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The door left ajar...

· ​In the emotional life ·

Wassily Kandinsky, “A Mountain” (1909)

One sentence of our Novice Master has accompanied me since the time of my Dominican novitiate: “Living consecrated celibacy means accepting discomfort and the risk of leaving the door of one’s emotional life widely ajar”. Marrying usually enables a person to close the door to all the other possibilities, as far as is possible, and over time to build an emotional relationship with his or her spouse. There is nothing similar in consecrated life which by its nature inspires confidences and conversations in which people open their hearts and very easily fosters an idealized portrayal of the celibate person “with a view to the Kingdom of heaven”.

There is a strong temptation to close that blasted door by every possible means. The most natural one is to put oneself as far as possible outside the range of a relationship, to separate oneself. This means in the first place no longer putting oneself in a situation of otherness in which the relationship consists of a reciprocal exchange in which each person lets him- or herself be reached or touched. This need for separation, necessary up to a point, is the raison d’être of monastic enclosure.

Clericalism, whose danger to the Church Pope Francis never ceases to denounce, originates in part from the legitimate wish to shelter one’s emotional life from draughts. But the clerical cloister can quickly be revealed, both for priests and for the people who frequent them, even with the purest intentions on both sides, as a protection that is all the more deceptive since it can conceal the risk of reciprocal seduction.

This risk is aggravated by the fact that the need for a proper distance is combined with the propensity of every human institution to produce its own classes, its own codes and its own elite. Not only is the Church no exception but she even has a special propensity to see this stratification as sacred. What have we done with Jesus’ commandment to his disciples, “Call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven” (Mt 23:9)? When will we at last understand that with these words Jesus is expressing his keen hope for a Church of brothers and sisters and not a Church split between priests and the faithful, exactly the situation that Pope Francis condemned in his letter of last 20 August on sexual abuse? “Clericalism, encouraged by both priests and lay people, gives rise to a division in the ecclesial body which foments and helps to perpetuate many of the evils which we are condemning today. Saying ‘no’ to abuse means saying ‘no’ forcefully to any form of clericalism”.

Marcello Mastroianni and Sophia Loren in a scene from the film “The Priest’s Wife” directed by Dino Risi (1970)

Therefore, far from being a bulwark against emotional assaults, this clerical isolation, even in the form of the authority of some over others – which, if we are not careful, priestly ordination generates in such a natural way – can create conditions favourable to every kind of excess, and to abuse of power. Such abuse is all the more shocking since it often plucks at the most delicate strings of the souls of those who are subjected to it. The human damage is even more terrifying. And if it is perpetrated on children, those who perpetrate it are criminals and deserve to be treated as such.

Voices are regularly raised citing abuse in support of the “marriage of priests”, a panacea for all the evils in the Church. In fact it is another way of succumbing once again to the temptation to slam that blasted door that was left ajar. It would truly be a pity if the Roman Catholic Church were to resume its tradition of 1,000 years ago of ordination of men who married for a similar reason, because of shortcomings.

Very far from being a perverse affective frustration and dangerous in this context, consecrated celibacy is a treasure of Christianity. Today, even more than in the past, it has in itself an incredible prophetic charge and is a journey of happiness and human fulfilment. How beautiful it is to feel this freedom of a life as brothers and as sisters in a relationship of otherness and of absolute equality in dignity. How beautiful it is to savour the chastity of a relationship of friendship between men and women, rarely immune of course from its share of reciprocal seduction, in a world in which desire is the object of all polarizations.

God, how beautiful this relationship is, God, how vertiginous it is. It means accepting the risk of this door left ajar, never lowering our gaze and looking our human frailty in the face rather than hiding it behind illusory protections. It means the humility and nullification of the bridegroom’s friend who exults in joy at the bridegroom’s voice (cf. Jn 3:29), rather than the security of a “man of God” who might be surprised to forget that he still remains a man.

Jean-Paul Vesco,
a Dominican, Bishop of Oran

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