Thursday 12 December 2019

Custodia oculorum: the church rule Pope was willing to break

Maire Murray on celibacy's harsh interpretation

In his 27 years as head of the Catholic church, Pope John Paul II wrote many encyclicals, or letters, for extensive circulation and discussion amongst the "faithful" and "all people of good will". These documents of depth and solemnity addressed issues such as 'Fides et Ratio' (Faith and Reason) or 'Ut Unum Sint' (The Commitment to Ecumenism).

But there were other letters being written by Pope John Paul II, communications between a man to a woman, letters from friend to friend. Hundreds of letters over a 30-year period that were part of a particular celibate friendship uncovered this week in the BBC's Panorama programme. They tell the story of friendship between Karol Wojtyla and a Polish-born American philosopher and married woman called Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka.

There is no suggestion this relationship was other than platonic. But given the Catholic church's former percepts with regard to forming any friendships and relationships - both between men and women and people of same gender - this friendship between pope and philosopher is fascinating, especially in the light of the Church's requirement at one time that its servants purge themselves of all human attachments, preferences and emotional states, to empty the 'self' for union with God. Marriage to the Lord was exclusive.

The Catholic church of the past had many rules to avoid human contact amongst its clergy and for its flock. For example, 'custodia oculorum' or 'custody of the eyes' was a practice of humility and a requirement to look down when in the presence of the opposite sex; to avoid the possibility of attraction, and not to distract from commitment to the Lord with unnecessary human exchange.

Allied to this was prohibition on 'particular friendships', which were any exclusive associations between two people in seminary or convent. Odd, given the Lord's choice of diverse male and female friends and his love for his beloved disciple.

In this context, the friendship of Pope John Paul II with Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka was a significant unilateral interpretation of human relationships .

Some years ago, in a social setting, a priest of advanced years apologised to me for his lack of social skill, saying: "Forgive me if I do not look you in the eye but I am of the generation indoctrinated to 'custody of the eyes'. It is hard for us older priests, trained never to look at anybody, especially woman, to be normal with anyone now."

This profoundly sad statement opens up depths of understanding about how the Church lost its way so spectacularly in past decades through it's suppression of that most fundamental of human activities - the formation and expression of human friendships. This left many of its ministers lonely and starving for love. Some were emptied of the essence of their humanity. Some formed life-giving relationships with each other or others. In the cases that have caused the most scandal, some made cold by deprivation displaced their need in cruel and abusive ways.

Human emotion cannot be suppressed and distressed without consequences. And the issue about relationships in the Church and outside it is not just about celibacy but about human intimacy. It is about psychological intimacy in the sense of closeness, with openness and honesty, about personal thoughts and feelings, concerns, challenges, disappointments and achievements, ideology and aspirations, belonging and non-judgmental regard. Psychological functioning is compromised without the closeness of friendship.

The Church has been accused of being obsessed with sex. But if it is, it is not alone in that - for was there ever a society so sexualised and sex-obsessed as the one in which we live? We have come full circle, overcorrected, and gone too far.

If we struggled in the past with making all relationships between men and women celibate, we now struggle with the notion that the only valid relationship between a man and a woman has to be sexual.

If the Ireland of the past prohibited sexual relationships, interfered in intimacy, partnerships and marriage - the present puerile rejection of any form of restraint in relationships, the ridiculing of any celibate relationships, is equally damaging to the human psyche.

If the recent marriage equality referendum defined anything, it defined the right for gender and relationships of all kinds and fluidity to be matters of choice.

Same-sex friendships are intimate and celibate. Men and women can be friends. Men and men, women and women, men and women have the right in law to be in whatever relationships, partnerships or marriage they wish. Postmodernism has redefined gender, sexuality, celibacy, friendship and intimacy.

We might regard celibate relationships as ridiculous in the world in which we live, but equally ridiculous is not allowing all people, alone or together, to be whatever, and however, they wish to be.

Dr Marie Murray is a consulting clinical psychologist


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