A Secret World: Sexuality and the Search for Celibacy
Richard Sipe; Forward
by Robert Coles, M.D.;
Taylor-Routledge publisher, New York,
Likely to become a classic, sure to be controversial and sensationalized, this is a pioneering, landmark study of the vow of celibacy as actually lived by a group of Roman Catholic priests. The U.S. sample was analyzed during the quarter century between 1960 and 1985-coincidentally, the era of a supposed sex revolution, and a lime of radical clerical questioning of church authority on sexual matters, thanks to the 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae. The author believes that the demoralizing effect of this anti-contraceptive document can scarcely be exaggerated.
This was also the time when in the Roman rite more priests and seminarians than ever were making the conscious distinction between the ministry .they desired and the "package-deal" requirement of celibacy which many felt was forced on diem, even against their natural rights. (Vatican II itself recalled that the charism of celibacy is not demanded by the very nature of the priesthood.) Currently there are an estimated 19,000 U.S. priests who have left the ministry and married.
The author, a Minnesota-born, Maryland-based psychotherapist, is himself a resigned Catholic priest who spent 18 years as a religious. After a depression that was treated by psychoanalysis, Richard Sipe was dispensed from the vow of celibacy be bad embraced 15 years earlier. Three years later, in a Catholic ceremony, he married a similarly dispensed missionary nun who is a psychiatrist. (They have a teen-aged son.) Critics hostile to this study will no doubt find in these circumstances some ad hominem arguments against the author's objectivity. Others will prize his rare vantage point.
This serious, scholarly, and sympathetic study of those who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom (Malt. 19:12) is professedly not the fruit of a survey based on a standardized questionnaire and a representative sampling. Self-described as an ethnographic search-clinical, anecdotal, contextual-rather than strict research, this volume builds on the in-depth self-revelations of some 1500 persons:
500 priests undergoing psychotherapy, 500 priests outside of therapy who shared their stories and their impressions in workshops, discussions and interviews; and a final 500 laypersons who as lovers, partners or victims had first-hand experience of the sexual behavior of individual priests. Sometimes, to be sure, the priests were more the victims.
For the sake of perspective, it should be noted that the 1,500 priests directly or indirectly involved represent less than 3% of the more than 50,000 U.S. Catholic priests ministering during any given year since 1960. Still, the author maintains:
The value of a search lies in its ability to disregard assumptions and to proceed, asking questions and collecting data without a set hypothesis...This does not mean that its conclusions cannot be verified and duplicated. Search can often get at facts that need to precede more formal studies. The facts, estimates, conclusions, and analysis presented here invite challenge and verification.1' (This work also implicitly invites similar studies of celibacy among religious sisters and brothers.)
These points are important because of the parts of this volume which are most likely to make blockbuster headlines--the author's estimates of the sexual inclinations and activities of the U.S. Catholic clergy as a whole. Stressing that he has chosen to err on the conservative side, Sipe suggests:
* 20% of U.S. priests are at any given lime involved in a more or less stable sexual relationship with a woman, or with sequential women in an identifiable pattern of behavior. Many of these clerics are devoted partners as well as successful and happy pastors. Obviously a priest need not be emotionally ill to have trouble with celibacy or to have decided against observing it.
* 20% have some homosexual orientation-twice the presumed rate in the general population. Half of these are sexually active-twice the rate of heterosexual priests. These figures are quite low in comparison with other current "guestimates" some of which talk of a 75% gay clergy population in certain dioceses. If present trends continue, the majority will be homosexual by 2010 A.D.
* 80% masturbate, at least occasionally. Many will be impressed by the 20% and the "occasionally." Controversially the author asserts: "...sometimes masturbation can be an expression of maturity at any age (and at times may be virtuous)." Does it violate celibacy? In legal depositions taken in 1988 one bishop said yes; another bishop from the same diocese said no. The author, inclining toward "yes and no," estimates that at any given time 20% of U.S. priests indulge in auto-erotic patterns indicative of sexual immaturity.
* 2% are pedophiles in the strict, clinical sense, that is, attracted sexually to prepubescents. Another 4% are preoccupied with adolescents.
* At any given lime 40% arc practicing at least the letter of the law of celibacy. Another 6 to 8% closely approximate the spirit of celibate love. After passing through the various emotional stages of celibate adjustment, a final 2% humbly but triumphantly embody the true Gospel ideal: profound communion with the Transcendent, seen and loved in all creatures.
For various reasons-not all inspired by guilt or neurotic shame-the sexual lives of many people other than clergy are a secret world. After 35 years in the priesthood, I must honestly say that in general these estimated celibate "failures" are considerably higher than my own admittedly limited and not too sexually inquisitive experience would have suggested. (I have no trouble agreeing with the author that most nuns and housekeepers are not sexually involved with priests.) In any case, these estimates comprise a very small pan of this thorough volume, which offers in transit various complex theories of sexual identification, development, and abnormalities.
Pondering these theories, the self-aware reader won't be surprised when the author asserts: "Sexual maturity is an elusive goal, not necessarily achieved under the most favorable of circumstances." He believes that vowed celibates make unique contributions to civilization, and their struggles have much to teach the world about sublimation and about sexuality in general. A major cause of these struggles is the fact that at the time of ordination many seminarians have not reached psychosexual maturity; they are sexually naive and possibly sexually repressed. There are unconscious, unhealthy reasons for embracing celibacy.
Typically priests are loving persons, preaching a gospel of love. "Man being a loving animal, he tends to love those who are around him." Appealing in their idealism and quick to win delicate confidences, priests can suddenly find themselves amorously loved and clamorously in love. Priests who need and search for legitimate intimacy can unexpectedly find themselves on the far side of the boundaries they intended to observe. Wounded healers, priests are not infrequently struck by the arrows of the mischievous Cupid and grow as bewitched, bothered and bewildered as anybody else with a heart and a sex drive.
Part I of this book deals with the 1960-85 sexual context, the origins and definitions of celibacy, and its stormy history in the Western church. The author defines celibacy as "a freely chosen dynamic state, usually vowed, that involves an honest and sustained attempt to live without direct sexual gratification in order to serve others productively for a spiritual motive."
Part II is entitled The Practice versus the Profession of Celibacy." Here are treated heterosexual relationships and behaviors, the homosexualities [sic], the masturbations [sic], priests and minors, sexual compromises (such as the use of pornography), the sex drive, priestly suicides, and births and abortions of priests' children.
Part III presents two unique, invaluable chapters on the process and achievement of celibacy. These 50-some pages itemize ten characteristics of successful celibates-including at least 90 minutes of daily prayer. They should be made into a booklet and read by every bishop, priest, seminary official and seminarian, as well as by religious sisters and brothers. (Seminary training in the realities of celibate living and adjustment is astonishingly deficient if not altogether lacking.) This section ends with "implications for the future," including the need to replace what the author sees as the archaic anthropology which underlies traditional Catholic sexual ethics and increasingly deprives it of credibility.
In a veil-lifting work such as this, the curiosity value of sex is magnified by the drama of religious leaders publicly committed to leading sexually abstinent lives in a highly aphrodisiac culture. (Here be prime Graham Greene material; there are seeds' for a dozen novels in this volume.) The presumed irony of failures in this struggle is underscored by the very strict sexual ethics of traditional Roman Catholicism. The practical, pastoral compassion of most confessors is easily overlooked.
Despite the author's constructive and compassionate intentions, his book will surely delight readers who are anti-religious, anti-Catholic, anti-clerical, and/or anti-Vatican. Pro-abortionists, gay activists and sexual free-wheelers will find ammunition aplenty for accusing the church of hypocrisy—not that the church ever claimed its ministers were sexless or sinless. Feminists will find the author a staunch ally in their claims that the all-male clergy harbor age-old viruses of hatred for women based on fear of them.
As for the well-disposed, the estimated failures discussed in this book will probably scandalize and wound the unrealistic, but the implied successes may well edify the realistic. I wonder if I would have decided against entering the seminary had I read such a book in my simplistic and idealistic youth. On the other hand, if I feared having trouble with celibacy, I might well have been encouraged to know I wouldn't be alone in that regard, and that there are time-tested supports for sincere effort.
Realistic church leaders who are seriously asking themselves whether celibacy should continue to be required for priesthood in the Western church will want to weigh soberly the questions raised and the estimates made by this bold book. Its author, by the way, does not argue for optional celibacy as such, nor claim that marriage for the clergy solves for them all the problems of sexuality. Many active pedophiles are married, as are many troubled gay clergy.
Reading this volume of concentrated sexuality, woundedness and failure, this reviewer had to keep reminding himself of his conviction that Christianity is meant to be primarily a religion of fleshy-hearted charity and not of steely hearted chastity, that we are called to believe through the church and churchmen rather than in them; that churches and rectories arc not museums for the canonized but healing centers for the ailing; that ordination is no guarantee against addictions, whether alcoholic or venereal; that failure is often the path to wisdom, humility and mercifulness; that the demise of one vocation may accompany the birth of an alter one; that good and evil are wider and deeper concepts than right and wrong; that forgiveness of self is often harder and more necessary than forgiveness of others; that growing up is not something that everyone does at the same pace and in all directions at once; that if it's human, it's messy, that "only the passionate heart is pure."
I also had to remind myself that after more than five decades of close association with U.S. Catholic priests. I can still say that in no group of human beings have I found a greater proportion of loving, caring, admirable, Christ-like, even heroic men. Often taken for granted, the quiet goodness of that priestly world may be another secret world-a purging, slogging world of lovingness and the search for sanctity in the midst of sexuality and the search for celibacy. For all the embarrassment it may cause, this book will prove itself a grace to many a priest in his search for honesty, emotional maturity and holiness, whether celibate or otherwise.
Reviewer: Joseph Gallagher, trans. editor: The Documents of Vatican II, author The Christian Under Pressure, was ordained for the Baltimore archdiocese in 1955.