Sex and the Celibate Priest

Turning religion into an ordeal

I wonder how often Christians rate themselves; that is, do they reflect on how they measure up as followers of Jesus? What standards do they use? How often do they embrace the apostle Paul’s claim, as stated in his letter to the Galatians?

“And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.” (5:24)

Most clergy in pre-marital counseling probably don’t bring up this text, and even the most devout Christians enjoy the passions of the flesh in their Christian bedrooms. So, get lost Paul. We wonder if even Paul himself—who, if anyone did, belonged to Christ Jesus—measured up. He agonized over something eating away at him: “…sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it.” (Romans 7:17-18)

For those who may be tempted to study Paul’s letters, British scholar A. N. Wilson offers this warning: “To say that the apostle Paul was self-contradictory is an understatement. He was a man who was fighting himself and quarrelling with himself all the time…and he managed to project the warfare in his own breast onto the Cosmos itself.”

Who needs that in scripture? Especially if some of the warfare in Paul’s own breast had to do with sex? Galatians 5:24 surely ranks as one of the worst Bible verses because it pits human sexuality against God. This text almost certainly has been used to justify celibacy as an ideal: truly godly people, it would seem, must focus on ignoring their sexuality. How does that make sense? How does that not jeopardize mental health?

Especially since—as a therapist pointed out to young Tom Rastrelli—“Your body’s wired for sex.” Rastrelli was struggling toward his vocation as a priest, and he offers dramatic testimony to his anguish in his new book, Confessions of a Gay Priest: A Memoir of Sex, Love, Abuse, and Scandal in the Catholic Seminary. After reading this book, I was left wondering: How can religion get it so wrong?—and I’m thankful Rastrelli had the courage to tell his story. The damage is so obvious, to those inside the system, as well as to those outside.

Which brings us back to the apostle Paul and sin that “dwelt within.” Rastrelli notes that he read Paul’s tortured confession: “He and I were the same, unable to stop choosing that which we knew was sin over that which was righteous. If I didn’t rip the sexual thorn from my side, if I didn’t eradicate my sexuality, I was going to destroy my life and my vocation.” (p. 98)

Every page of Rastrelli’s book draws the reader in; the author is honest and authentic—and he writes so well, with generous helpings of wit and humor. But it is like watching a perfect storm engulfing the people who get tossed about in it. I won’t reveal any plot spoilers—who the good guys and bad guys are, and why—but I’ll say it’s a relief that Rastrelli came out of his ordeal healthy and whole.

Raised Catholic, he was given to more skepticism than we might expect, so why the priesthood? There was a transformative experience in church; he describes a priest’s compelling sermon based on Mark 7:31-37, Jesus healing a deaf-mute: “I had never witnessed such joy and passion in a priest. He’d delivered a monologue more potent than any play.” (p. 17)

“Warmth flooded my chest. I’d never experienced anything like it: pure joy and peace without judgment. I wasn’t alone. God was with me in my struggles. God loved me and had a plan for me, just as he did for the deaf mute. A thought bubbled into my consciousness: Holy fuck: God wants me to be a priest.” (p. 18)

In the following months, Rastrelli “…devoured the New Testament, sang hymns, and attended daily church events. I told my faith-sharing group that it felt like I was climbing higher and higher on the endless first hill of a roller coaster. Each day, I could see more of what had been just beyond the horizon. The view revealed how everything in God’s world fit into place. I was going to be a priest.” (p. 21)

So Far So Good, Right?

“But there was one small problem. Not that I ever used the word ‘gay’ to describe myself. I couldn’t even admit I was…homosexual. Those words would describe faraway effeminate men dying of AIDS in San Francisco or nearby married men blowing dudes in the backroom booths at Danish Book World. Those labels were as foreign to me as Baptist or Buddhist. Sure, I had attractions to males, but my life was more complicated than the stereotypes. Gay culture was dangerous. Priesthood would save me from that fate.” (p. 21)

But it turned out that the priesthood was another gay culture (or as Rastrelli calls it, the “Church’s crowded closet”), and his own orientation was confirmed—dramatically—by his encounters there. Priests took him to bed, even as celibacy was talked up as the ideal, the rule, the goal. But, of course, that’s not the way it worked out because our bodies “are wired for sex”—and apparently quite a few men opt for the priesthood to be saved from “that fate.”

So, how can they act out sexually, and still maintain the pretense of celibacy? Rastrelli describes one encounter:

“He directed me to lie next to him with my feet by his head. I did. He masturbated. I watched, trying to ignore the crucifix over the bed. I wanted what we were doing to feel, to be, okay, so I stroked myself. We didn’t touch. Apparently, this was celibacy. I could handle a lifetime of this.

“After orgasm, self-loathing squeezed into the spaces flushed out by testosterone, as it always did. And I knew in my baby-oiled gut: this was definitely not celibacy.” (p. 50)

Such encounters drove him to confession. “Mortal sins—grave infractions involving adultery, murder, or blasphemy against the Holy Spirit—were wall-sized sins that formed an impenetrable monolith between God’s grace and my soul. Sex with a priest was a Great Wall of China-sized sin.” (pp. 70-71) Yet he was in an all-male milieu—with a lot of gay men “wired for sex”—so priest-sex was all but inevitable.

Rastrelli also provides insight into just how bad theology can be:

“As the fifty beads representing Hail Marys slid through my fingertips, I imagined Jesus sweating blood, his skin torn by barbed whips, and thorns puncturing his skull. I imagined the cross driving splinters into his gouged flesh, the spikes splitting the bones in his forearms and ankles, and the fluid filling his lungs until he suffocated. Each of my sins corresponded to a drop of Jesus’s blood, a snap of the whip, a nail piercing his flesh, or twinge of pain. My sin, I, had crucified him. I swore never to compound his suffering again. I would be the celibate priest he’d called me to be.” (pp. 71-72)

In fact, this is horrible guilt-fueled theology, derived from totalitarian monotheism upon which Christianity has thrived: a god is watching everything you do. This might have worked when Yahweh could spy on people from above the clouds. How does this thinking survive when we know how miniscule humanity is in the cosmic scheme? There are billions of galaxies and trillions of planets; that alone would be a lot for any god to manage. So this god is also keeping track of every erection and orgasm, each one of which requires contrition and confession unless a vagina is involved? And our sins injure God: “Each of my sins corresponded to a drop of Jesus’s blood…” This is not healthy religion.

Piety steeped in the suffering of Jesus has been a part of Catholicism forever, but the contemporary church added more bad theology. It’s official position is that homosexuality is “intrinsically disordered,” and both John-Paul II and Benedict XVI insured that their own virulent homophobia was Vatican policy. If either of these popes had been openly racist or anti-Semitic, they would have faced heavy censure. Yet both were openly, aggressively misogynistic and homophobic—and the faithful didn’t notice, didn’t care. But this homophobia set the male-only priesthood up for anguish and failure: “We welcome your intrinsic disorder to holy orders.”

Rastrelli: “…therefore I had to be chaste—meaning no sexual activity outside marital relations culminating in vaginal sex open to procreation. Because of my lack of desire for vaginas, being a priest made sense. If I had to give up dick, I might as well get praised for my sacrifice by giving it up for Jesus.” (p. 62)

As his story unfolds we see that it didn’t work out that way, at all. And the irrepressible sexuality required theological spin:

• “My erections were merely a physical sign of my desire to be in communication with God.” (p. 174)

• “Still, I masturbated. The worst was waking up in the middle of an erotic dream, before orgasm. We seminarians called wet dream “freebies,” for we’d learned in moral theology, no conscious decision, no consent, no culpability, and thus, no sin.” (p. 174)

• “…we were celibate, and our entire sexual-relational energy was to be channeled into loving God and serving the common good.” (p. 165)

• “What priests felt didn’t matter, only that they offered up their attractions to God. That was celibacy.” (p. 42)

…which sometimes took a more sinister turn:

• “What I couldn’t understand was why a loving God created us with such painful deficiencies…each time I experienced orgasm, my communion turned to guilt and loathing. I finished feeling more divorced from God, trapped in my disordered body.” (p. 162)

After Rastrelli had made his escape from the priesthood, he did what John-Paul and Benedict should have done: “I devoured gay-themed books about coming out, same-sex relationships, civil rights, history, and theology. These texts became my sacred canon; their gay authors, my psalmists.” (p. 309) In order words, he sought education about sexual orientation, including theological perspectives: mean-spirited Catholic and evangelical homophobic theology is vigorously contested by other Christian thinkers.

Earlier I mentioned the perfect storm. So many factors contributed to Rastrelli’s ordeal. He had been abused himself as a teenager (though not by a priest), which made the revelations about the systemic abuse in the church, and its cover-up, all the more painful. His church superiors were cruelly manipulative—another form of abuse; all the theology in the world—all the holy pretense—could not disguise the realities he had to endure within the rigid bureaucracy:

• “…each day more priests, bishops, and dioceses were exposed. Everywhere I went, I heard talk of priests sexually abusing children and, even worse, being defended and enabled by bishops, who’d bullied victims and silenced them with money.” (p. 194)

• “At the bishop’s breakfast, I’d hobnobbed with supposedly holy men, some of whom had now been exposed for harboring pedophiles…I knew the ecclesiology, how the bishops’ authority stemmed from a direct line to Jesus, but they were criminals.” (p. 198)

• “I thought of the sexual abuse, and cover up…the Church was infected, not in its extremities, but at its core. The nature of the ecclesial hierarchy was to preserve power at the expense of truth.” (p. 282)

Rastrelli has written an important book. He offers a look behind the curtain, behind the carefully crafted dishonest fa├žade. He describes many people damaged by the church’s oppressive, inflexible polity and theology. The categories under which Amazon ranks this title include Religious Leader Biographies and Catholicism. Maybe it will come to the attention of people who show up at mass. They need to learn that gay priest is a common fact, while the requirement for celibate priest is senseless cruelty: Physical intimacy is an important human need. Shame on any severe, sick theology that forbids it.

David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years, and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. His book, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith, was published by Tellectual Press in 2016. It was reissued in 2018 with a new Foreword by John Loftus.

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