Celibate and Satisfied

Friday, March 16, 2007

Question

You've probably never gotten a letter from someone in my situation. I hope you will be discreet. I feel uncertain about writing to you, but I am also desperate for some answers. Perhaps your opinion can help me to be more clear about my own feelings.

I am considering or contemplating a lifetime of celibacy as a Roman Catholic priest. There is a policy now forbidding ordination of gay men. I could honestly say I am not gay, but if the matter was pursued further, would have to admit that I feel unsure of my sexual orientation—if any. My sex drive is so low that I have sought out very few sexual experiences. I've never been in love or had a passionate connection with anyone. My friendships and my books seem to be enough to sustain me. Another driving force in my life, and a source of joy, is my vocation to be a priest. After a lot of prayer and thought I feel certain that God wants me to serve Him.

But sex seems to be so important to everyone else I know. Why is it absent from my life? My doctor says I am a healthy young man. I have no memory of anything traumatic occurring in my childhood. I wonder if one day I will awaken with a normal libido, and suddenly feel trapped by my vows. I do not want to be one of those priests who leaves his vocation behind. Do you see something in this situation that I perhaps do not?

Answer

These letters are published on a Web site, but the identity of the people who write to me is sacrosanct. I keep the e-mail only long enough to retype it into my column. As a therapist, I treasure your confidentiality, and would never share any information about you unless it was legally required. I am mandated to report child abuse, the abuse of an elder (a person 65 or older), or the mistreatment of an adult who is dependent on others for their care. I am also mandated to seek help for people who are a danger to themselves, and report people who are a danger to others, to protect everyone's safety. I don't think my column would ever be subpoenaed, but in any case there is no paper trail to give a judge. There is nothing illegal about your question or my answer, so we don't have to worry about that. You are also safe from any intrusiveness from your church; I could care less if the Pope himself wanted to know how you were. The correct phrase is, I believe, "How does it feel to want?"

Which brings us to your situation, doesn't it? You feel a strong call to serve God as a priest. You belong to the Roman Catholic Church, which requires its clergy to be celibate. Because you have a low libido and an undetermined sexual orientation, you feel that won't be a problem. But you obviously have some qualms about this decision to become a priest, or you wouldn't have written to me.

Sex researchers rarely encounter men with virtually no libido unless there is a very low level of testosterone or an inability to respond to that hormone because of a genetic defect. I have seen men in my therapy practice who have a low libido because they suffer from Aspberger's Syndrome, a personality disorder related to autism, or they have been traumatized so badly that sex is more painful than it is worth. In both of these instances, the ability to form a physically intimate and erotic relationship with another person has been altered. Some men choose to avoid sex because their desires are such that they fear they will harm others if they become sexually active. In other words, they are sex offenders. I've also encountered men who feel that they get something positive out of abstaining from sex. This may be a higher energy level, pursuit of a spiritual experience, increasing their creativity, saving their energy for a career, or putting an end to uncomfortable mood swings.

It is possible to have a good, happy life without sex. Being a priest even makes this seem like a higher state of existence. If you don't become a priest, you'll sometimes encounter the world's disapproval or disbelief about your sexuality. But it isn't really anybody else's business, just your own. Escaping from stigma or disapproval is not a good reason to become a priest, of course. But it's obvious that many gay men have entered the priesthood to avoid the social expectation of marriage to a woman. Some of them have been celibate, some struggle with this requirement or fail to uphold it. There is a controversy within the priesthood itself about the ban on sexual activity or erotic relationships for clergy.

You are concerned that at some point your libido may increase, making it uncomfortable to keep your vows. I think it's hard to say if this is likely to happen or not unless we figure out why you have almost no sexual desire. It might be worth a trip to the doctor to get your hormone levels checked or arrange for some genetic testing. If your body isn't making enough testosterone on its own, the doctor may want to give you supplements. Then you would have to decide if you want to experience desire, to see if it makes your life richer and more fulfilling, or simply confuses and frustrates you.

A visit to a psychiatrist who is experienced with Aspberger's might also be worthwhile. I'm not trying to label you in a negative way, but I know these psychiatric terms feel bad to apply to oneself. Aspberger's is caused by a mixture of genetic issues that we are just beginning to understand. If you have this condition, it's not your fault. And knowing that you have it could be a change for the better in your life. There are support groups, both face-to-face and on line, that can help you to understand a lot more about your relationships with other people, and help you to feel that you are not alone—if, of course, you fit the criteria. It's very possible that you don't. I can't diagnose you from a letter. I have no idea if this applies to you or not. I'm just racking my brain to come up with all the possible resources that might shed light on your dilemma.

I do recommend more prayer. Is this vocation something that you must act on immediately, or does God lovingly extend permission to you to do some exploration before you make a commitment? I believe the creator would want you to feel rock solid and happy about your vows. I don't know if your religious values would permit you to do some sexual experimentation before entering holy orders. Again, pray about this, and see what answer you are given.

It is certainly possible that you are a lucky man who was made to be the ideal priest. It could also be that you feel so guilty about your sexuality that you've completely repressed it. Do you have the patience or the funds to see a therapist who can help you to follow up on any clues about this? (Don't listen to a therapist who makes up their mind about you and labels you. The focus should be on what you feel or know about yourself.) I think you owe it to yourself and your future parishioners to have some more self-knowledge. Are you attracted to other men? If so, being in an all-male environment will be both thrilling and frustrating. Being a gay priest is harder now than it ever has been. But there are men who feel a calling to challenge the church on this policy and try to expand tolerance and acceptance for gay Roman Catholics.

Theoretically, I can envision a person whose guiding force is a vocation to serve God, rather than a sexual urge or a desire for human companionship. It seems to me that if you feel such a strong calling, you would be pretty unhappy if you didn't answer. So I hope you can work your way through all of the potential risks of this situation so you can follow your heart. Denying a vocation is self-destructive. I often pray that all churches will recognize that sex is a gift from the creator, that we are meant to feel pleasure and enjoy one another with respect, and that people of all sexual orientations are equal in the sight of the divine. I'm not Christian, but I was raised in a fundamentalist religion, and I can reassure you that the New Testament doesn't feature any sexual prejudice coming from Jesus himself. Instead, we are urged to take care of the poor and the sick, to ease human suffering, and practice forgiveness and compassion in all of our affairs. It's a good set of values. More and more Christian churches are returning to them. I hope you won't forget this issue when (if) you officially become a priest.

If for some reason you can't take formal vows, do remember that you don't have to be recognized by a church to become a priest. It's about your relationship with God/dess, not your relationship with an earthly institution. By following the teachings of Jesus, you can live a life worthy of any priest, and make the world a better place as well.

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