Where to begin?
It is Thursday of Easter week, and the series , Lent, Inc., is laid to rest. I have not been idle in the interim, however. For the “scandal” has arisen again and has driven wedges everywhere into the façade of the Catholic church. The fissures are many; and there is even talk about the final and lasting collapse of the whole thing.
I have no idea.
What do I know for sure? Only this: I got out well before the shit hit the fan.
But before I did, I lived in two rectories that provided me with living examples of another side of the clerical culture, a side that is strangely absent from all the psycho-babble and hand-wringing about the unnatural effects of enforced celibacy. I speak, of course, of the pastor/housekeeper arrangement.
My first assignment, fresh from 12 years in the seminary, was to a parish, or, rather, to a rectory. Sure, I was sent there to minister to the people. But the real assignment was to live in a house that was dominated by the dynamics that went on between the pastor and his housekeeper. Looking back from my present vantage point, I would slap on the label ‘dysfunctional.’ But that is much too mild. My fellow associate and I were intruders in their household, we were servants, we were ungrateful children. We were anything but fellow servants of the people of God.
I have no idea what really went on in their part of the house—75% by square footage. But judging from the way we were treated, it cannot in any way have been a healthy relationship. In one sense celibacy had everything to do with the situation; in another sense it had nothing to do with it. For the law on celibacy both created the need for some kind of non-sexual intimacy, while at the same time forbidding anything that might hint of it.
Again, I have no idea what characterized their relationship, but I suspect a whole lot of denial went on. And much less denying their own feelings, I suspect the two of them never once talked to each other about how they felt about each other. Or maybe they did, and that was the problem. At any rate, we two associates, and all the people of that parish suffered because of it.
Having petitioned the newly formed diocesan priest’s senate, my fellow associate and I managed to effect the ouster of that housekeeper from the rectory; but the price we paid was to accept transfer ourselves to other assignments.
My assignment was to a parish in small town Wisconsin. There I was welcomed into the rectory by the pastor and his housekeeper—or, I should say, our housekeeper. I never felt as though I was intruding in their house, that I was there to follow the orders of the pastor, or that I had to conform to their image of what a priest should be like. I was part of what went on in that house: we ate our meals together, we worked together, we sat and watched TV together often in the evenings. When I went through a difficult personal issue, I felt at ease talking it over with the pastor.
What do I know about the relationship between the pastor and the housekeeper in that household? Only what I have described. But I think what I have described in many ways resembles family. We as children do not comprehend nor do we talk about the sexual intimacy of our parents ; but we do understand, learn from, and are shaped by their non-sexual intimacy.
The law of celibacy did not do away with the need of intimacy in the lives of priests. That, I suspect, is what stood behind many of the relationships between pastors and their housekeepers. And just as, Tolstoy says, all families are dysfunctional in their own ways, so all rectories were dysfunctional in theirs. But, and this is my main point, dysfunctional or not, the relationship between pastor and housekeeper was what kept many priests sexually healthy—they cared for each other in ways that were more important and meaningful than biological drives.
I went on to only one more assignment, and then I resigned the priesthood and married. What do I know about my relationship with the woman to whom I have been married 35 years in June? Only this, to quote Robert Parker: “Sex enhances love; but not as much as love enhances sex.”