Sunday 27 May 2018

Dr Ciara Kelly: 'I had a gay pal who entered a seminary to better fit into Irish society'

Ciara Kelly
Ciara Kelly
Celibacy is not just difficult for priests, it's bad for them

Ciara Kelly

Nearly 30 years ago in the early 1990s, when I was first in college, I had a pal who had just left a seminary. He was a young gay man who, like a lot of young gay people at that time - and before and indeed since - found Ireland to be a cold house for him. He decided, after much reflection on what he could do to better fit into Irish society - and because being gay was a very hard road - to enter the priesthood.

He was in a seminary - not Maynooth - for about a year. He entered it very young, directly from school, and was a virgin. But over that year he became sexually active with many of the other seminarians and he left, because he had become increasingly comfortable and happy with being gay. He said everyone in the seminary was doing it, and even if he was exaggerating, I presume that meant it was lots.

Celibacy is not just difficult for priests, it's bad for thems.
Celibacy is not just difficult for priests, it's bad for thems.

Interestingly, and perhaps unsurprisingly, the one other ex-seminarian I knew from Rome, told the exact same (albeit slightly racier, Italian) story. He described the Vatican in the 1990s very simply as 'an orgy.'

It has always seemed self-evident to me, that young gay men in the homophobic past would have been drawn to the priesthood. The combination of celibacy and penitence could so easily be perceived to be the 'answer to their prayers' as it were. It might contain them. It might save them if not from actually being homosexual then at least from the terrible sin of being a practising homosexual. Or from having to live a lie with a woman.

But life doesn't work that way. And sexuality will out. And celibacy for priests both gay and straight, is clearly every bit as difficult 30 years on, as it was back then.

To be honest, I'd go further. I think it's not just difficult for priests, it's bad for them. And attempting to subvert man's - or indeed woman's - natural, inherent sexuality, only does exactly that - subvert it. It doesn't actually quash it, but it can warp it.

And it seems to me there's likely a link between celibacy, religious autocracy, and clerical child sexual abuse. In that treating grown men like they're children, who must mindlessly obey dogma, and telling them to put all thoughts of sex out of their minds or feel guilty about it, is like a form of abuse in itself. And abuse - as we know - can be a self-perpetuating cycle.

I thought when the 'story broke' about seminarians in Maynooth using the gay dating app Grindr, how odd it was that something as ordinary as young men wanting to have sex, was news at all. Even the language used to discuss it was interesting: 'Seminarians accused of using gay dating site'. Normally, you are accused of a crime, or at the very least of doing something wrong. When we know from the marriage equality referendum last year that the vast majority of us don't believe there is anything wrong with same sex, sex.

That it made headlines shows how effectively religion has managed to make us feel that there's something shameful in what is actually completely innate - sexuality. The only real news as I saw it was that there was still a large-ish cohort of young men considering the priesthood in this day and age.

The truth is celibacy isn't a natural state of affairs for humans. And it's neither achievable nor probably even desirable. In fact, it's hard to know what purpose it's even supposed to serve. And please don't tell me that I don't understand because it's a theological matter. It has been my view since I was 12 that anyone who tells you to turn off your own moral compass or stop thinking critically for yourself, is trying to control you, not trying to enlighten you. Mea culpa.


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