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Novel Examines Sexual Issues Within Catholic Church : Ex-Priest Renews Challenge to Celibacy

November 06, 1985|DOUG BROWN | Times Staff Writer

James Kavanaugh, who had just written the controversial, best-selling "A Modern Priest Looks at His Outdated Church," was at Notre Dame University in 1967 giving a sedate lecture on the Roman Catholic Church's history when "midway through, I got carried away."

"The church had done a lot of damage to people's personal lives, and I felt compelled to say so," explained the 56-year-old former priest during a recent interview in Laguna Beach, where he is a licensed clinical psychologist and the author of 20 books.

After vehemently criticizing the church's opposition to such practices as birth control and divorce, Kavanaugh ripped off his clerical collar and stomped on it. He never again considered himself a priest.

Nearly two decades later, the seething frustration that fueled that fateful outburst has surfaced again in "The Celibates," Kavanaugh's new, best-selling novel about two priests' struggles to keep their vow of celibacy in the face of modern temptations.

"The Celibates" attempts to show that what Kavanaugh calls the Catholic Church's tendency to reduce morality to little more than a channeling of the sex drive has visited suffering on priests, nuns, homosexuals and married couples.

Since hitting the bookstores last May, "The Celibates" has sold nearly 50,000 copies, according to its publisher, Harper & Row. "This is very good sales indeed," said Larry Ashmead, Harper & Row executive editor during a telephone interview from the publisher's New York headquarters.

Paperback Rights Sold

"This is Kavanaugh's first hard-cover novel, and usually the sales of a first hard-cover novel are less than 10,000," Ashmead said. Another publisher has already agreed to pay a minimum of $100,000 for the book's paperback rights.

(Kavanaugh's previous novel, "A Coward for Them All," came out only in paperback. He sheepishly describes the work as "sprawling and semi-autobiographical.")

"Celibates" promises to be the most commercially successful of Kavanaugh's 20 books of philosophy, psychology, theology, fiction and poetry; altogether they have sold more than 2 million copies.

Among his better-known works are "There Are Men Too Gentle to Walk Among Wolves," "Laughing Down Lonely Canyons" and "A Modern Priest Looks at His Outdated Church."

In "Modern Priest," which first placed him in the national spotlight, Kavanaugh called for church reforms on such issues as birth control, divorce, premarital sex, the concept of hell and the requirement of celibacy for priests.

Kavanaugh was inspired to write "Celibates" because of the suicide about five years ago of a priest who, Kavanaugh said, "had been very kind" to him following his 1954 ordination.

"I was shocked and grief-stricken. I thought of his life and how he had been treated so badly by the church.

"And about the same time (five years ago) I was hit with the death of my own brother (Bob) to cancer. He had left the priesthood about the same time I did in the late '60s. He was one of my closest friends."

" 'Celibates' is a legacy to my brother, the priest who killed himself and other priests who (committed suicide) or were tormented inside. I wanted to capture the pain of these people and their desire to serve mankind--and the anomaly of imposing a monastic celibacy on people who were never meant to be celibate in the first place."

Discussing the stands the church leadership has taken on sexual issues and what he sees as the negative and demoralizing effects these positions have had on most priests, Kavanaugh said: "There were a lot of stories about the priesthood that were not being told--but which deserved to be. It struck me that there was no other issue more symbolic of the dilemma being faced by today's priests than the church's stand on celibacy."

But why is celibacy, to use Kavanaugh's phrase, the church's "basic issue?" Responded Kavanaugh: "Ultimately, the large number of priests and nuns who have left the church has a lot to do with the church's refusal to face reality.

"The church's clergy is not celibate today, and it never has been. Often the issue of celibacy is presented simply as a desire by priests to marry, but the issue goes deeper than this. Priests, because they are unable to marry and share their lives with women, fill this void in their lives with something else, whether it's dependency on drink, drugs, obsession with work or a quest for power. It's been said that 'ambition is the lust of the clergy.' "

However, the Catholic Church sees things differently. Although representatives for the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, which speaks for the Catholic Church in the United States, declined to comment specifically on "Celibates" because they have not read the novel, a leading expert on the personal lives of priests, Msgr. Colin MacDonald, took sharp exception to Kavanaugh's views.

Lack of Studies

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