Bill Press: Confessions of a former celibate
Tribune Media Services
WASHINGTON (Tribune Media Services) -- My last column, suggesting it was time for the Catholic Church to stop requiring celibacy as a condition for ordination, generated more e-mails than any other column -- and, rare occasion indeed, most of them were positive.
I return to the subject this week for two reasons. First, the issue hasn't gone away. Now even the pope has spoken out on the growing scandal of priest pedophiles -- blaming it all on America's "libertine" culture. And New York's Cardinal Egan has defended his failure, while serving as Bishop of Bridgeport, Connecticut, to discipline priests accused of sexual abuse. Church leaders still don't get it.
Second reason: I'm no stranger to celibacy. For eight years, as a student for the priesthood, I took a vow of celibacy -- and kept it.
My road to celibacy began right after high school, when I joined the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales, the order of priests who taught at Salesianum School in Wilmington, Delaware.
Like most boys who enter the seminary, my motives were mixed. There was, of course, my strong Catholic faith and the belief that God had called me to serve him in a special way. There was also the conviction that I would be doing something important with my life. But, more than anything else, there was a great affection for my teachers, a great admiration for the work they did -- and a desire to be one of them.
As an altar boy and high school student, I'm happy to report, my own experiences hanging out with priests -- traveling, going to the beach or movies -- were happy and healthy. No groping. No petting. No nudity. No sex. Not even a hint of it.
But, looking back, I see how many opportunities a sexual predator would have had.
Catholic families put priests on a pedestal. They are pampered by parishioners. It's an honor to have them to dinner. Mothers and fathers are thrilled if the parish priest wants to take their son out for ice cream, or invite him over to the rectory to watch Monday Night Football. And any little Catholic boy is proud to be asked. After all, maybe he, too, is destined to be a priest. Unfortunately, too many of those little boys were destined instead to become victims.
When it was time for me to take the three vows of obedience, poverty and chastity, I did so without hesitation. To tell the truth, at that point, it was easy. I was young. I was on fire. I was a soldier in God's army. Any problems associated with celibacy would only come later.
Assigned as a seminarian to teach school in Philadelphia, I soon saw the warning signs among older priests. Again, in my case, no evidence of pedophilia. But a lot of self-indulgence in other ways: heavy eating, drinking, travel, golf, television — all distractions chased to fill an obvious void. Wouldn't they be better off married?
For the first time, I began to question not only my own vow of chastity, but the need or wisdom of requiring chastity at all. I agreed with the church's teaching that chastity was a gift. But, by their very nature, gifts are optional. It's no longer a gift if everyone is forced to give it.
A much smarter approach, it seemed to me, would be to welcome the gift of celibacy from those prepared to make the sacrifice, but not demand it from all. And, certainly, not exclude from the clergy those who wanted to marry, raise a family and still do the work of a priest. Orthodox priests have proven it's possible to do both.
And so I left the seminary, two years before ordination. Is the priesthood better off without me? Probably. But it's not better off without tens of thousands like me who would have stayed and made great priests, if only the bar had not been placed unreasonably high.
For me, any question that I made the right decision disappeared the day I met one of my former classmates, still a priest, for lunch. I hadn't seen him since seminary days. He'd been ordained 30 years. When I asked how he'd been, his very first words were: "I only have one regret: not being able to get married and have a family."
How sad. He's a good priest. He could have been a good husband and father, too. He should not have been denied that gift.
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