Find essays by keyword, title, or author name

Dethrone Love from Its Judgment Seat

“I risk losing everything if it were to come out into the open,” one man says, under the veil of anonymity, of his romantic relationship. But he agreed to tell his story, his partner reports, “because suffering pushes you to do something, to try and change this injustice.”

Thus begins a November New York Times article about a network of lovers whose unions the Church frowns upon: ordained priests, secular or religious, who have made vows or promises to live chastely in accord with the status of clergy—to live celibately—and who then enter into romantic relationships. The article features stories and convicted appeals from several groups of former and present priests, some of whom are currently romantically involved, many of whom have been in the past, and all of whom wish that the Vatican would allow priests to marry.

Those interested in pursuing and perusing statistical analyses of celibacy,  happiness, and the priesthood might begin with Monsignor Stephen Rossetti’s chapter (“A Recent Study of Celibacy and the Priesthood: What do the Data Tell Us?”) in John Cavadini’s The Charism of Priestly Celibacy. More concerning is the Times article’s, and its interviewees’, presentation of the phenomenon of love generally.

“They had not planned on falling in love, but they did,” the article begins.

They did not want to become the objects of malicious gossip, but they are. They had not imagined living a life of furtive affections and secret rendezvous, but that is what has happened since the woman and the priest defied a Roman Catholic Church taboo and became romantically involved.

And later:

One group of 26 women even petitioned Pope Francis to change the church’s requirement of celibacy for priests, and relieve their suffering.

“It’s really hard to explain this relationship to someone who hasn’t gone through it,” said one of the women who signed the letter to the pope but did not want her name printed because she, too, is romantically involved with a priest. “We wanted to let the pope know that the suffering is widespread.”

Not forgetting the fact that priestly celibacy in the Roman Catholic Church is a discipline and neither a doctrine nor a dogma, I can’t help but see in this story the confirmation of C. S. Lewis’s fear that “the truth that God is love may slyly come to mean for us the converse, that love is God.”

“Every human love, at its height, has a tendency to claim for itself a divine authority,” Lewis wrote in The Four Loves.

Its voice tends to sound as if it were the will of God Himself … it attempts to over-ride all other claims and insinuates that any action which is sincerely done “for love’s sake” is thereby lawful and even meritorious.

Now, couple this thought with the excellent study released last week out of the Austin Institute, Relationships in America, which found that most Americans (74 percent) continue to disapprove of extramarital affairs, while a small majority (55 percent) of Americans outright disapprove of polyamorous relationships, and only about 1 in 6 Americans outright approve of them.

The language and “narrativization” of the Times article bespeak and entrench Lewis’s concern that “love will be god.” Yet even as American views on sexual morality continue to track toward laxity in several metrics, they still resist the “divinization” of love when it confronts deeply held convictions about certain relational structures and norms. The theoretical wherewithal supporting this resistance, however, is crumbling rapidly and has been for some time, increasingly cowed by the onslaught of the unencroachable “right to love” that manifests itself strongly in prevalent attitudes about marriage and sexuality.

Many voluntary relationships, upright or not, are motivated by a phenomenon that we can loosely call “love.” But love itself can become an idol when the quest for desirable feelings, emotions, sensations, and pleasures—which themselves are subjective states and therefore can never be the basis for or constitute common goods—takes precedence over the good of lover and beloved, and the appropriate actions and norms that realize and facilitate, respectively, that good. Both the Times article and the Relationships in America study are timely warnings that should provoke us to renew our understanding of right relationship as being grounded in shared (common) goods realizable through collaboration and cooperation. Love is demonstrated in the willing of the common good of the parties constituent of the relationship; “it’s good that you exist—good for us,” as Josef Pieper describes it.

Compelling defenses of the Church’s theology and practice of priestly celibacy and its vision for all relationships, in fact, take the form of elucidating these goods, actions, and norms that constitute and identify any relationship or union. Confronted with the reign of the untethered subjective ego and its desires, we must exorcise the demon that “love is god” and reorient love clearly in service to the goods that animate our desires for relationship.


Readers are invited to discuss essays in argumentative and fraternal charity, and are asked to help build up the community of thought and pursuit of truth that Ethika Politika strives to accomplish, which includes correction when necessary. The editors reserve the right to remove comments that do not meet these criteria and/or do not pertain to the subject of the essay.

  • lyle

    Well, marriage is a commitment of the deepest inner moral demand, a forever till death do us part..
    The unfortunate reality in the United States we are derailed to seek lust first, marriage is an end result. We call ourselves Catholic, but are Protestant in mind and heart, hard hearted to self determine for ourselves, not to pickup the cross and follow Jesus..
    Essentially is more correct to say , a net work of lusters, and adulters, for they are already married to the church, a commitment they made to God, but now in teach to make a commitment to God, then deny that and seek another..
    the heart of the story is, we fail to give any True Value to Gods laws, the ten commandments of to not covenant they neighbors wife… or to covenant what is not to be yours, and to be as Jesus to seek Gods will, not ours..
    To be a priest is to set an example of Gods will be done, not mine, which Priest and people who call or propose priest are to be able to be married fail to recognize and know what it means and is to follow Jesus…
    The greatest commandment is to Love God.
    Having a sexual affair as a priest, is the same as molesting a child, and that is directly you have taught a child what you are doing to them, and to do it to a women, is to teach her to defy Marriage commitment…
    For a Priest is already married to the Church, but now he is committing adultery with a women..
    the floors heaven is covered with the skulls of bishops. for when they are in charge, they forget the poor and downtrodden, as this proves.
    Priests that commit adultery, is the same as priests that molest children, they are committing mortal sins, and you cannot receive the sacrifice of the mass under mortal sin.. and to make a true confession is to be truly repentant of sin, or its a sin to recognize sin, then fail to heal it…
    these Priest are ignorant of the Marriage to the Church, and the commitment it calls them to, and their need of lust is not right..

  • Hear hear… While I am sure the cases are genuine, what can we make of the NY Times being interested to present such a story? Obviously there is envy of the Church’s preserved sanctity, and an effort to homogenize our pastoral community according to reformed standards.

    It is a measure of the greatness of Pope Francis that his calls for overarching reform, which we should realize are simply intended as the overarching reform within each Catholic heart and of the Church’s enfeebled position in the world, provides such vain imagination for outsiders, yet only causes the overwhelming majority of Catholics and even wayward but sympathetic Protestants, to suddenly cherish the special and uncorrupted nature of the Church.

  • lye

    In the Catholic Church a priest marries the Church to be a Priest, for Priest tie hand in Hand with the Church in their acceptance to the cross as Jesus did, a Priest needs the church, and the church needs priests, to Gods will be done, not ours nor our desires. Christian faith religions already call for what ignorant catholics want today, a denial of a accepting suffering today, in return for salvation.. Jesus suffered, as an example for us to follow, to accept suffering,n for a priest to be having an affair is adultery, as it having premarital sex that is now so accepted in society, a mortal sin of failure to reject what is recognized as part of the seven deadly sins…lust,,, love of God is the Greatest Commandment, and a Priest is Marrried to the church.. could have Jesus stood against the pit of vipers, knowing well they hated him for so, and wanted Jesus dead, and had been married at the same time , with an obligation to family, NO….that recognition alone points to humans, men, cannot be both a priest, and married, end of story..
    theirs a mind of a child in that reformation was a rejection of Gods word to be of a state of true following of Jesus, already initiated back several hundred years back, and now Catholics today expect the Pope to just give a ignorant denial today of dismissal of the Sacraments for all Catholics, defiant to Jesus and his call..