A group of 40 or so mistresses of Italian priests, including Stefania Solomone (pictured), want you—and especially Pope Benedict—to know that they don’t like priestly celibacy.
The occasion was Pope Benedict’s statement that
“The horizon of the ontological belonging to God also constitutes the proper framework for understanding and reaffirming, in our day too, the value of sacred celibacy which in the Latin Church is a charism required for Sacred Orders and is held in very great consideration in the Eastern Churches . . .
“It is an authentic prophecy of the Kingdom, a sign of consecration with undivided heart to the Lord and to “the affairs of the Lord”, the expression of their gift of self to God and to others. The priest’s vocation is thus most exalted and remains a great mystery, even to us who have received it as a gift. Our limitations and weaknesses must prompt us to live out and preserve with deep faith this precious gift with which Christ has configured us to him, making us sharers in his saving Mission.”
The mistresses particularly objected to the phrase “sacred celibacy,” who seem to have determined to write their letter “from the moment we heard the reaffirmation of the sacredness of what is not sacred in the least.”
This episode just fills me with sadness.
The discipline of celibacy (i.e., remaining unmarried, which implies continence, or abstaining from sexual relations as its corollary in Christian morality) for the service of the Kingdom has been part of Christian patrimony since the time of the apostles. Jesus himself recommended it in the Gospels, though he noted that it was not a gift given to everyone.
How that discipline is applied in particular ages and in particular spheres of the Church is something that has changed over time.
There is no reason in principle why the Church could not change its discipline regarding clerical celibacy in the future. The question is whether it would be prudent to do so, and what form of revision—if any—would be beneficial.
A Catholic can thus legitimately hold the opinion that the Church should modify or even abolish the discipline of clerical celibacy.
There was a period after Vatican II where there was a great expectation that a change in the discipline would be coming in the near future, which created unrealistic hopes in many. It also, no doubt, helped alienate many priests when these unrealistic expectations were not fulfilled, leading many of them into sexual sin (with adult women; wanting permission to marry a woman doesn’t correlate with desires to have sex with children) or out of the priesthood entirely.
The pressure was so great that John Paul II judged it prudent to take the subject off the table, even though it is a matter of Church discipline rather than dogma, and so he and others at the Vatican repeatedly stressed that the subject was not up for discussion.
Pope Benedict has taken a somewhat different tack. In the 2007 Synod of Bishops on the Eucharist, he allowed the subject to be discussed among the participants. As one might expect, reports at the time indicated that some of the Eastern bishops, who deal with the practical difficulties of a married clergy, were the most vocal in stressing that the Latin Church should not abolish its discipline on this point. So the topic was discussed, and that bishops recommended that it not be pursued further (at least at this time). That’s right there in the propositions that the bishops delivered to the pope as recommendations (see Proposition 11).
So on the one hand, my heart goes out to Pope Benedict, who has been singularly unafraid of dialog on points where the Church could change its discipline, including dialog on this point in particular. Yet as this story gains traction in the world press, he stands to be shoved into the media mold of “mean old celibate pope”—when in reality he has been willing to have the subject of revising the Latin Church’s celibacy discipline be seriously discussed!
My heart also goes out to the mistresses, because they have a human desire to marry those to whom they are romantically attached and are genuinely pained at the situation in which they find themselves.
That’s the position in which mistresses commonly find themselves.
But the thing is . . . they’re mistresses.
They are living a life that is objectively sinful.
They are violating very basic and well-known elements of Christian morality. It’s hard to claim innocent ignorance in this case.
The same thing goes—even moreso—for the priests with whom they are involved.
One can feel for the emotional distress over the situation in which they find themselves, and one can understand their petition for a change in Church law that would allow them to regularize their situations, but at the same time there is a tragic dimension to their situation that remains unacknowledged in their letter: They are, in fact, living in sin.
And it’s a big one, overlaid with sacrilege because priests are involved—a factor that weighs even more heavily on the priest in the relationship than one the mistress, because the priest is responsible for his consecrated person in a way that others are not.
It is a tragedy that these people attached romantic feelings to each other—something that they knew from the beginning was wrong.
So reading the letter is a mixed experience.
In certain passages they make insightful points (particularly regarding the psychological dynamics of their situation). In other passages they articulate positions that a Catholic may legitimately hold.
But then they get into stuff that is flat-out rationalization.
They play the victim card repeatedly, and there is an element of truth to the idea that they are victims—but not as much victims of the law of celibacy (as they would maintain) but rather victims of the men who have been playing with their affections to fulfill their own psychological and sexual impulses.
I’m sorry, but there are lots of people in the world who are romantically off limits to every single one of us. These people include all children, all members of our own sex, all married members of the opposite sex except our spouse, and—if we are married—every other person on the planet except our spouse.
To become romantically or sexually involved with any one of these people is a sin, and anybody with even a basic education in Christian morality knows that.
Not being able to marry or to become romantically involved with someone is not something surprising. It is the norm for every single human being with respect to almost every single other human being.
If you want to marry someone, great. Go out and look for someone you legitimately could marry, but you are not a victim because a particular person you’d like to marry has already taken a vow (or made a promise) of celibacy any more than you are a victim if the person you’d like to marry has already taken marriage vows to someone and is thus one among the billions of people not romantically available to you.
This is just life.
And I’m not sure that’s something the authors of the letter get. At times reading it, describing the struggles that they and their paramours experience, one hears echoes of what ordinary people face and fear. Do priests get lonely? Sure. So do lots of non-priests, including lots of married people. Do they get depressed? Of course. So do lots of people of every age and every condition.
We all experience unpleasant things in life, we all have struggles and pain, and we all encounter situations that would be different in a more perfect world. But the ability to claim victimhood is limited when one has become involved with a person who is not lawfully available to you and with whom you are conducting an objectively sinful affair.
It’s one thing to advocate a change in the Latin Church’s discipline of clerical celibacy (or the Eastern Churches’, for that matter, because they have a version of it, too). It’s another thing to portray oneself as the victim because you are engaging in a relationship that is objectively sinful from the beginning and which you knew to be objectively sinful when you entered it.
If you want to advocate a change, fine. But don’t do so portraying yourself and your paramour as victims and ignoring the real and objectively sinful character of your relationship. You are in control of your actions and your choices. Don’t pretend that you’re not.
As St. Paul, who knew a thing or two about celibacy for the sake of the Kingdom, wrote: “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your strength, but with the temptation will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it” (1 Cor. 10:13).
What are your thoughts?