Priestly Celibacy: A Woman's View

A married woman describes five risky situations in the relationship between a priest and a woman.

By Elena Araujo de Scasso-Castelar

In Genesis we discover God the Father's intention in creating us man and woman. We were made for mutual assistance, for unity, to complement each other, to reach the fullness of communion in love. But when sin entered the world the bond between man and woman lost the harmony in which it was created. The dominion of the soul's spiritual powers over the body snapped (Genesis 3:7, Catechism of the Catholic Church, 400), union between man and woman was subject to tensions (Genesis 3:11-13), and relations were marked by lust and domination (Genesis 3:16).

For this reason it is very demanding to grow together, to live together peacefully, to harmonize thoughts and feelings, and to integrate sexuality in search of the fullness for which we were created. Meanwhile there remains in our hearts an infinite heartache for love never satiated.

Thus the dilemma so often posed for the priest working with women: to value the wealth of their femininity while simultaneously living celibacy faithfully; a fidelity possible only by the light of faith, the grace of the vocation, and an intense life of union with Christ and his Church. Celibacy ought never be lived on one's own steam, or rigidly structured in self-defense, but rather as a means of responding to the Lord's personal call made ministry in the Church.

A woman carries something of Mary's pure love in her heart; but she also has Eve's nature, marked by sin. She is not Mary only; but neither is she just Eve. Men sometimes tend to assume women's "angelic nature," forgetting the sin that fills her heart just as much as his, albeit apparently manifesting itself differently.

The priest awakens in a woman sentiments of protectiveness and concern. She pities him for his celibacy, his affective solitude. She may try to be a companion, to protect, console, encourage him. She expresses her affection in a peculiarly feminine way, doing a thousand and one things for him: little notes, gifts, preparing special meals, and by being attentive to what happens to the priest. She is shrouding him in a spiderweb in which she herself can become enmeshed. If married, she may be more solicitous to the priest's needs than to her husband's, disturbing the harmony of the conjugal relationship on the one hand~and the husband's relationship with the priest on the other.

There are also women for whom the celibate is a kind of personal challenge to their femininity. Without there being a particular affection of any kind, they seek to unsettle him, make him feel the force of sexual attraction. There are complex motives behind this attitude about which the priest can do little or nothing. Until the woman herself decides to face up to the motives why she should seek sex rather than love, the priest has no other choice but distance, clearly marked boundaries, and prayer that the woman discover love and peace.

Five situations

1. First there is the case of the woman (she may even be older than the priest) who has serious problems with her marriage. She confides in the priest, receiving counsel and encouragement to go onward. Often women with these conflicts also have problems with their sexuality. That is why the relationship with the priest is so comforting: sexuality being excluded, so to speak, they find the platonic friendship they needed. It can happen that the priest gets caught up in confidential matters, to the point of learning intimate details which are not material for confession (and over which he has no power), but which endanger him interiorly because he takes the wife's side almost without realizing it. It does not take long for the husband to find out.

The husband becomes jealous and angry with the priest, blaming him for the loss of his wife's company. This anger becomes plain to people inside - and even outside - the family. The husband's conduct, in turn, convinces the priest of the validity of the wife's complaints. This is a very dangerous error. There are always two sides to a marriage, and it is extremely difficult - even for those who know something about their private life - to understand what really goes on between husband and wife. Rarely is there a victim and a victimizer. Normally there is a sum of circumstances, situations and history which make the relationship very complex, and it is not easy to know who is primarily responsible in a conflict.

Given these circumstances it would be prudent, wise and Christlike not to let oneself get affectively involved with the woman. It is better to keep one's distance from her confidentialities, listening only to what is material for confession, and to encourage her to greater commitment in the conjugal relationship, promoting dialogue and understanding between the spouses. It is also critical that the priest approach the husband, thus reassuring the latter that he (being their father and brother) is not taking sides, and to help the husband grow in the marriage relationship. Such a balance can help the wife reorient herself, as well as the husband, enabling the priest to be a path of salvation for both. If there be any need for therapeutic help - or counsel from older priests specialized in this area - the priest may feel free to suggest it.

2. Another case is when a woman with a heavy burden on her conscience - such as abortions, infidelities, a dark past - meets a priest who allows her to feel God's love and forgiveness, returning her to communion with the Church, restoring deep meaning to her life, self-respect, and dignity. When a woman undergoes such an experience, she feels profound gratitude toward the priest who restored light and peace to her. But if the husband has been liable for her problems (actively or inactively) she may harbor some resentment toward him. Behold the risk: a priest who grants pardon, light, peace, marking a path for self-fulfillment; and a husband about whom she has mixed, even frankly hostile, feelings. It is likely the woman may turn to the priest more and more, seeing to his needs, and drifting further away from her husband.

To help her it would be best to maintain an interior distance. Help her see that the light and peace she rediscovered is also her husband's path to salvation. Starting with forgiveness and the life of grace, she should be invited to explore the fathomless mystery of matrimonial communion. From there an ever deeper encounter with Christ the Lord will illuminate which paths to take.

In both cases, patience and "putting up" with a tough marriage situation are often proposed. Yet this should never be a matter of dragging oneself along in mortified, passive resignation. Couples, rather, should take up the marriage commitment, the responsibility for growth in mutual love, as well as the urgency of being their children's educators, teaching them to live in the love of God and neighbor.

It can also often happen that a woman turns to apostolic work outside the home as a channel for her affection, as balsam for her need to be valued, wanted, and as sublimation for her maternal instinct through serving. If need be, it may be good to help her realize that her first place, though demanding, is with her family; and that the duties of her calling ought not be neglected for other causes, however worthwhile. Prudence and common sense should point the way to equilibrium. The temptation of going to the extremes is often very great.

Faced with the family crises of modern times it is crucial to cement bonding -for which the woman's presence is key- so the family can truly be a place where one grows and matures in love. If her occupations, however holy, occasion that her husband and children have no one to talk to, to pray with, with whom to share what is happening to them, then she should reorganize her life.

And it is here that the priest's message is so vital for helping her not to flee difficulties. Rather, as in every other state of life, she should confront them with a strong prayer life, in union with the Eucharistic Christ; learning with Him and in Him to embrace the circumstances, even when painful, in a redemptive and salvific offering, united to his Cross.

3. Dealing with widowed or separated mothers is a case apart. Life is very hard for those having to support a family alone, and the priest's company and presence can be a great comfort. But if the relationship is familiar, little by little he will become immersed in her problems and (almost without realizing) start to become the man of the house, consulted in matters big and small. The result leads to great confusion for the woman, the children, and the priest. Since there are no sexual relations, it is easy to deceive oneself about the "holiness" of the affair, when in fact there is a profound distortion.

The woman, as much as it weighs on her and as painful as it is, has to take charge of her loneliness. The priest, though moved by charity, has to accept that he is neither husband nor father. The priest's course of action should be not to involve himself in practical matters. He should preserve his inner freedom and see that others preserve their's too, persuading them to face up to reality. And he should always direct another's quest for fortitude toward growth, not dependency. Prayer and the Eucharistic experience elucidate and fortify. Membership in apostolic groups of reflection and service are often of great help for single people.

4. Sometimes young women who are single or separated are looking for "the right person" with whom to share their life. Maybe some have affective problems, difficulty integrating their sexuality, or problematic pasts which have hindered them from experiencing love. If they share their private life with a priest, as well as their time, their common interests, and tasks common to both, an affection can unexpectedly transform itself into strong feelings. In this case as in every other, it is important to be honest with oneself and not be fooled. To exercise prudence and to live with humility, lean heavily on prayer, and encourage the woman to solve her conflicts so she can grow and mature in true love on her own.

5. The fifth case is that of the priest who has not matured well in relation to women. He should be careful around them. What do I mean by that? That due to his past he may not have enjoyed satisfying affective relationships with either his mother, sisters, female friends, female classmates or coworkers, or with women with whom he shared moments of his life in one way or another. That he probably has a weakness in this respect which spurs him to permanently seek the acceptance, support, and recognition of women. In all that he does, he is subtly seeking feminine approval. This conditions him, limits him, kills his freedom to say what he thinks and feels. The extra snag is that this search for approval is perceived perfectly by the woman - maybe even as a personal come-on.

In Genesis it is clearly seen. The serpent tempts the woman, she takes the bait. In turn she tempts the man, who also enters into the game, and the two of them fall. The guilt is clearly with both; even though there is a distinct moment for each one, each contributes to the final outcome. This is not to say the woman is always the temptress, but in situations that surround the priest, the example of Genesis is often repeated.

Sometimes a priest may permit, and even favor, disordered situations. This may be due to his need to feel valued and recognized, or his personal past, which makes his lack of affective maturity an insatiable "black hole." He may want to experience an attraction about which he does not want to be conscious and about which he may not want to make a decision. It can also be (why not?) that his manhood is flattered at being the object of feminine interest. There are lots of factors.

The priest's attitude is key. He can channel, balance, orient affections and situations; or he can accept and favor paths to confusion. And confusion, if not clarified, leads to sin. Because one cannot live in the shadows deliberately and continue being faithful to grace. Whoever is in darkness - and complacent in it - will not advance into the light. But whoever seeks the light will find it, because the Lord himself is lighting the path.

In this search a profound honesty with oneself is essential, as well as humble sincerity, to recognize one's feelings openly, confronting the truth though it may hurt, and to put oneself in the Lord's presence. Because only in Him does one discover what one truly is. One of sin's most terrible consequences is difficulty in facing up to the truth. Hence discernment must be a daily exercise. How often a priest may permit himself the fate of a double life, exercising his ministry while accepting in his heart thoughts, desires, and situations incompatible with priesthood. Hence the key is discernment, to take the right steps in time. While the weed is only a stem, one can uproot with the fingers. But if allowed to grow, it will be difficult to pull up.

It is usually easier for a man to cut short a relationship which has gotten out of control. He will have to understand, however, that the longer he lets the confusion grow, the tougher it will be on him, and the more wounded the woman will be. Since she is on the receiving end of his decision she will not accept it. She will be wounded, partly through her own fault, partly because the priest let the situation get out of control. One should also keep uppermost in mind not only the damage this does to the other person, but the risk of scandal for the community.

Spiritual friendships

This a frequent trouble spot because the terms are not always clear. Often these "spiritual friendships" are such in name only, and not in fact. Here one can find rationalizations of every kind, dependency and loss of inner freedom. The words sound spiritual; but the facts are shadows disguised in light.

Certainly, a good, healthy friendship is possible between a priest and a woman, but this is neither as frequent nor as easy as it seems. To have a true spiritual friendship they would have to be two persons profoundly committed to the Lord, who live the relationship from the perspective of prayer, with delicacy, prudence, humility, truth, without dependencies.

St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross - often held up as an example of spiritual friendship - reveal this reality in their lives and writings. A small detail reflects this point: St. Teresa specifically mentions St. John of the Cross five times in her book on the Foundation, and just 37 times in her 441 recorded letters. Nothing more, notwithstanding her extensive writings. There is no hint of intrigue, dependency or loss of inner freedom. The two great mystics lived seeking and completing the Father's will, notwithstanding pain and suffering. They valued human consolation but were not dependent on it, living a relationship rooted in prayer and serving, in total surrender to the Lord.

Difficulties and their causes

The process of maturation inevitably presents difficulties and challenges through which one must live and grow. However, there are other difficulties which stifle the entire person. The latter case can be attributed to two main causes. On one hand there is a life lacking in sound discernment built on a personal history of immaturity and indecisiveness. On the other, there is the weakening of union with the Lord, without whom neither priesthood nor celibacy makes any sense. If a priest prays-little, or poorly, the Eucharist ceases to be a personal encounter with the living Christ who is present. Life is emptied of meaning and the vocation itself is questioned.

At this point, crises can get so deep as to drag down not just the vocation and the ministry, but one's own identity. Still, one can escape by taking the opposite path: by recognizing, accepting, owning up to one's own past; by forgiving and allowing oneself to be forgiven, reexperiencing the merciful love of the Father; by renewing one's interior life in prayer, with the Eucharist. Also helpful is the company of a more mature priest, who can understand, orient and guide.

Priests, religious, and lay people at times run the risk of relying too much on human consolations, rather than humbly letting themselves be guided by the right person and wearing themselves out on their knees before the Tabernacle. He who perseveres through the darkness returns to the light; maybe sooner, maybe later. But he always finds the light again. Not so for him who hides his desolation. For him the pain will be deeper, more desperate because outside the confines of fidelity the crisis becomes much more profound.

Be not afraid! One ought not fear women nor oneself. Fear only paralyzes. Love for Christ, on the contrary, liberates, matures, "makes all things new." Neither should one feel completely safe. This would be an illusion, thinking oneself beyond temptations and possible falls. The Church's history reveals how many were unfaithful to their call through illusions of omnipotence: from newly ordained priests to bishops.

The cross liberates. There is no love without the cross; no friendship without the cross; no following Christ without the cross. There is no service to one's brothers and sisters without the cross. Human nature always tends to flee the cross. But the big paradox is: the more one flees, the heavier it gets. Yet if one accepts it with a broken, contrite heart, it gets lighter, because with the Lord "the yolk is easy and the burden light."

This article first appeared in Pastores (December 1995) and was reprinted in Sacerdos, Year 3, n.8, July-Sept 1996, pp.19-24. It is reproduced with permission.

Scanned and formatted by the Catholic Perspectives project of the Newman Center at Caltech