass)? Is he to ignore the possible unwise dedication of a single women who might pass up her own chances for marriage in her "friendship" with Father? Does he ignore possibilities of Scandal?

Or is there some kind of "Fifth Love" Middle Ground? This is risky territory which can be navigated only with ruthless honesty, deep personal prayer and courageous spiritual direction. The notion of " complementarity" does seem to have some healthy and spiritual dimension which same sex relationships cannot. Are the real data in ? We don’t know but the Question deserves to be asked and certainly must be answered. Perhaps, there is no general rule. Perhaps it is individual. Whatever it is, the Holy and Honest Answer has to be in congruence with the teaching and experience of Christ’s Church. Whenever there might be a doubt, the resolution always must be in favor of Jesus and His "Magisterium".

Let the debate begin!!!!

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