Believe it or not, the other day a few friends and I fanned out in pairs around a tourist spot in Santa Monica, California, and asked people for their opinions on what needed to happen to end clergy sex abuse in the Catholic Church.
We listened to Catholics, Jews, Muslims, younger people, older people, Asians, whites, Latinos, and African-Americans.
The answer behind the answer
When I asked this variety of people-on-the-street what it would take to stop the abuse, most concluded, “Priests should be allowed to get married.”
Now we know that married men also have problems with pedophilia, so getting married isn’t a cure-all to what ails the priesthood. There had to be an answer behind this answer. In listening to why people were coming to this conclusion, it seemed most were intuitively grappling with a sense that the priesthood can be incredibly lonely. They believed there is something about the lifestyle that can lead men into hurting another in a desperate attempt to connect.
If not having sex was the main thing priests had to sacrifice to be faithful to their celibate vow, most could do it. But the virtue of celibacy goes way beyond sex. It’s become like a shield around men, where almost any physical touching is considered suspect.
Having been married for over a decade, some of what I most treasured about the experience were frequent hugs, taking turns rubbing each other’s tired feet, massaging aching backs, stroking a worried spouse’s forehead, holding hands while walking to the movies, sleeping in each others arms. And we haven’t even gotten to the sex part.
But priests are asked to forego, not only sex, but almost all rational human touch that is so much a part of healthy human life. And since the scandal broke out, rumor has it that at least in one archdiocese priests have been asked to limit human physical contact to handshakes.
But such absence of physical contact can lead to an aching loneliness, because many of us experience God’s love and concern through the warm touch of another human being.
Only the Lonely
Loneliness. Is that one reason why so many of our priests left the priesthood following Vatican II, why others suffer from alcoholic and other addictive behaviors? Why some turn to furtive inappropriate touching? Why so few young men want to choose the priesthood vocation now? Why one day the church may have to reconsider the married priesthood?
As the bishops gather in Dallas to decide on national policies to deal with sex abusing priests, I hope they’ll keep in mind the problem of priests’ loneliness. While this meeting can’t really explore this issue thoroughly, eventually it will have to be openly discussed at the global Catholic level, hopefully sooner rather than later.
Loneliness. It’s something the people on the street understand.