Healthy heterosexuals, real men in the priesthood, are attracted to women. They make a promise of celibate love and by discipline, prayer and grace, they live out this life of loving service. They might fall in love… heck, they might fall in love with a number of nice women in their lifetimes, but they remain steadfast. Older and wiser men recognize the signs and make distance, even becoming gruff or mean to women they particularly like. This is often misinterpreted. But it has to be done. If a priest falls deeply in love with a woman in a romantic way, he must abandon her friendship and any affiliation with her. He must not play games that will lead the both of them into disaster. He must say goodbye. Often he will not and should not tell the woman why they cannot remain associates or “friends”. He must love her enough to let her go. There is something of sacrifice and the cross about this. It is as it must be. We need men who have a single-hearted love for God and devotion to the Church. As new Christs, they take the Church as their spouse. Once the promise is made, they must not think again that they are free like other men. Fantasies must be guarded and brushed aside. No time for envying other men or feeling sorry for oneself can be allowed. They have surrendered their intimacy and their sexuality to God– case closed.
Father Joe, I have question about the following: “Often he will not and should not tell the woman why they cannot remain associates or ‘friends’.”
Why should a priest not be honest with the woman? If he pushes her aside with no explanation, she may think she has done something wrong (sinned) to hurt or offend him, when she has not. Perhaps, she did not lead him on. We (adults, single, celibate, married, whatever) are beyond the age of innocence, yet we do not always “do” anything that makes another desire us sexually. The priest has taken a lifetime vow of celibacy. Has he also promised not to be so aloof that may hurt another person, when a simple explanation could clear up the problem, as far as the woman going her way, so as not to be a “stumbling block” to him?
“Why should a priest not be honest with the woman?”
Priests are often shy men who live in their heads. They may feel a great many things that they do not express. While priests may express fatherly love or the more general love of a shepherd to his flock, it would not do for a priest to confess “romantic” love to a woman. I base this upon the experiences of many priests who thought they had to be honest before making distance between themselves and a woman they cared “too much” about. More so than not, it can touch reciprocal emotions in the woman and matters can quickly escalate. It is best that she never know how he really felt. Unfortunately, they can also begin to lie to themselves, that they can keep this love under control.
“If he pushes her aside with no explanation, she may think she has done something wrong (sinned) to hurt or offend him, when she has not.”
Yes, she might feel hurt. This sometimes happens, but it cannot be helped. It is for the sake of both their souls that he must keep silent. He can assure her that she has done nothing wrong, and maybe tell her that the demands of ministry require more of his time. This is true; his priesthood requires that he spend less time with her. He can also explain in a vague manner, that he wants to return to the spirit of detachment that he was taught in seminary so as to better focus on his spousal love to the Church and to his prayer life as a priest. But he should not tell her, “I love you.” What he feels for her may not even be reciprocal; it does not matter. He might never get over her and will have to take this burning love with him to the grave– so be it. He must allow her to find joy in the company and embrace of another man, no matter how much he sacrifices personally. Promises are made to be kept.
“Perhaps, she did not lead him on?”
“We (adults, single, celibate, married, whatever) are beyond the age of innocence, yet we do not always ‘do’ anything that makes another desire us sexually.”
She did not have to, at least not intentionally. He might simply have fallen in love with the person she was. Priests are especially vulnerable or sensitive to nice girls who practice and know their faith: going to Mass, saying their prayers, practicing modesty and chastity, etc. They are everything a religious man of strong values would hope to find. He sees in her a true helpmate and a wonderful potential mother for a family. Many people these days discourage priests and tear them down. Such a lady builds him up and tells him that he is important and needed. He will quickly make friends and before long, loving her will be as easy as breathing. Her joy will become more important to him than his regular duties. Trouble is brewing!
We are sexual beings. Priests like all men are constantly dealing with sexual feelings and thoughts. His need for intimacy when turned toward such a girl will not subtract the sexual elements. If the relationship becomes increasing exclusive, then he must make the hard decisions about what to do next. Hopefully, the priest did nothing to lead the woman on.
Young priests in particular can be very innocent. This is also a component that quickly resonates with the innocence of a woman who cherishes her virginity and values. They see in each other something of themselves, and the potentiality for a best friend. But can a priest have a woman as his best friend? I have trouble in seeing it. Fr. Groeschel used to recommend that priests make friends with women whom they find particularly unattractive. This way they develop that side of their personalities that must interact with females, but by lessening any possible dangers. That is why some priests reserve their closer female relationships to matronly or elderly women. Older priests might also have some friendships with young women for whom they have fatherly feelings. However, caution must be used because while young men like young women, so do old men.
“The priest has taken a lifetime vow of celibacy. Has he also promised not to be so aloof that may hurt another person, when a simple explanation could clear up the problem, as far as the woman going her way, so as not to be a ’stumbling block’ to him?”
YES, a priest has taken a lifetime vow or promise of celibacy.
But, to be honest, he did not make promises about the rest. Some priests are aloof and they remain that way to survive. Others are better at relationships and limits. I am all for simple explanations, but in many of these situations the explanations are really not so simple and can lead to a host of additional problems. Rarely is it a case of the woman going her way, unless she sees the problem and nobly makes a move before the priest does to preserve his vocation. What usually happens is that a priest, consulting his spiritual director and/or confessor, will seek a new assignment. It is often too hard for the priest to remain in a parish and regularly see a woman with whom he wants to share time and intimacy. He goes on with his life and she goes on with hers. He does not go out of his way to be mean or nasty. He will no doubt bless her and keep her in prayer. But he might also never see or talk with her again. And if he does, then he must bear his pain of loss in silence.
Thank you for your explanation. Obviously, priests are fully human. They are as sexually alive and responsible for their own behavior as anyone else. It just seems that in almost every instance a priest could say, “I’m sorry, but I can’t see you anymore. You didn’t do anything wrong and have not sinned against God. I am asking you not to question me further. If you care for me, as a human being, please don’t continue to ask.” It seems kind, doesn’t seem to violate his vows, and would let a young woman (perhaps as shy as he) know she had not led a priest on.
Helen, certainly the priest should do all he can to help a person he loves to move on with her life. But the priest may be so caught up in his own emotions that he does not have the right words.
You suggest that he could say the following: “I’m sorry, but I can’t see you anymore. You didn’t do anything wrong and have not sinned against God. I am asking you not to question me further. If you care for me, as a human being, please don’t continue to ask.”
I think it is good to tell her that she has done nothing wrong. About that I agree, if it is indeed the case. But I also believe that he has to remove himself from the picture. If she really cares about him, no explanation will suffice. Someone is going to get hurt, not matter what.
Further, in some cases the emotions are not entirely shared. The girl might only have “friendship” feelings while the priest feels more than he should. He has to be careful to say or do nothing that would re-direct or amplify her feelings. (It could also be the other way around. I have known priests pursued by women.)
Romantic feelings are not very rational. The problem may be more the priest than the girl. If he says something like this and she comes crying into his arms, begging, “What is wrong, tell me?” Well, who knows?
Thank you for the contribution. I hope priests struggling in such situations will take seriously this post and the thoughtful words that you offer as a model for them. You are a smart lady, Helen. God bless!
There are so many factors involved in these situations; it is hard to reduce these situations to linear scales of right and wrong. There are multiple factors acting on the principles. Some examples:
(1) Some women consciously or unconsciously actively seek priests out for relationships and marriage. I know of one woman who is obsessed with marrying a priest and even vehemently argues for the Church to allow priests to marry. She never sees her obsession as taking a “father” away from many, many, children. This woman may have felt that she needed a father for her children, but she probably didn’t ever consider that in giving her children a father she will be depriving many, many others of a one-of-a-kind spiritual father.
(2) People become confused I think also when they entrust someone with the deepest, most intimate parts of their spiritual life. This is often a person’s most secret and intimate self. It’s not surprising that a person who has never been able to share this part of their life with anyone else will reason that their ability to share it must necessarily mean that that they and their priest/counselor share an intimacy beyond any other and is evidence that they should be together for life.
(3) Our society is over sexed and places a high premium on “sexual identities.” The Christian life demands that people refrain from inappropriate relationships but the world is so at odds with Catholic understanding of sexuality and the human person. Everyone is bombarded constantly with messages to be sexy and demonstrate one’s sexual prowess. It’s about the equivalent of alcoholics being asked to live in a bar 24 hours a day. The temptations are so great. I think we need to realize that just as alcoholics need AA, so to do those who are called to chastity according to their state in life (married, celibate consecrated, celibate singles, etc.) need the same kind of support that AA provides its members. I think the Church should organize support groups for chastity for both lay people and clergy.
(4) If this relationship really went on for awhile, it underscores the value of having busy body old ladies as receptionists who just have a way of “knowing” who should have a lot or a little access to father.
Fr. Joe, today I find all too many priests insensitive to the feelings of those they “shepherd”. How sad it is for me to hear that a priest would purposely choose to be mean to a woman whom he has feelings for. It seems cruel given the sensitive nature of woman. Some women look to a priest as a reflection of Christ. A priest treating her coldly may cause her to question her love of the Church and this may cause her to leave the Catholic Church. I know this because I have left the Church due to so many uncaring priests.
You miss the point Sandy; the object or ideal is for the priest to pull away before the woman develops strong feelings and an attachment to him. Many today see love only in a selfish way, like those priests who break their promises. If a priest really loves a woman he will want what the best for her, even if he must pay a high price by forfeiting her friendship. Love is not always about kissing, holding hands, embracing, or jumping into bed. Sometimes REAL LOVE means saying goodbye. (Remember, priests and their women who attempt marriage commit mortal sin and cannot be restored to good grace unless they separate or unless the priest is laicized and given permission to marry. I have known such couples, cut off from the sacraments, knowing that every act of romantic affection and sexual union is neither sanctioned by the Church nor approved by God. How can a good priest live with such a decision, knowing that he may have damned the person he says he holds most dear?)
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