SEX & SEXUALITY:

One Man's Story About Religious Life And What

Seminaries Really Teach About Sex

 

by Charles J. O'Byrne

(Playboy, September 2002)

 

I grew up Catholic and my earliest ambition was to be a priest. I went to Catholic schools in New Jersey, then to Columbia and Columbia Law School. For several years I worked as a litigator for a Manhattan law firm, always pondering the priesthood. Ultimately, I spent 13 years in religious life, the last four as a Jesuit priest.

 

I'd had my share of casual sex and two serious relationships when I joined the priesthood. Indeed, the celibacy requirement made me postpone my decision to enter religious life (as did the number of obese, alcoholic and generally depressed middle-aged priests I encountered). Although I regarded celibacy as unnatural and probably unhealthy, the church demanded it, so I eventually decided I was ready to make the sacrifice. To test myself, I abstained from sex for a year before I said goodbye to civilian life.

 

Once in the seminary, I quickly learned some harsh truths. Many of my classmates in the New York archdiocesan system were exceptionally narrow-minded, and some were out-and-out bigots who made offensive remarks about Jews and Hispanics, among others, all the while offering pious phrases about Jesus. I protested, but nothing happened. I protested some more, and then told a friend what was going on. My friend wrote to John Cardinal O'Connor and urged him to investigate what sounded like officially approved hate crimes. With reason to fear a media scandal, the archdiocese pretended to discipline the seminary superior who had coddled the bigots, but in reality it merely shuffled him off to a cushy job. I was expelled from the seminary.

 

Several months later, I joined the Jesuits and my education continued. One of my first surprises was that many of my classmates-college graduates and former professionals -- had little or no sexual experience. We all were conscious of how important its absence could be. We watched our peers find partners, marry and raise families. Because we didn't wear clerical clothes, we were sometimes seen being available and were propositioned.

 

As time went on, however, I became aware that there was sex all around me-including relationships between Jesuits. One of my best friends, a virgin at 30, was surprised when his superior encouraged him to respond to the sexual overtures of an older Jesuit. When another friend fell in love with a woman, the seminary superiors supported his relationship. In theology classes, certain priest-professors even shared information about their sex lives,

For a while, I was angry. After all, I had enjoyed sex before I entered the religious life and had determined to renounce it. Now people who had never had a sexual experience were having them-with the equivalent of churchly blessings.

 

Seminary life was hypocritical, but I tried to live with it and called it ambiguity. In fact, I came to believe that living with such contradictions was at the core of our training. Desuetude, an archaic word defined as "the state of being no longer used or practiced," seemed to resolve at least some of the problems about official teachings. Most of my fellow Jesuits hoped that if no one talked about certain rules, they might fall into desuetude and be forgotten. It had happened before--a hamburger on Friday no longer condemned one to eternal suffering.

 

As we moved closer to ordination, there was a growing awareness of the inane nature of the church's teachings on sexuality and human relations. Anyone using a condom, for example, was doomed to hell. Some classmates decided to leave the seminary. Among those who stayed, few defended the church's stance against certain sexual matters, including gay and straight relationships outside of marriage, contraception and masturbation. Abortion was the one issue on which most of my classmates stood with the church and many did so vociferously.

 

During my training I taught at a Catholic girls' high school in the South Bronx. My students were streetwise. They were heroes to me, trying to make something of their lives against unbelievable odds. Most of them were sexually active, by their own accounts. At that time, the rate of HIV infection among babies born at Lincoln Hospital, a stone's throw from the school, was increasing rapidly. I chose to do for my students what the nuns in my school had done for me. I told them that if they were going to have sex, to make sure they did it safely.

 

But I was unprepared for the question one student, Wanda, asked. "Mr. O'Byrne," she said, "if I have sex with my boyfriend and use birth control, does that mean I'm sinning twice?" I didn't know what to say. Wanda's casuistic thinking belied the absurdity of the church's teaching. I gave her the usual spiel on being careful in relationships and acting maturely and then wrapped it up by saying. "Wanda, forget about the double sin. Just be safe."

 

The reality of religious life was often masked from the rest of the world. Seminary life, I realized, could produce some weird characters. There was the clerical professor who ate a quart of ice cream each night before going to bed and kept pictures of his Irish setter and his mother on his desk. There was the drunk who poured vodka into his soda can to hide his constant boozing. And there was the 250-pound assistant rector (who was to judge our worthiness to be priests) who walked around the bedroom floor of our residence in various states of undress, sometimes naked. I also worried about the men we referred to as 'boyologists' --priests who were too much into their students or into the seminarians with whom they were living.

 

Despite my qualms about others' behavior, I was able to realize some of my childhood dreams about the seminary and priesthood. I encountered truly holy individuals when I wasn't studying philosophy and theology. Along the way I earned a Licentiate in Sacred Theology from the Vatican. Eventually, I had the opportunity to extend God's forgiveness to penitents in the forum of the confessional. I celebrated mass in churches and nursing facilities and in private homes. I worked hard to help people place the emphasis of their spiritual lives on God's love rather than on God's judgment. I tried to help people make sense of what Rome was saying, sometimes by providing a more comforting interpretation of the rules. For instance, I told one man that I did not think that the sin of 'impurity with oneself' was the worst and most serious of the issues he had discussed during a retreat. The man rebuked me, challenged my understanding of the church's teachings and threatened to report me to the cardinal.

 

Rules and reality often collided. Despite official church pronouncements, for example, my colleagues and I knew there were many gay priests, and that many of them had adult lovers. Sometimes the lovers were priests, too, and sometimes they were laypersons. In most cases such relationships were handled discreetly, but I have been at more than one funeral for a priest where his lover was in the front row.

 

The fundamental dishonesty of the church's leadership became clear in March, when after months of intense media attention, Rome finally got involved. The church's highest-ranking layman, Joaquin Navarro-Valls, a Spanish psychiatrist and the pope's spokesperson, is a member of the ultra-right Catholic society Opus Dei. Navarro-Valls said that no gay man should be a priest and that the ordinations of gay priests might be invalid.

 

Not a single cardinal, in the US, or elsewhere, spoke out against Navarro-Valls' judgment.

 

Even before the scandal began, the church's hypocrisy and dim view of human sexuality posed serious problems. The scandal grew worse as new details of alleged sex crimes were revealed. I knew some of the church leaders in the headlines and watched them enact a Nixonian scenario of deceit, denial, disinformation and damage control. In fact, such a reaction was standard operating procedure, at least regarding sex.

 

Instead of using the crisis to heal, the church leadership became even more hypocritical. A sense of panic reigned when American bishops held their annual meeting in Dallas in June. Under the glare of CNN cameras, they listened to the stories told by victims of abuse. The president of the bishops' conference, Bishop Wilton Gregory, offered an apology to the victims on behalf of the church hierarchy, but his words rang hollow to those who had encountered so much difficulty in getting the bishops to hold this public airing. After a tense and protracted debate, the bishops approved a "Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People" permanently barring any priest guilty of previously sexually abusing a minor from any public ministerial role.

 

Despite their efforts, doing what they should have done years ago was not enough to restore confidence in the bishops' capacity to lead the church. The bishops rejected any and all measures to make themselves accountable for their roles in endangering thousands of children. The legacy of the Dallas meeting is one of hierarchical hypocrisy, best illustrated by a photo taken of Bernard Cardinal Law of Boston rising to applaud the approval of the new measures. A priest who made a single mistake decades ago now laces a life exclusion from the ministry, while clerics, who transferred repeat offenders until recently, get off scot-free.

 

In proclaiming those rules, the church claims the authority of Jesus Christ himself. But, in fact, the Catholic teachings about sexual morality betray the teachings of Christ. The church's stewardship of Christ 's teachings would, as Sister Mary Ignatius liked to say, "make Jesus puke."

 

The people who were the most shocked, disappointed and angry about what they were reading and seeing and hearing were those who go to church because they believe in what Jesus said and represented and because they want to emulate him-the came basic impulse that had sent me to the seminary.

 

What did Jesus have to say about sex? From the evidence we have, one thing is certain: He said little about human sexuality and nothing about masturbation, contraception, premarital sex or homosexual love.

 

What was Jesus' sexuality? Was he gay or straight? Was he sexually active? As a matter of scriptural record, we just don't know. There are hints about what his life was like. He traveled with young men and women, often sleeping under the stars. He wasn't averse to physical affection. In John 12:1-8, for example, one of his disciples, Mary (not his mother), anointed his body with perfumed oil, shortly before Christ's crucifixion. John, believed to be the youngest of the apostles and Jesus' favorite, rested his head on Jesus' breast (John 13:23).

 

Information about Jesus' family is sparse, except for the belief that Mary was a virgin when she gave birth to Jesus, who was conceived by the grace of the Holy Spirit. That remains one of the immutable doctrines of the church-not even reformers care to dispute it. It lives on as a "mystery."

 

Scriptures refer unambiguously to Jesus' "brothers and sisters." Monsignor John Meier of Notre Dame, in A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, leaves no doubt that Jesus had siblings. If nothing else, the idea casts an interesting light on Joseph. Church teachings had turned him into something of a mysterious and happy eunuch.

 

The record is also illuminating in regard to the issue of the celibate all-male priesthood. Jesus suggested, as an ideal, total renunciation of family and friendships, but he never said anything about a celibacy requirement for discipleship. "Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church," Jesus said to Saint Peter, his first pope (Matthew 16:18). Saint Peter had a mother-in-law, and that means he had a wife (Matthew 8:14-15).

 

Judging by the historical record, Jesus liked women and they liked him. Women were present at the Last Supper; and, 40-odd days later, they were present again when the church was born at the feast of Pentecost. He enjoyed their company, regarding them as disciples. When Jesus died there were three people loyal to him at the foot of the cross-two women and one man (John 19:25-26).

 

Women played key roles in providing financial support to the early church in Rome and elsewhere. Historians have uncovered evidence that women were among those who hosted the earliest celebrations of the Eucharist.

 

The absence of any condemnation of sex says a great deal when contrasted with Jesus' actions and with his opinions on any number of issues. In other words, his gospel of love had priorities other than disparaging sexuality.

 

He forgave sinners. In one notable instance, he intervened in the public stoning of a woman accused of adultery. He urged her to sin no more and told those who were without sin to throw the first stone. Indeed, Jesus forgave everyone except the authorities who refused to listen to his complaints about organized religion and how the word of God was being betrayed.

Over time, however, the church has created an essentially fanciful, fabricated interpretation of Jesus and his beliefs. The church spun the archetypal figures of Jesus, Mary and Joseph into chaste, asexual creatures. Church teaching is that Jesus was a heterosexual male who never had a sexual experience. The church extended Mary's virginity to her entire life.

How did the church end up straying so far from its origins and become almost pathologically anti-sexual? One can blame a man who lived in the fourth and fifth centuries who came to be called Saint Augustine of Hippo. Augustine indulged his senses as a youth, much to the dismay of his mother, Monica. He frequented the sexual free for-alls in the baths of Carthage and Rome, and felt good about it. He had a favorite mistress and fathered a son.

 

All the while, Monica prayed that her son would change his ways. And he did. At age 32, suddenly consumed by guilt, Augustine abandoned sex and devoted himself to the church, becoming a bishop and an influential teacher. Monica became a saint.

 

The trouble for successive generations of Catholics was that Augustine set about spreading his guilt around. He shunned what he had experienced in the early part of his life, and his writings introduced a sense of dualism, a tension between body and spirit that dominated Western thought for centuries. Augustine's most benevolent take on sex is that it's a distraction from God. At its worst, Augustinian notions of sex involve corruption and moral decay. He still influences the church's perspective on human sexuality.

 

Woven into Augustine's repressive themes is the church's adoption of natural law as a fundamental principle. Natural law is a human invention, based on the Aristotelian notion that each of us has in our hearts an understanding of what is right and what is wrong, what is natural and what is unnatural. When it comes to sex, the argument goes, man and woman were created to be together in a monogamous relationship for the purpose of procreation. With that as its paradigm, the church has, over the centuries, defined and condemned as unnatural every other form of sexual expression and relationship.

 

This belief in sex as sin has been worsened in the American Catholic church, which was shaped by the history of Ireland. The practice of individual confession to a priest began nearly 600 years after Jesus' death, invented by Irish and English monks. They created books of penance, setting forth various offenses and appropriate spiritual penalties.

 

Sex became the signature taboo of Irish Catholicism. The Irish bishops helped ruin the great 19th century Irish patriot Charles Stewart Parnell, Ireland's best hope for a meaningful emancipation, when he had an affair with a married woman.

When the Irish came to America, their priest imposed a similar model of control on a vast network of parishes and schools. Many veterans of the American Catholic education system had it drilled into their heads that sex was dirty and that sexual sins such as masturbation would send the sinner to hell.

 

The church hierarchy continued to endorse some of the most irrational and destructive parts of its legacy. At the turn of the 20th century, American seminary teachers encouraged the church hierarchy to be open to new philosophical approaches and to the scientific method. The church responded with a repressive set of oaths that required priests and bishops to swear against Modernism. I had to take that oath as a condition of my ordination at a private ceremony with my classmates. I regret that I did so.

 

When movies became popular, the church leadership set about censoring them to impose their views about sex on the American movie-going public. In the late Twenties, George Cardinal Mundelein of Chicago and a group of Catholic priests and laymen from his archdiocese drafted the Cardinal's Code. In March 1930, that document became the Motion Picture Production Code. When many Hollywood directors ignored its demands, the Catholic leadership issued a proclamation: "Catholics are called by God, the Pope, the bishops and the priests to a united and vigorous campaign for the purification of the cinema, which has become a deadly menace to morals." Soon it created the Legion of Decency, which drafted Lists of "condemned" movies that Catholics could see only at the cost of eternal damnation.

 

Catholic leaders then persuaded Hollywood moguls to enforce the production code, Joe Breen, who was a public relations man and close friend of Cardinal Mundelein, tried to prohibit sex entirely and was frequently able to get his way, banning, for example, "any showing of the udders of a cow," and insisting that Nick and Nora Charles, though married, sleep in separate beds in the Thin Man films.

 

The film model of the "perfect priest" was best captured on film by Bing Crosby, playing Father Chuck O'Malley, the holy charmer in Going My Way (1944) and in The Bells of Saint Mary's (1945). O'Malley was the man of God who could solve any problem, the patient and trusted confidant to all, from the wealthy developer to the embittered spinster. He rescued failing schools and restored broken families and relationships. He was full of warmth and understanding. He was also asexual, as far as one could tell.

 

The perfect priest myth was still alive when some of the sexual abuses were reported earlier this year.

Even before the current crisis, many issues were under discussion within the church. There may welt be a showdown between the hierarchy and the rest of us, clergy and laity, who feel that church leaders have lost their moral authority.

Perhaps the most intractable problem for church officials will be coping with the contradictions in their pronouncements regarding gay priests. According to the church, there is nothing wrong or sinful about an orientation toward same sex love. The act of gay love itself, however, is wrong. As with contraception, masturbation and premarital sex, same-gender love is a mortal sin, and the penalty is eternal hell. In other words, it is fine to be gay, it is even possible that God intended homosexuality to exist (a point the church has only recently started to consider), so long as you don't act gay sexually. Being a good gay Catholic means only one thing to Rome: celibacy.

 

Celibacy itself has become a source of contention. Until the Middle Ages, some priests were married men with families. But in 1079 the hierarchy mandated celibacy, primarily to keep property inside the church and not in the hands of non-clerical offspring. Much of Catholicism's understanding of the priesthood dates from that same period. Now that rule could in fact he reversed with the flick of a papal pen-and this might be a good thing. The priests I know who are in relationships (heterosexual and homosexual) seem to be much happier and content with their lives and often more effective in their pastoral work. But now they are running scared, particularly the gay priests.

 

There's also considerable anger among clergy and laity over the church leadership's almost vengeful attitude toward women. After Vatican II and until John Paul II became pope, it appeared that women might be given important positions that evoked their roles m the earliest days of the church. Even conservatives such as John Cardinal O'Connor of New York said the question of women's ordination was a matter of traditional discipline and not one of faith. In other words, modern Catholics saw the all-male priesthood as a practice on the verge of desuetude.

 

John Paul II disagreed. He insisted on the church doctrine that only men can be ordained. He emphasized his point by forbidding any priest or bishop from publicly discussing the matter.

 

Contraception is not as heated an issue, if only because most Catholics ignore the church's condemnation of it. But they could not ignore Edward Cardinal Egan's performance when he went to Albany in March 2001 to lobby the New York state political leadership. In New York City, where many children lack adequate nutrition, Egan lobbied against pending legislation that would require Catholic hospitals and schools to provide insurance coverage for contraception for their female employees. If that seemed scandalous, consider Africa, where the church maintains an extensive health care system, and its workers have done extraordinary work for HIV patients and their families. Yet the church hierarchy actively opposes the use of condoms and will not allow its hospitals and clinics to distribute them.

 

If history is any indication, the prognosis is not favorable for those who are hoping for meaningful reform during the reign of the current pope. When the church faces a threat to its authority, it invariably responds with more repression and conservatism. One detects that strategy these days in the statements of many senior cardinals in the Pope's Curia. They feel the American church has overreacted to the problem of sexual abuse by some priests and should instead spend its energy on restoring orthodoxy among priests and the faithful--beginning with a purge of gay priests.

 

If the next pope does not offer the promise of serious reform, it's possible that parts of the church in the U S will break formally from Rome's authority. For years, more than 60 percent of American Catholics have differed radically from the leadership on the question of contraception. Those Catholics have simply gone their own way and now, with anger among the laity rising, they may turn out to be pioneers.

 

Historically, the church often has resolved internal pressures through a split or schism, in which one part of the church breaks away from another. When Henry VIII couldn't get a divorce, he created the Church of England. Centuries earlier in 1054, when Eastern churches couldn't agree with Rome on certain doctrinal questions, they established the orthodox tradition. Recent splits have included the Old Catholics who reject the church's teaching on papal infallibility promulgated in 1870 and several ultraconservative groups who argue that Rome lost its claim to legitimacy when it abandoned the Latin mass.

 

A split over current issues could happen in several ways. A parish or cluster of parishes could break away, refusing to take orders from the local bishop. Catholic parishes arc typically incorporated separately; the local bishop and his delegate generally control the board of directors. In other words, the parishes are the property of the bishop. who is the head of the diocese, and the law is on his side. But the idea of a bishop forcibly seizing control of his property from dissenting Catholics might easily lead to more communities of dissenting Catholics.

 

A different scenario would take place if a bishop were to act against Rome's wishes by say, ordaining women or dissenting from Rome's dicta on gays or birth control. Such an action would present a more serious problem for Rome than a dispute over the control of a parish. Bishops are teachers, successors to the first apostles. For a bishop to teach against Rome is a serious matter, one that implicates God. The church believes that bishops receive their authority to teach from God's spirit.

It is also possible that American Catholics will follow the example of their European counterparts and leave the churches empty. Or, given the palpable need for spirituality among the laity, American Catholics may shop around for a church that listens more to Jesus and does not stake its authority on the mechanics of sexuality.

 

For me, the contradictions proved too much, and I decided to leave the active ministry. It wasn't an easy decision to make. I believe in the supremacy of one's conscience-that forum where God alone speaks to the individual as a counselor and guide. I could not serve two masters-- the official church and my conscience.

 

There was nothing sudden or dramatic about my decision. Instead of a last straw there seemed to be an accumulation of straws. I realized that during my years in the religious life the hierarchy had become more reactionary in a swaggering sort of way. Far-right organizations such as Opus Dei received papal support and Pope Pius IX (1792-1878), notorious for his anti-Semitism, was proposed for sainthood. I saw the church's cruelty to gays and to divorced Catholics, and I delved deeper into the appalling damage caused by some of this church's rules about sex-especially forbidding the teaching of safe sex. In Africa, that stance seems to be criminally negligent and is a major factor in the enormous death toll from AIDS. When that sank in, I realized I could no longer wear my collar.

 

I no longer perform clerical duties, but it is official church teaching that will he a priest until I die. So be it.