Fr. Williams and the Grind of Celibacy

They say you know you’re getting old when cops start looking like kids. I say you catch your first whiff of your own grave-dirt when priests start looking like kids.

This first occurred to me two years ago, when I attended an ordination ceremony for three new priests of the Diocese of Phoenix. One, whom I’ll call Fr. D, I knew slightly though Communion and Liberation. (Since CL doesn’t ask its members to whistle, or screech, or boil over, or whatever adorable term Opus Dei uses for a formal declaration of commitment, I suppose I’m still a member, even if my last meeting was over a year ago.) Fr. D was about ten years younger than me, and it showed. He smiled constantly, and bounced through his duties with shining eyes, like a sacerdotal Tigger. He revered our bishop — whose head was then being sought by a large section of the public, including many Catholics — as a son reveres his father, and not the father in Sling Blade, either.

One night, I thought I saw Fr. D.’s laddish high spirits assert themselves in an unexpected way. He and I were having drinks with another CL member, a young Italian woman I’ll call Bettina. Bettina was a memora domini, and I rate her decision to consecrate her virginity a sadistic prank on my entire gender. In her person, she combined the fawnlike grace of Audrey Hepburn with the dark smolder of Irene Pappas, and — oh, never mind. You get the idea. Anyway, emboldened by the beer, Father and I started practicing our Italian. Both of us, it quickly emerged, would have had to spend a year under the Tuscan sun before we could speak the language like Tonto spoke English. I myself have exactly 50 phrases to my name, every one of them incorporating some dysphemism for “penis” or “testicles.” Given the nature of the company, that left me all but mute.

But on at least one point of usage, I was ahead of Father. He addressed Bettina as Doña. “That’s Spanish,” I told him, taking no pain to sound like anything but a big, pedantic jerk. Just then, for the briefest of moments, Fr. D shot me a look of profound irritation and profound contempt. “What a weenie you are,” it said. As it disappeared, it took with it one of my childish illusions. Just because a man has formally sworn off sex, doesn’t mean he can’t enjoy basking in the good opinion of women. Even if Father barred the vestibule of his mind to the slightest thought of jumping Bettina’s lovely bones, being corrected in front of her could still bruise his masculine amour-propre.

This week, the world got a much more compelling reminder of just how unnatural it is for a fully-equipped man to make himself into a eunuch for the Kingdom of Heaven. Scholar, TV commentator and Legionary of Christ Fr. Thomas Williams confessed to fathering a love-child, and announced he is leaving public ministry for a year. Though Williams says the child’s mother was neither a student of his nor under his spiritual direction, a report made to the Vatican by a former Legion priest alleges Williams did carry on affairs with students at Rome’s Regina Apostolorum University, where he served as an instructor.

Though Williams has comported himself as a model of contrition — no histrionics, no conspiracy theorizing or cries of “Help, help! I’m being repressed!” — it’s still stomach-turning news. Many among the faithful are embittered. After reading some of the posts in Deacon Greg Kandra’s combox, a priest felt moved to plead for understanding on Williams’ behalf. He writes: “[Williams] is human – weak – vulnerable – and I bet lonely; and to that, I can personally relate.” Without trivializing Williams’ offenses, or the pain and embarassment they’ve inflicted on countless people, this man can guess all too easily at some of the reasons he committed them.

“To the average person,” writes sociologist and former Benedictine priest A.W. Richard Sipe, the “perfect and perpetual continence” required of priests by Canon 277 “poses a seemingly impossible task.” He adds: “No researcher so far has assessed that more than 50 percent of Roman Catholic clergy at any one time are in fact practicing celibacy.” If these studies are accurate, and unless anyone wants do away with mandatory clerical celibacy, then the time seems ripe to accept a paradox. For many priests, the “daily dying to himself…for the love of Christ and His Kingdom” prescribed in Sacerdotalis Caelibatus is an on-again, off-again thing in practice. At some point since his ordination, the guy presiding over Mass in your parish may have slept with someone. He may even have fallen in love.

For some people the implications of such a thought are as stark as they are obvious: Father is nothing but a hypocrite and a son of a bitch. In some cases, this judgment could be fair enough. Even if Canon 277 didn’t exist, using priestly clout to talk someone into the sack would be as unethical as a doctor’s seduction of a patient. It might also signal a predatory turn of mind. But status within the Church doesn’t always translate to power within a relationship. When Milwaukee archbishop Rembert Weakland began an affair with theology student Paul Marcoux, he found his hierarch’s prestige no match for Marcoux’s ruthlessness. Very quickly, Marcoux began squeezing him for money; in writing to refuse, and to end the relationship, Weakland was reduced to pleading.

Weakland’s subsequent use of archdiocesan funds to pay off Marcoux when Marcoux threatened a a lawsuit was shameful. I am not among those who would dignify him as a tragic hero, especially not if he allowed his experience with Marcoux to prejudice him against minors who alleged sexual abuse on the part of Milwaukee priests. But in his sign-off letter to Marcoux, Weakland spoke of his celibate vocation as one who’d gained a deeper understanding of it:

During the last months I have come to know how strained I was … I just did not seem to be honest with God. I felt I was fleeing from Him, from facing Him. I know what the trouble was: I was letting your conscience take over for me and I couldn’t live with it. I felt like the world’s worst hypocrite. So gradually I came back to the importance of celibacy in my life … I knew I would have to face up to it and take seriously that commitment I first made thirty-four years ago.

It’s tempting to read this cynically — as the desperate words of a man trying to wiggle out of an uncomfortable situation. But in his renewed appreciation for the exclusivity God demands, Weakland sounds very much like the nun quoted by Sally Cline in Women, Passion and Celibacy. Referring to her “romantic” involvement with another nun, the woman said: that the worst thing “(though at times it seemed the best) [was] the intense focus on each other.” She sounds like she knows what it means to farm out the work of her conscience.

I found that quote from Cline’s book in another book, Kathleen Norris’ The Cloister Walk. Norris interviews Benedictine sisters extensively on celibacy, and most agree that falling in love represents an irreplacable part of their formation as celibates. “The worst sin against celibacy,” one prioress said, “is to pretend not to have any affections at all, To fall in love is celibacy at work.” She concludes, “Celibacy is a vow to put up all our feelings, acceptable or not, up to our hearts and put them into consciousness through prayer.”

She’s talking about love in general, not about sex specifically. It’s unclear just how many priests in that 50-plus percent actually love the people they’re breaking their vows with. Nevertheless, just as many nuns Norris interviewed learned the true meaning of celibacy only after they’d fallen in love (usually at a distance, and with a priest), it seems to have taken a sexual relationship to teach Weakland the same lesson. Or, to put it in more negative, AA-type terms, some may need to hit rock bottom before they can begin the climb up.

For Weakland, that lesson came at a very steep price to many people. If Williams decides to remain in the priesthood, the same will be said for him. Forgiving them may be possible only through gritted teeth. But while we’re gritting, let’s spare some sympathetic and admiring thoughts for all those priests whose falls have been less expensive (and, if it needs saying, with persons over the age of consent). According to the bulk of the evidence, answering the call to lifelong contienence is exhausting and enormously difficult — as difficult as Fr. D must have found resisting the call to deck me.

The Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington bears the inscription: “Here rests in honored glory an American soldier known but to God.” Given the Church’s general preference for secrecy, I’d like to build a monument to the unknown, imperfect celibate. It would, of course, be an obelisk, and it would stand next to the entrance of some popular basilica. Incised in the base would be these words:

“AT SPOTS LIKE THESE HAVE STOOD IN TARNISHED GLORY MANY SINNERS, KNOWN BUT TO GOD, TO WHOMEVER THEY WERE CANOODLING, AND IN SOME CASES, TO WHOEVER HAS ACCESS TO THE FILES IN THE CHANCERY. THEY DID THEIR BEST.”

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