The Common Good

Talking Sex with a Married Catholic Priest

It’s not every day you meet a practicing priest in the Catholic Church who is married, so when I got in touch with Fr. Dwight Longenecker (a man who meets the above criteria), I took the opportunity to get his take on sex, marriage, celibacy, and how the Church can, should, and already is dealing with sex differently, both within clergy circles and beyond them.

Priest reading from the Bible,  Africa Studio / Shutterstock.com
Priest reading from the Bible, Africa Studio / Shutterstock.com

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Dwight Longenecker was brought up in an evangelical home and graduated from the stridently anti-Catholic Bob Jones University in Greenville, S.C. While there he became an Anglican and went on to study theology at Oxford University. He married Alison and they have four children. After 10 years as a minister in the Church of England Dwight and his family converted to the Catholic faith. Showing that God has a sense of humor, Dwight returned to Greenville to be ordained as a Catholic priest. He now serves as a parish priest in Greenville. 

You are both married and a Catholic Priest. How did that happen?

I married Alison when I was a minister in the Church of England. In the early 1980s Pope John Paul II gave permission for married men who were priests in the Anglican and Episcopal churches to be ordained as Catholic priests after they converted to Catholicism.

This special exception to the rule of celibacy for Catholic priests has been extended to many English-speaking countries around the world. There are several hundred of us worldwide, and in addition to the former Anglicans, there are also some married former Lutheran and Methodist ministers who have also been ordained as Catholic priests.

I should point out that priests in the Eastern Rite Catholic Churches — the ancient churches of the Middle East that are in communion with Rome — are often married. In addition, Pope Benedict XVI established something called the Personal Ordinariate for Anglicans. This is essentially a “church within a church” in which former Anglicans are in communion with Rome, but maintain their Anglican traditions of worship and discipline. Priests within this “Anglican Ordinariate” may also be married.

Some people believe the priestly vow of chastity is about sexual purity, whereas others claim it’s a way for the Church to keep property from being inherited by family members. What is your take on it?

I should make a distinction of terms. “Chastity” is a word for the observance of biblical standards of sexual behavior. That is: sexual relations only happen within marriage. All Christians are called to chastity. Married people are chaste when they are faithful to their spouse. Single people exercise chastity through celibacy. “Celibacy” is not having sexual relations with anyone.

There are some practical reasons for priestly celibacy. In the early church it was easier for missionaries to live a life of radical discipleship unencumbered with the earthly concerns of a wife and family. St Paul mentions this in I Corinthians 7: 32-33. An unmarried workforce is still practical and economical for the church. Unmarried men can work in difficult conditions with low wages if necessary. When martyrdom was a real possibility being unmarried meant no family to leave behind unsupported.

There is also a historical detail about property. For about the first thousand years the church had married priests. There was much debate about this. By the twelfth century some married priests were leaving their sons property that belonged to the church. Mandatory celibacy stopped that abuse.

However, the real reason for priestly celibacy in the Catholic Church is not a practical reason, but theological. The priest is called to be conformed as completely as possible to Christ. Jesus Christ was unmarried, and the Catholic priest is to imitate Christ in this way. In addition we recognize the nuptial aspect to the vow of celibacy. To put it simply, the celibate priest, monk, or nun is “married to Jesus.” Through this total consecration of love they show all of us what it means to be the “bride of Christ” and to be one with him.

The example of the celibate Catholic priest, monk, or nun is also a radiant sign of contradiction to a world that is obsessed and addicted to sex. The celibate says by his vow, “There is another way. There is a higher love. Total purity and devotion to this higher way is possible.” This tradition of celibacy also connects the Catholic with all the great religions of the world. Celibacy for consecrated souls is part of this great human adventure we call religion. It would be a shame to lose that radical sign of total devotion to Christ. 

How do you respond to those who feel that forcing priests to remain celibate and single leads to many of the sexual abuses we read about in the news?

It is easy to draw that conclusion, but studies show that Christian ministers are among the least likely to be guilty of sexual abuse and Catholic priests are the least likely within the subgroup of Christian ministers. Philip Jenkins’ Pedophiles and Priests is an excellent objective study on the subject. 

The profiles of child molesters never include normal adults who become erotically attracted to children as a result of abstinence (Fred Berlin, "Compulsive Sexual Behaviors" in Addiction and Compulsion Behaviors [Boston: NCBC, 1998]; Patrick J. Carnes, "Sexual Compulsion: Challenge for Church Leaders" in Addiction and Compulsion; Dale O´Leary, "Homosexuality and Abuse").

Furthermore, Jenkins observes that married men are just as likely to abuse children, and the cases of sexual abuse within denominations that have married clergy illustrate the fact that marriage does not cure sexual abusers.

The Catholic priests who are guilty of sexual abuse are sick individuals. The fact that they were also celibate has little to do with their problem.

In saying that, however, we should not obscure the difficulties that the vow of celibacy often present. The celibate priest is often lonely and he bears a cross. He may struggle greatly with his commitment to the Lord, but then don’t we all fight battles in one way or another to bring our sexuality into line with biblical standards? Pope John Paul II said that chastity is the work of a lifetime. Integrating our sexuality with our spirituality is a struggle for everyone.

Do you think that the rules for priests and marriage should change? Is there any chance it will? 

It is good to remember that the Catholic Church takes the long view and the wide view. We consider 2,000 years of our developing history. We also consider the needs of the church in the whole world — not just in the developed world. If this discipline of the church changes, it is far more likely that it will change because of the cultural demands of Africans and Asians (where celibacy is virtually unheard of) than the demands of progressives in the developed world.

If the discipline changes, it is most likely that we would adopt the discipline of the Eastern Orthodox Church in this matter. Their discipline is that married men may be ordained, but priests may not marry. In other words, older men whose marriages are tried and tested may be considered for ordination. Men who are already priests would remain celibate. 

It is difficult to second-guess Pope Francis. Despite his reputation in the press as a progressive, he is actually pretty conservative. He may ask for the discipline of priestly celibacy to be changed, but I think it is unlikely. If he does he will almost certainly change it to the Eastern Orthodox discipline I outline above.

So far, Pope Francis seems to be endearing himself to people in large part outside of the Catholic Church. How do most Catholics view him and his early work as Pope?

Most Catholics respond to the pope as most people respond to a grandfather. They love the pope and listen to his teachings with affection and admiration. As in any family there are some ungrateful and rebellious children, but for the most part we’re excited and delighted by Pope Francis’ warm-hearted, spontaneous, and radical approach to discipleship. We see in him a true successor to St Peter — the wave walker who became the foundation of Christ’s church.

If you had your choice, how – if at all – would the Catholic Church be dealing differently with matters of sex and sexuality?

I would challenge readers to understand fully the real teaching of the Catholic Church regarding sexuality and to avoid shallow stereotypes and half truths driven by the sex-addicted secular media and understandably biased non-Catholics.

Pope John Paul II, for example, from his foundation as a philosopher, has done some amazing work in the area of the human person and the meaning and spirituality of human sexuality. 

The Catholic view of sexuality is most often portrayed as one big negation: “Sex is bad and dirty.” Nothing could be further from the truth. The fullness of Catholic teaching about sexuality and marriage is abundant, life giving, and precious. It is a great gift to the whole church and to the whole of humanity.

It is our job to communicate this good news and to avoid condemnation and constant negativities. It is true we are opposed to every form of sexual sin, but that it because these sins break the precious and beautiful sacrament called marriage. We want the very best for people. That’s why we’re opposed to all that is less than the best.

Fr. Dwight Longenecker is the parish priest of Our Lady of the Rosary Church in Greenville, S.C. His latest book, The Romance of Religion is published by Thomas Nelson in February 2014. Visit his blog, browse his books, and be in touch at dwightlongenecker.com

Christian Piatt is a Sojourners Featured Writer and an author, editor, speaker, musician, and spoken word artist. He is director of church growth and development at First Christian Church in Portland, Ore. Christian is the creator and editor of Banned Questions About The Bible and Banned Questions About Jesus. His new memoir on faith, family and parenting is called PREGMANCY: A Dad, a Little Dude and a Due Date.

Image: Priest reading from the Bible,  Africa Studio / Shutterstock.com

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