Since I began writing this column, scores of readers have emailed me asking for personal advice. I always offer whatever thoughts I can, and usually end letters by recommending that they speak with their priest or someone else within their church community for more detailed and ongoing advice.
Along the way, I began to wonder about this. Can a celibate clergy really give good advice to young-adults about relationships and sexuality? We recently asked the readers of BustedHalo to share their thoughts—and an enormous number of you answered.
Faith & Sex
Discussions about sexuality and relationships are alive and well within the church community: 42% of female and 58% of male respondents to our Pure Sex, Pure Love survey reported that they have spoken with a priest or nun about sex.
And two-thirds of men and women said they believed that a celibate priest or nun could give good advice about sex. This is a hearty vote of confidence in the ability of the Catholic clergy to offer relevant advice for young adults.
In many ways, a celibate priest can advise on issues of sexuality in a similar way that a doctor can diagnose and treat illnesses that he or she has never experienced. But Fr. Dick Sparks, a Paulist priest and professor of moral theology said this is only a partial parallel: “One can learn some of this from study, books, and the classroom, but it is also helpful for one to have learned from the ‘school of life,'” he said.
“‘Being celibate neither qualifies nor automatically disqualifies someone from being of help to a young person seeking romance, love, commitment, and healthy sexuality,” he said. In the same way, being married doesn’t make someone a competent marriage counselor. By learning and living we each are able to offer perspectives and advice.
In fact, he said, being celibate might give a helpful perspective on relationships. “If one is not always on the ‘prowl’ for a date or a mate, maybe that person can offer some solid advice about life, love, communication, commitment,” he said. “However, if a given celibate is naive, out-of-touch, scared of relationships, and uptight, then he or she would indeed be a very poor counselor for romantic young people.”
Sixty percent of female respondents and half of male respondents said they would prefer to talk with someone of their own gender about sexual issues. This is a crucial point: Parishes should have both a man and woman available within the church community to speak with young-adults on sensitive topics.
Advice from Celibate Clergy
To Answer the Questionnaire, click here
3. First Name
4. Are you Catholic? (Y/N)
5. If you go to a Christian – but not Catholic – wedding ceremony and service on Saturday or Sunday, does that “count” in your mind as “going to church” for the week? – (Y/N)
6. Do you know the Catholic church’s teaching on whether Catholic’s can receive communion at a wedding in another Christian denomination? (Y/N)
7. At non-Christian wedding, do you participate in the blessings and other religious rituals for the couple? – (Y/N)
8. What is your favorite wedding tradition from another religious faith? (i.e. the Jewish breaking of the glass, etc.) — (SHORT ANSWER)
9. What is your least favorite part of the spring/summer wedding season? (SHORT ANSWER)
And among the most misunderstood aspects of the Church’s teachings on sexuality and abstinence, said Fr. Sparks, is the idea that the Church thinks of sex as only about procreation and pregnancy. “That simply is not true!” Fr. Sparks said. “From Thomas Aquinas forward one can find a lot about love, intimacy, romance, commitment, sexual pleasure — but always within the context of marriage, commitment, and love. John Paul II wrote some lovely stuff about this. So too, Benedict XVI’s first encyclical is in the many facets of love, including healthy eros.”
Until I was in my early 20s, I was afraid to talk with a priest about my relationships or personal questions. Sure, there was confession, but that was about my cut-and-dry sins. There was a lot of gray area in that land of dating and sexuality—Can I? Should I? Now what?—and I didn’t realize that there were members of the Church who would support me and welcome my questions.
The most important message that the Catholic Church should get across to young adults who are struggling with issues of sexuality or troubled relationship is: God loves you. He is a forgiving, loving, welcoming God who wants to help. And the members of our church—celibate clergy and married lay people—are there to listen.
And for the next Pure Sex, Pure Love column… It’s wedding season! What are the rules for Catholics attending weddings of other faiths and other denominations? Share your thoughts in the survey above and keep an eye out for the next Pure Sex, Pure Love with advice and tips for how to survive this season of wedded bliss.
Some 59% of female and 68% of male BustedHalo survey respondents said they have read a religiously based book about sexuality and chastity. Fr. Dick Sparks offered the following suggestions for further reading as well:
- Human Sexuality: A Catholic Perspective for Education and Lifelong Learning
- Contemporary Christian Morality : Real Questions, Candid Responses
- And articles in Catholic magazines like U.S. Catholic, America and Commonweal.