“I risk losing everything if it were to come out into the open,” one man says, under the veil of anonymity, of his romantic relationship. But he agreed to tell his story, his partner reports, “because suffering pushes you to do something, to try and change this injustice.”
Thus begins a November New York Times article about a network of lovers whose unions the Church frowns upon: ordained priests, secular or religious, who have made vows or promises to live chastely in accord with the status of clergy—to live celibately—and who then enter into romantic relationships. The article features stories and convicted appeals from several groups of former and present priests, some of whom are currently romantically involved, many of whom have been in the past, and all of whom wish that the Vatican would allow priests to marry.
Those interested in pursuing and perusing statistical analyses of celibacy, happiness, and the priesthood might begin with Monsignor Stephen Rossetti’s chapter (“A Recent Study of Celibacy and the Priesthood: What do the Data Tell Us?”) in John Cavadini’s The Charism of Priestly Celibacy. More concerning is the Times article’s, and its interviewees’, presentation of the phenomenon of love generally.
“They had not planned on falling in love, but they did,” the article begins.
They did not want to become the objects of malicious gossip, but they are. They had not imagined living a life of furtive affections and secret rendezvous, but that is what has happened since the woman and the priest defied a Roman Catholic Church taboo and became romantically involved.
One group of 26 women even petitioned Pope Francis to change the church’s requirement of celibacy for priests, and relieve their suffering.
“It’s really hard to explain this relationship to someone who hasn’t gone through it,” said one of the women who signed the letter to the pope but did not want her name printed because she, too, is romantically involved with a priest. “We wanted to let the pope know that the suffering is widespread.”
Not forgetting the fact that priestly celibacy in the Roman Catholic Church is a discipline and neither a doctrine nor a dogma, I can’t help but see in this story the confirmation of C. S. Lewis’s fear that “the truth that God is love may slyly come to mean for us the converse, that love is God.”
“Every human love, at its height, has a tendency to claim for itself a divine authority,” Lewis wrote in The Four Loves.
Its voice tends to sound as if it were the will of God Himself … it attempts to over-ride all other claims and insinuates that any action which is sincerely done “for love’s sake” is thereby lawful and even meritorious.
Now, couple this thought with the excellent study released last week out of the Austin Institute, Relationships in America, which found that most Americans (74 percent) continue to disapprove of extramarital affairs, while a small majority (55 percent) of Americans outright disapprove of polyamorous relationships, and only about 1 in 6 Americans outright approve of them.
The language and “narrativization” of the Times article bespeak and entrench Lewis’s concern that “love will be god.” Yet even as American views on sexual morality continue to track toward laxity in several metrics, they still resist the “divinization” of love when it confronts deeply held convictions about certain relational structures and norms. The theoretical wherewithal supporting this resistance, however, is crumbling rapidly and has been for some time, increasingly cowed by the onslaught of the unencroachable “right to love” that manifests itself strongly in prevalent attitudes about marriage and sexuality.
Many voluntary relationships, upright or not, are motivated by a phenomenon that we can loosely call “love.” But love itself can become an idol when the quest for desirable feelings, emotions, sensations, and pleasures—which themselves are subjective states and therefore can never be the basis for or constitute common goods—takes precedence over the good of lover and beloved, and the appropriate actions and norms that realize and facilitate, respectively, that good. Both the Times article and the Relationships in America study are timely warnings that should provoke us to renew our understanding of right relationship as being grounded in shared (common) goods realizable through collaboration and cooperation. Love is demonstrated in the willing of the common good of the parties constituent of the relationship; "it's good that you exist—good for us," as Josef Pieper describes it.
Compelling defenses of the Church’s theology and practice of priestly celibacy and its vision for all relationships, in fact, take the form of elucidating these goods, actions, and norms that constitute and identify any relationship or union. Confronted with the reign of the untethered subjective ego and its desires, we must exorcise the demon that "love is god" and reorient love clearly in service to the goods that animate our desires for relationship.