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Posted May 26, 2005

Book: Priests in Love: Roman Catholic Clergy and Their Intimate Friendships
Author: Jane Anderson
Continuum, NY, pp. 215

An Excerpt from the Jacket:

In the 1960s and 70s, thousands of Roman Catholic priests left the active ministry to get married. Nothing like this had been seen on this scale since the French Revolution, and before that since the Reformation. Now a different phenomenon seems to be at work: priests who have formed long-time, intimate, sexual friendships. These men are not pedophiles or sexual abusers. They are adult, mature men who can no longer find a rationale for a life of obligatory celibacy and enter into responsible sexual relationships. Some of them are straight, some gay. Based on interviews, conducted over a nine-year period, with fifty Australian priests, Priests in Love tells the stories of these priests and their friends. It deals with the moral, psychological, and social challenges they face on the less-traveled road of social change.

An Excerpt from the Book:

When a parishioner describes the local parish priest as typical, he or she implies that that particular priest conforms to the religious and social expectations of what a priest is supposed to be like. The typical priest demonstrates to his parishioners that he has mastered the rules of priesthood. Such a priest ministers constantly to his flock, but not to the point of utter exhaustion. He is charitable in his remarks and kindly in his actions, yet, he does not suffer fools gladly. He is generous with his material goods but not destitute. He is prayerful, generally more so than his parishioners, although not to the extent that he is so occupied with the things of heaven that he is of no earthly good. Such a priest strikes a balance between what is expected of him and what he regards as proper for a priest. Essentially, he masters the rules, not they him. As a result, some priests can successfully configure into their character a close friend and still be regarded as typical.

Fr. Gideon can be described as typical priest. He is a parish priest of a large town and actively encourages his parishioners to grow in their faith and become involved in the parish. Fr. Gideon has fostered such involvement by implementing various programs in his parish, including RCIA and visitation programs. He also has a reputation for respectfully listening to his parish counselors and usually takes into account their ideas when he makes decisions for the parish. Generally, Fr. Gideon is well regarded and like by his parishioners. As a typical priest, he has essentially mastered the rules of how to publically communicate his priesthood. This metaphor of ordinariness suits Fr. Gideon because he has a friendship with Michelle whom he met many years ago. “I have a particular friendship that began in a previous parish; I’ve been in three since then (parishes not friendships) and I got to know Michelle while I was struggling desperately to wriggle out of another friendship. She helped me to resist phone calls and not to go back to this person. It actually worked, with her support.

When I went to another parish, we missed each other but we were able to meet often, although that involved a lot of driving. I was then appointed to a very isolated parish, but we still managed to see each other about every three weeks. The amount of petrol we used to keep our friendship on track has been amazing. And sometimes I think, why bother with this? But somehow there has always been a reason, and something good comes out of it. Ad it’s been great, you know.”

After another six years, Fr. Gideon was transferred to his present posting, but this time Michelle shifted house and was able to find employment in the same town. This new situation presented a more favorable set of conditions for Fr. Gideon and Michelle. Living in the same town enabled them to lessen the restraints imposed upon their relationship. Over time, Michelle became quite active in the parish. Then when the housekeeper resigned, she applied for the position and has been able to care for and be close to Fr. Gideon. By taking up accepted social roles in the parish, Michelle is now considered appropriate company for Fr. Gideon:

“I think the parishioners have accepted our friendship, and that took a long time to get to. I have found that my ministry here has been helped enormously b her ability to make people welcome. Not that I can’t, but she and I together seem to offer a friendliness and openness that I can’t do by myself. With her help I have, I believe, encouraged this parish to progress.

Fr. Gideon and Michelle establish a niche for themselves in the particular circumstances that have been presented to them and, in effect they have reconstructed their role in the church. While this is not officially acknowledged, it has become accepted in the cultural conditions of the local parish. Nonetheless, the situation of Fr. Gideon and Michelle is contingent and not free of threat:

“The difficulty of maintaining our friendship revolve around the conflicts of parish and presbytery life (the goldfish bowl). There is the strain of long hours on the job. And she is a harder worker than me and is often frustrated in having to “push” me to start things or to follow them up. Often I simply say, “Look, I just don’t know how to go about getting this going, can you help?” I think she likes to help but she finds her desire to help and my need to be helped a very draining experience. I suppose the upshot of all this is that we are experiencing difficulties that many couples experience and yet find it hard to get help, because we can’t really acknowledge our relationship. We have no one we can really turn to for support.

Then there is another problem. Not many other people, including other priests, would really understand the relationship. Some of them have said, “you don’t need her around” and that sort of thing. There has also been a real struggle about whom she belongs to. Is she just here as a parish worker, or something more? And she knows it can’t be anything more and has to learn to accept it. It’s so hard on the woman. If there was marriage, she would have acceptance as someone. Now as it stands, she feels like “the other woman” and the parish is the wife!

One issue we both face is what happens when I leave this parish. After all these years, I honestly don’t know whether the relationship has a future, given the fact that the system ultimately makes things impossible, although we have been able to live to date in a way that other priests would find impossible.

Table of Contents:

1. Changing Confessions

2. From Celibate Sacrifice to Intimate Communion

3. Open to Change

4. Moral Dilemmas

5. A Question of Identity

6. The Erosion of Patriarchy

7. Moving On

Conclusion: Beyond Secrets

Personal Postscript