the modern priesthood, Greg Watts talks to a recently ordained curate in Rochdale
Joy and pain of compulsory celibacy
A CONSTANT in the continuing debate about the nature of the Catholic priesthood is the issue of compulsory celibacy. To the disappointment of many, the autumn 1990 Synod of Bishops, meeting in Rome, decided on no change in this area.
There is a widely held view that the priesthood in western Europe and North America is under pressure, suffering a fall in vocations, low morale and uncertainty about its identity and role in an increasingly secular society where morality is rooted more on the television screen than in the Bible.
In his book Shattered Vows, former Dominican David Rice argues that apart from the estimated 100,000 priests who have left the active ministry since Vatican II, many others have left in their hearts, while outwardly staying in their posts.
A recent survey by Richard Sipe showed that many priests in the United states are falling short of their vow of celibacy.
It is not only the idea of celibacy as a witness upheld in the final declaration of the Rome synod that has been placed under the microscope. Questions have been raised about the kind of personal strains that its enforcement can create. As Dr Jack Dominian, the well-known Catholic psychiatrist, has observed: "while celibacy is a gift, it has also been developed on the shaky foundations of fear, hatred of women and the lack of appreciation of the wonder of sexuality". With such disturbing questions being asked by such senior figures, it is easy to forget that there are still many men who accept obligatory celibacy as part and parcel of the call of God.
Twenty-eight year-old Fr Andrew Leatham was ordained four years ago. He went to Ushaw Seminary in Durham immediately after his A levels. He grew up in a traditional bastion of Catholicism, Darwen in Lancashire, and says that he felt the attraction of the priesthood at an early age. Now curate at St Vincent de Paul in a suburb of Rochdale, he sees his role as a priest as being all things to all corners. While the practice of religion and the community standing of the priest may have declined in recent years in our society, what the people in the pews expect of the clergy has not.
Fr Andrew acknowledges the move away from the traditional clergy/laity, sacred/secular boundaries. "In the past a priest just did religious or holy things. But today you're expected to be much more involved in everyday life. I have a great admiration for older priests because the things they do today are so vastly different from when they were ordained."
There is much debate about the kind of formation a priest receives during his seminary years. And some argue that not only do seminaries foster clericalism but their all-male atmosphere is a far from ideal way of preparing a man to tackle the nitty gritty of the modern parish.
Reflecting on his years at Ushaw, Fr Andrew thinks that he received a reasonably good training. But since ordination, he has found that much of his time is taken up with tasks that could be delegated to lay people, such as acting as a school governor. (1 was reminded of the bishop who, during a parish visitation, admonished those present with the words: "your parish priest was not ordained to mow the church grounds.") So, how has Fr Andrew found living the celibate life? He admits to bouts of loneliness, but says that he finds great support and companionship from a wide circle of friends and especially from fellow clerics. "But sometimes it can be difficult to talk to close priest friends when you need to because they are often busy. This can be frustrating."
And like many priests, no doubt, he sometimes finds himself contemplating what it would be like to have a wife and family. "There are times when I occasionally think it's great to go to a kiddie's party, but what would it be like if it were my own child's?"
"When a week seems to be just one disaster after another, and there is no one at the end of the day to laugh or let off steam with, you can sometimes wish there was someone to say 'you're really important to me'."
And on a more intimate level, he continues: "the support, healing and sharing of sex is not there. But it is possible to have deep inter-personal relationships without sex being involved."
It is too easily overlooked, perhaps, that when a man answers what he perceives to be a call to the priesthood, he is not choosing celibacy but rather accepting it as a pre-condition. Gone are the days when 1 used to believe that priests, wrapped in clerical black, had received some secret knowledge at ordination that would enable them to live the celibate life.
Being a priest in a modern world seemingly obsessed with sex is not easy, a superhuman task even. But human a priest remains. Inevitably, temptation from time to time overpowers some men, as Fr Andrew acknowledges.
"I could easily identify with a priest who finds himself in a sexual relationship. 1 know of priests who have been torn between their priesthood and a physical relationship. Sometimes," he goes on, "priests come to you in confession after ending a relationship. Because you never see them again, you don't know what happens to them. A priest who left recently said that he had no one to talk to."
For Fr Andrew, the satisfaction he gains from sharing in the lives of people and trying to bring the presence of Christ to a given situation far outweighs any stress, isolation or frustration he might feel regarding compulsory celibacy.