DES MOINES, Iowa — Four years ago, Maggie Olson found herself in an anguishing predicament--she had fallen in love with a Catholic priest.
"I can't say the priest I met ever encouraged me, but it happened," she said. "It's just like any other normal relationship. You enjoy them, you respect them, you admire them, you fall in love with them."
But, she said, the church's celibacy laws are "like putting your best croissants out and saying, 'Don't touch them.' "
"I met my priest four years ago and found I was in love with him," she said in an interview at the home where she helps care for mentally retarded adults.
"Because of the response from people when I expressed the way I felt, I knew there was something wrong. Their pat statement is you don't love a priest. People don't accept the notion that you love a priest like an ordinary man."
Situation Not Uncommon
Olson found that her experience was not as uncommon as might be thought. She corresponds with more than 130 woman and 18 priests from the United States, South America and Europe through a group, Women and Priests Involved, that she founded after the death of a friend.
"A woman I knew had a deep relationship with a priest," she said. "They were found out and separated, and she committed suicide. We had talked about starting a support group but were too afraid.
"After she killed herself, I started the group because I didn't want to see that happen to anyone else."
Olson, who has also been active in protests against nuclear arms, said that the main purpose of her group is to provide support "for women going through some tough emotional times. We have a slogan: 'Loving a priest is like nailing Jello to a tree.' "
"You know you're in a relationship that's not going anywhere," she said. "He always seems to be looking over his shoulder. It's like being with a spy. There's somebody watching all the time."
Olson said that the women who correspond with her have been involved with priests anywhere from eight months to 20 years. Many are in prominent positions in the community, such as teachers, lawyers, businesswomen.
She said that their reaction on discovering her group is: "Thank God there is finally someone I can tell."
Olson, originally from Texas, was married for 15 years, then divorced. She has two sons, one in the military service and the other in high school.
The church's stand on relationships with priests has turned her away from attending Mass each week.
"My faith has not been altered but my allegiance or obedience to the church has been," she said. "I just feel uncomfortable going to church because I know there's something wrong, like the married people practicing birth control and women who have had abortions.
"Celibacy for a lifetime is very unnatural," she said. "As a prerequisite for becoming a priest, I think it is very unfair. If people had to maintain a celibate life style to become a doctor or a lawyer, I think you'd see a marked decline in those fields."
She said that many of the priests involved with women in her group are reluctant to leave the church because they feel a strong obligation to their parishioners.
"We're not saying we'd like to see all Roman Catholic priests married, nor are we saying we want all Roman Catholic priests to be women," she said. "But the first step toward the ordination of women is to have women accepted as wives."
She said that she would like to see priests at least given an opportunity to choose between celibate and normal life styles.
"Everyone wants to say it's not going to happen," she said. "As long as we wring our hands, it's not. You have to take the bull by the horns and say this is what we're going to do."
Although church leaders are adamantly opposed to changing the celibacy rule, Olson believes that "the change will come."
"I think it's going to be one of those things that has been going on and they'll have to give in to it," she said. "Like birth control, Catholics do it because it's right in their own conscience, even if the Pope doesn't approve."