SAN FRANCISCO — Most Catholics, I think, are saddened by such news as--to take a recent, comic example--the report from Atlanta that the archbishop had taken a mistress.
We Catholics have always taken pride in our worldliness. Certainly we take clerical scandals in stride. Catholics, after all, believe humans must fail. (Protestants accuse us of cynicism). But accustomed as we are to the notion of human failure, I suspect that most Catholics, if it were up to them, would release the clergy from the vow of celibacy.
The celibate life now seems even to many Catholics to be too rigorous. Celibacy can make sense for Catholics only when Catholics believe in heaven.
Does anyone believe in heaven?
Traditionally, the church has extolled celibacy as a liberation from the mundane. Not having a family of his own, the priest was free to minister to an entire community, to love without erotic motive, thus to serve more completely (schoolteachers in America used to be discouraged from marriage with a similar logic).
Catholics took it for granted that priests would be free whenever we needed them.
The other night I was going out to dinner with a priest--I was waiting in the rectory hallway, jangling the keys in my pocket--when a woman appeared at the door. She had been phoning all day, she said (gimlet-eye, accusatory tone); she'd left messages with the answering service. Then she thrust a bag of green peaches at the priest (the vestige of some ancient tax?). The two of them withdrew to his office to talk about her problem (the husband, a daughter on drugs, a bad son?). The August evening was light and soft and I could hear only the rise and fall of their voices as I waited. It was not unpleasant out on the patio. Still, I waited two hours.
So celibacy should ensure success. What else does the priest teach by his celibacy? In Catholic countries, as in Catholic neighborhoods in the United States, there have long been jokes about celibate clergy, about men who, however robust, turn themselves into eunuchs, half-men in petticoats.
Still, there was something awesome in the figure of the man who gave up what was "natural"--some nagging reminder in the vow that this life was only a preparation for another.
Even Catholics were repelled by the lonely idea. Christmas alone, Mum in her silver frame. For me as a child, the awesome thought about priestly celibacy did not concern sex but rather the lack of family--I imagined a lonely, sickening search for some place to eat Christmas dinner.
And what did you give the priest at Christmas? We gave hand-towels with embroidered crosses, or pen sets with crosses for clips, or handkerchiefs with little crosses in the corners, or note papers embossed with praying hands. The gift was a reminder to us that priests were different from us. They were priests of God. The gift was also, inevitably, a reminder to the priest of his isolation from us. One priest I know remembers how his mother put out a set of "holy towels" whenever he visited her--no one else in the family was supposed to touch them.
Priests told jokes to cover the embarrassment of such gifts, such rituals; priests told jokes to cover the embarrassment of life, for priests have the power to forgive sins.
Priests, in their turn, knew all there was to know about us--such was our candor, our fabulous intimacy. Priests sat for hours in hot, dark confessional boxes, listening to our lives as if we were radios. We rankled, of course we did--didn't they know how we hated to go in there?
And didn't we know what droning, feckless bores we were? Priests knew our most private lives--and how many times. And we phoned them at any hour. Nana has cancer. Father, please come. The baby died, Father, why, why. My son is in jail, will you go to him, Father?
Catholics don't go to confession much any more, and there's half our intimacy gone right there--the church demanding a knowledge of us.
A priest tells me he did not choose to be celibate. He chose to become a priest--"Celibacy was just part of the package. But to be celibate I need to live in a community--to live with other priests, but also among a laity that can read the sign of my life. Celibacy is a willing incompleteness."
What was meant to be an experience within a community is now mere loneliness--the priest living alone in a rectory.
Earlier this month, A. W. Richard Sipe (the newspapers call him an ex-priest and a psychotherapist) released a study of celibacy and the priesthood. After what he calls "extensive study," Sipe found that half of U.S. priests have been sexually active at least once during their priesthood. Cynics though we may be, we--both Catholics and secularists--immediately assume the role of the betrayed spouse at hearing such information. What right have we?