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Seminaries Work to Make Celibacy Pledge Practical

By Judith Cebula
Indianapolis Star
February 18, 1997

[See links to all the articles in this series from the Indianapolis Star.]

At age 40, the Rev. Mark O'Keefe is too young to remember how priests used to deal with celibacy, but he has heard the stories.

Fifty years ago, when a Catholic priest rode in a car with a woman – even his own mother – one of them had to be in the front seat, the other in the back.

If a priest spoke with a woman in his office, he had to keep a desk between them at all times.

If a man studying for the priesthood was struggling to keep his promise of celibacy, he was told to pray about it and go to confession.

That is how the church prepared men to live a celibate life, said O'Keefe, president-rector of St. Meinrad School of Theology, a Catholic seminary in southern Indiana.

"Throughout the culture, sex wasn't talked about. In a way, it was a different kind of world," he said.

Celibacy, with its rich theological history, was a strict expectation. But few discussed its demands – no marriage, no sexual intercourse, no masturbation.

Now, they are talking – about sexuality, emotional intimacy and mental health. All of that is at the
heart of how St. Meinrad and other seminaries are training men for the priesthood.

Learning to Be Celibate: Ryan LaMothe teaches pastoral counseling to students at St. Meinrad School of Theology in southern Indiana. The school deals openly with sexuality to help give priests the skills they need to stay celibate. Staff Photo / Susan Plageman.

Even as lay people and clergy continue to debate privately whether celibacy should remain mandatory, priests still pledge to be celibate. By giving up sex and marriage, they promise to devote their entire lives to the church, with Jesus as their role model.

The Catholic Church is trying to help make that promise practical.

Dioceses screen candidates for the priesthood, looking for emotional maturity and well-being as well as religious calling. Seminaries require students to confront their sexuality through workshops and retreats. The schools also employ spiritual directors and psychologists to work one-on-one with men who are struggling with sexuality or emotional problems.

Reforms that swept through the church, beginning in the 1960s, are partly responsible for the new approach to teaching celibacy. Those reforms opened the church to outside cultural influences, including psychology. And society as a whole has become more open about sexuality issues.

Sexual abuse and misconduct among clergy forced the issue further, said Sister Jane Becker, a clinical psychologist and Benedictine nun. Such cases began tumbling out of the Catholic Church and other religious denominations about 15 years ago, causing seminaries to look into what causes abuse.

A Matter of Faith: Sister Jane Becker, a psychologist at St. Meinrad, leads sexuality workshops for seminarians. While celibacy can leave priests vulnerable to loneliness and isolation, it is a faith choice, she said. Staff Photo / Susan Plageman.

Since 1971, Becker, 50, has taught psychology and counseled students at St. Meinrad, learning along the way about the culture of the Catholic priesthood, the pressures of celibacy and the strain of sexual abuse and misconduct scandals on the church. To learn more, she spent the 1994-95 academic year studying the pathology of sexual abuse and misconduct at the St. Luke Institute, a Maryland treatment center for clergy who abuse.

A colleague falls

Becker caught a close-up glimpse of the problem recently when a colleague at St. Meinrad's school of theology was arrested and pleaded guilty to receiving child pornography through the mail.

The Rev. Mark Ciganovich, a Catholic priest in the Carmelite order, was sentenced Dec. 19 to one year and a day in federal prison. He was fined $3,000 and will serve two years on supervised release. Ciganovich, 56, resigned from St. Meinrad in August after teaching moral theology there for 17 years.

Even Ciganovich's closest friends and colleagues at St. Meinrad were stunned by the crime, Becker said.

"It does show how a priest can get isolated and, then, how other people suffer because of it," she said. "By being ordained, a priest takes on responsibility as a religious leader, even if the particular job doesn't put him in a parish setting."

Most priests are devoted to serving the church and being celibate, Becker said. But the ones who break their commitment to celibacy – whether slipping once or repeatedly abusing a child – can shatter the public's expectation of the church.

"We expect more of the Catholic Church. There is a mystique there, part of it having to do with the celibate priesthood," Becker said. "The church is so clear about sexuality and oftentimes it is the priests who convey that message, and there is a sense of betrayal then."

When a celibate Catholic priest or a married Protestant minister sexually abuses a child or takes advantage of an adult, it is a sign of a deeply troubled person. They make a public commitment to live their faith and morals, Becker said, yet they are unable to control behavior that violates that commitment.

It is difficult to know how many priests nationwide are abusing children or are at risk of abusing. Researchers at St. Luke Institute who study sexual abuse within the clergy can make only an educated guess.

St. Luke estimates that 2 percent to 7 percent of adult males who work with children will molest a child at some point during their lives. The rate probably is similar among priests, said the Rev. Stephen J. Rossetti, president of the institute.

"Priests are probably no more or no less involved in sexually abusing children," Rossetti said. "One should expect the prevalence rate among priests to be similar to coaches, teachers and Scout leaders."

Celibacy itself doesn't cause priests to sexually abuse children or engage in other forms of sexual misconduct, Becker said. Rather, the root causes are emotional and sexual immaturity, mental illness and a history of having been abused themselves.

But celibacy can make priests vulnerable to loneliness and isolation, Becker said. That's why seminarians at St. Meinrad spend part of their five years of training learning what celibacy is and how to live it.

A long tradition

The theology of celibacy reaches as far back as 1,000 years, when the Catholic Church first mandated that its priests remain celibate and unmarried. Today, seminaries still teach the classical understanding of celibacy, which calls on priests to be representatives of Christ on Earth. They give up sex to be more like Jesus, who never married, and to indicate their devotion to a life beyond this one.

But theology alone is not enough to help men live without sexual intimacy, wives and children of their own, Becker said. Annually, St. Meinrad seminary students must take part in celibacy workshops.

"Seminarians have to ask themselves, 'Can I really be a priest or will I carry resentment through life?' " she said. "The idea is to help the guys develop the skills to live celibately – cultivating solid friendships, managing solitude, reaching out when they need help, being accountable rather than a lone ranger and including the value of a consistent prayer life."

Becker speaks pragmatically about the advice she offers seminarians learning to cope with sexual urges. As a nun, she also lives by a promise of celibacy.

Like peeling away the layers of an onion, a priest should be able to explore his emotions that can masquerade as sexual desire, Becker said. Often anger, loneliness, sadness, depression, fatigue or restlessness can produce a sexual longing. Turning to friends, counseling and prayer can help a seminarian or priest understand and soothe those feelings.

"After that process, if what remains is a real physical sexual desire, then that is part of the sacrifice," Becker said. "That is what pulls the celibate back to face why he ever did this. It always comes back to God and realizing this is a faith choice."

Approach lauded

That approach to seminary education puts St. Meinrad on the cutting edge of Catholic education, according to the Rev. James Walsh, head of the seminary division of the National Catholic Education Association. The Washington, D.C.–based association is an affiliation of all 117 Catholic seminaries in the country.

Walsh praised St. Meinrad for including in its curriculum courses that explore professional boundaries between the priest and parishioners.

"It's important to realize that it's an unequal relationship, be it with a child or a teen-ager or an adult who comes in for counseling and may be vulnerable," he said.

The most progressive seminaries also evaluate their students regularly, Walsh said. Teams of professors and counselors get to know six or eight students well, working with them on academic, spiritual and emotional issues.

At St. Meinrad, students write self-evaluations and professors review them, looking for problems that might require counseling or intervention, such as a student's inability to deal with sexuality issues.

The Catholic bishops sponsoring those seminarians receive copies of the annual evaluations, which are like progress reports on the priests-in-training.

Students from throughout Indiana train for the priesthood at St. Meinrad.

Currently, 90 graduate students and 50 undergraduates are studying to be priests. The school trains clergy from about 30 dioceses nationwide and offers graduate degrees to lay students.
Because seminarians have a more realistic view of celibacy today, more are realizing they cannot make the commitment.

"There is a larger number of priests who discontinue during their last years in the seminary," Becker said. "They realize there are other ways to serve the church. That is a healthy development."

Those who do enter the priesthood tend to have a better understanding of their sexuality than priests did 50 years ago. Ideally, they know what sexual abuse is and the damage it can cause.
And if their years in the seminary were successful, they begin their lives as priests with their eyes wide open to the possibilities and sacrifices of their ministry.

"I am seeing these young guys speak more clearly of their understanding that celibacy is a gift and feeling the grace of it," Becker said. Choosing celibate priesthood "is something they freely desire to do."

 
 

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