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Sarah Turbin

I’ve spent 30 years counseling priests who fall in love. Here’s what I learned.

For Catholic priests, love plays a major professional role. They talk endlessly about the love of God, love for God, God's love of man, love of neighbor, even love of self, albeit this last one at times disparagingly. The one that lights them up the most, however, is their love of the priesthood, something every priest I know feels deeply.

But the actual mechanics of love between two humans — the many powerful and often conflicted feeling that arise — create problems that are very challenging and deeply personal.

I am a psychologist, and I have spent much of the past three decades dealing with those kinds of problems. The kinds that compel priests' superiors to send them off for treatment at a facility dedicated to priests. The sample with which I am familiar is biased — it only includes those priests whose behavior has been called into question, and it does not include those involved with minors.

I have dealt extensively with men who have been involved with other adults, both men and women. For the rest, I am sure there are many good men who have navigated the choppy waters of physical attraction with relative aplomb if not ease. In fact, I know some. I take them at their word.

In my first few months of counseling priests, I was shocked at the kinds of mayhem they could cause. I began to wonder why, if so many of them were so unhappy, they didn't just leave. Over 30 years I learned that the answer is more complicated than it looks — especially when the source of unhappiness is love.

One of the virtues of being a therapist is witnessing human beings up close, or as close as intimate conversation allows. And up close to those priests labeled as "troubled" reveals a sad if complicated story.

Why do men become priests?

Almost uniquely among human occupations, priests cannot marry, as a function of their vocation; nor can they engage in sexual acts, as proscribed by Catholic moral teaching. They live in a world unfamiliar to most of us, a world in which physical attractions and responses are not sought after and celebrated but instead are forbidden. Most people would not and do not volunteer to live in such a world, but men who would be priests do precisely that.

There are lots of reasons for this: a pious upbringing where priests are revered, or a desire to serve, to be special, to stand apart from others, to help humanity. Those are some of the satisfactory reasons. There are other, less benign ones, which a man contemplating the priesthood may not even himself consciously recognize at ordination.

People automatically accord priests a kind of deference available to few other professionals

What are those less benign reasons? Sometimes conflicts over sexual attraction or orientation, childlike shame over any sexual impulse, even limited ability to relate to people outside a structured role. And, paradoxically, a powerful desire for the esteem of others, for affirmation, and, yes, even for love. To be a priest is to be a leader esteemed and loved by Catholics everywhere. Naturally, he is the center of parish life.

People automatically accord priests a kind of deference available to few other professionals. So long as he is functioning in the role, he learns more or less how to behave. He learns that people attend to his reactions. Is Father frowning? Is he smiling? Does he approve? This makes for life in a kind of fishbowl where everyone outside is watching.

Given this, how does a priest manage the components of love — the physical responses, the emotional reactions, the attractions? How are they supposed to?

How priests find themselves falling in love

It is true that some priests "fall in love" the way most of us think about that: They meet someone to whom they are drawn; they get to know them; they get physical; they get sexual.

In the normal (i.e., noncelibate) world, this is usually a happy series of events. In the celibate world, it may be happy but constrained — by the watchful eyes of parishioners and superiors, by public expectation, by personal feelings of guilt, by the lack of a clear path toward commitment.

If this experience leads to a decision to leave the priesthood and marry, as it often does, there is no psychological problem. It is simply a life choice: a difficult one, to be sure, but not unlike decisions incumbent upon all of us.

More common is the case of Father D., a successful priest and administrator who finally revealed ongoing involvements with two women that lasted for more than a decade. The push to disclose came when he told Woman No. 1 about Woman No. 2. He was shocked at her (understandably) angry reaction.

That shock enabled him to tell the story of how he got involved, what was going on with him at the time, and how he allowed it to persist even as his career was blossoming and exposure became more threatening. This allowed Father D. to develop a more realistic approach to whatever intimacy needs he had while remaining within the bounds of a celibate priesthood if he so chose.

This is more typical of what is seen in treatment centers: men who yield to their passions but are unable or unwilling to leave the priesthood they love and on which they depend. Up to the moment it becomes known, it is a balancing act between the priesthood and a relationship, or series of relationships, which they come to believe they cannot live without. Is there love involved? Sometimes. But mostly it's a matter of juggling two incompatible things.

Curiously, not much attention is paid to handling love and physical attraction in the long years of priests' training. For the most part, priestly training involves morality — the dos and don'ts of priestly life. Mostly, as one might imagine, the don'ts.

The one thing that is imparted informally in training is male camaraderie: team sports, guys socializing, guy group activities. These seem to be the alternative to specific love interests. It is not the case, however, that this "alternative" is without complications. In all this male camaraderie, pair bonding is not unheard of, and hooking up privately is not unknown.

The real challenge comes after ordination, when the observing eyes of superiors are far away. Over the past 30 years, the number of priests has been going down dramatically. Young priests are often sent to parishes alone after minimal on-the-job training with an older colleague.

This can be heady, exciting, frightening, anxiety-producing, and even intoxicating. It is also easy in this context to feel lonely, misunderstood, and powerfully desirous of solace beyond the purely spiritual kind.

It is here that love can bloom more easily. Not the theoretical, theological kind of love discussed in training, but the actual, sensuous, immediate, and non-intellectualized power trip of falling for someone. The space where moral imperatives can easily get fuzzy and slip into the background.

It is common in priest circles to find reasons for things, and there are usually plenty on offer as to why an ordained priest would forsake his vows and get involved with a woman (to take the obvious case) or with another man: frustration, disappointment, loneliness, experiencing one's self as sexual once the microscope of training has ended — even the freedom a man experiences being on his own.

(Sarah Turbin)

Does this happen to every young priest? Not by a long shot. But it does happen.

After all, a priest's parishioners mostly have families to which they return, primary attachments in the context of which they can bitch and moan and feel generally safe in so doing. For too many priests, this is just not available.

Why not? The world of the priesthood as I have observed it is, curiously, a male, even a macho one. Christian values might be called "feminine" (patience, forbearance, gentleness), but the purveyors of those values are expected to carry on often intense work in a solitary way with minimal support.

Bitching? Moaning? Those are for weaker men. It is the job of the priest to be strong in the midst of others' weakness. His own weakness, sadly, is a private affair.

And it is precisely this private aspect that makes a priest vulnerable to lapsing into a relationship. Frankly, it does not take much for a youngish man who has little actual support, perhaps no sexual experience, and a lot of high-stress work to respond favorably to the attentions of an interested love object. Confusion about sexual matters only makes him more vulnerable.

Once a priest presents himself as a chaste, committed celibate but is actually sexually active, he has destroyed one of the pillars of his mental health

It is easy to feel outrage at a priest who crosses professional or personal boundaries; the prospect of priests who abuse children is nauseating. Without excusing any of this behavior, it is not hard to comprehend why men are vulnerable and why they would seek out what is probably the most potent form of comfort known to humans: intimacy, in whatever twisted form that might take.

It is possible to be "intimate" in a conversation: two people sharing the details of their personal lives qualifies. But when basic needs for support, warmth, and connection are unfulfilled, the impulse toward physicality increases. Everyone feels a need to be touched and to touch. Usually, such contact begins with an innocent hug, which then lingers, which then involves a kiss ... not so different in kind from what many people experience.

What happens when priests act on their attractions

There are important differences between those who seek out physical contact freely and openly and those who perforce do it on the sly. A major one is the guilt and shame about violating values. Also most priests tend to think in terms of sin, which works against their thinking deeply about what their behavior means and understanding it more realistically.

Priests often confess lapses over and over again, with little effect on behavior. How many men have confessed lapses over and over again, only to find themselves trapped in behavior they barely understand? Many.

The other issue here is violation of integrity. By "integrity" I mean simply being the person you claim to be. Once a priest presents himself as a chaste, committed celibate but is actually sexually active, he has destroyed one of the pillars supporting his mental health.

The significance of this can hardly be underestimated. While it is fashionable these days in mental health circles to conceive of anxiety as a free-floating condition, it is often related to such profound violations of personal integrity.

Take the case of Friar F., whose debilitating anxiety earned him a list of powerful anti-anxiety medications and diverse psychiatric labels until he finally understood that his habit of frequenting prostitutes corroded his view of himself as a good priest. Professionally, he was capable; privately, he was torn asunder. He left treatment drug-free and considerably less anxious.

Piecing his life back together was not an easy process. Through regular sessions, he developed more realistic ways to manage his anxiety. He gradually withdrew from a slew of medications, began to see his history in a more realistic light, and recommitted himself to a sexually abstinent lifestyle, armed with the practical skills to do so. Therapy enables the freedom to make such a choice; it is not so concerned about the choice made.

For some men, when the heady romance begins to fade they may abandon a relationship; just as often, however, they try to keep juggling. This is sad in any relationship, but it can be tragic for a priest, whose life, values, and meaning have been swept away in a torrent of passion that he had perhaps unknowingly forsworn and the dynamics of which he barely understands.

Does this suggest that priests are as a group naive with respect to emotional needs and entanglements? Yes, it does. Certainly for that group unable to inhibit their behavior and face the difficult choice of whether celibacy is actually possible for them.

The corollary to this naiveté is the often shockingly low level of insight as to how a priest's behavior impacts the love object. Priests who cross the line tend to be notably self-absorbed — consumed with their own conflicted feelings — such that they overlook the sensitivities of the person with whom they are involved. The thought that a woman (or another man, for that matter) might want something from them feels alien.

Group therapy is especially helpful in situations such as these. The often shocked and sometimes angry reactions of peers is often more potent than that of a single therapist pointing out obvious insensitivities. A door is then opened to enlarging perspective, reducing self-absorption, and taking into account that all behavior has consequences. This is the purpose of treatment.

Vulnerability isn't the only problem — some priests truly are sociopaths

The situations I've been describing exclude, of course, those few men among clerics who are just narcissistic or sociopathic enough to take what they want, the rules be damned. This category includes the predatory sex offender and/or the compulsive sex addict.

Whether driven by compulsion, rage, or unremitting entitlement, such persons, who exist in any profession, cross boundaries not out of personal need or lack of support but because they are driven to such behavior by poorly understood psychological motives. Fortunately, such priests are rare. The most common trap door to crossing the line sexually has to do with personal vulnerability.

The problem of the celibacy requirement

What can we make of this situation? Would abandoning celibacy for diocesan priests help? The answer to the second question is: Of course it would. Would it solve the problem of wayward priests? Of course it wouldn't.

Human weakness cannot simply be eradicated, although measures can be taken to reduce it significantly. Generally priests already have access to mental health resources, such as psychotherapy; they also have less formal priest support groups to which they can turn for help. However, they tend to take advantage of resources under duress.

We know that education about matters of sexuality and intimacy and how it actually operates would be helpful. Empowering the laity to collaborate as equal partners in parish management is also an encouraging trend.

A more challenging development would be to expand priests' knowledge of human sexuality and intimacy as well as increase their regard for those critical parts of the human experience. This would require more candid and less judgmental communication about these aspects of life and would reflect a move away from the idealized role of the priest as a person without need. That is, after all, just a facade.

Curiously, not much attention is paid to handling love and physical attraction in the long years of priests' training

While some efforts have been made in this direction, there is a longstanding tendency in the Catholic tradition to value sexual abstinence over sexual relationships, committed or otherwise. Measures that level the field between priests and parishioners would help bridge the distance between the two, opening up more options for actual friendship and genuine collaboration.

But such changes call into question a major thrust of Catholic moral teaching, which emphasizes procreation at the expense of relationship. They would also impact how local churches are governed, another strong tradition. Reevaluating these major issues would be a tall order indeed.

Paul Midden, PhD, is the author of Absolution and the retired founding CEO of the St. Louis Consultation Center, a treatment center committed to providing psychological and spiritual care for clergy and vowed men and women. After more than 30 years treating clergy, he founded Wittmann Blair, a publishing company. Find out more about him on his website.


First Person is Vox's home for compelling, provocative narrative essays. Do you have a story to share? Read our submission guidelines, and pitch us at firstperson@vox.com.

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