Celibacy and the Catholic Church: Italian Mistresses of Priests Ask the Pope to Change the Rules

7 years ago
Pope Benedict XVI celebrates an evening vigil service in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican to mark the end of the Church's year of the priest, on June 10, 2010. A year that has been marred by revelations of hundreds of new cases of clerical abuse, cover-up and Vatican inaction to root out pedophile priests.Thousands of priest from around the world gathered in St. Peter's square in a major show of support for Pope Benedict XVI amid the clerical abuse scandal. During the ceremony Pope Benedict XVI strongly defended celibacy for priests but he didn't directly mention the clergy abuse scandal but he referred to what he called 'secondary scandals' that showed 'our own insufficiencies and sins.' PHOTO by Eric Vandeville/ABACAPRESS.COM Photo via Newscom

Women are speaking up to the Pope about priestly celibacy. And who are these forty women who sent an open letter to Pope Benedict? They are the Italian mistresses of priests.

This was kept quiet for a couple of months, then leaked to the "outside world." Why does this matter? Because it is part of a growing cry for the Vatican to re-examine the idea of priestly celibacy.

Here is one paragraph of the entire letter, written after the Pope spoke in affirmation of celibacy as a sacred state:

Ours is a voice that can no longer continue to be ignored, from the moment we heard the reaffirmation of the sacredness of what is not sacred in the least, of a law that is being maintained without addressing the fundamental rights of people. The contempt with which they have attempted for centuries and in recent statements to silence the cry of men and women who have suffered in the already tattered shroud of mandatory celibacy hurts us.

Three of the women decided to go public, as their relationships were over. The remainder (about 37 of them) were anonymous to protect current ongoing relationships. Here is Luisa's story. She is 38.

They met six years ago and had a relationship and a child (who is now almost two).

"He came to live with me," Luisa said. "He told his family that he was living in his parish and his parish that he was living with his family."

Ultimately it was too hard on the priest to maintain this fiction, and he left Louisa before their baby was born and has not acknowledged his paternity in any way. "It was very hard," she said. "His family sent him to an exorcist and accused me of being a witch. As for the bishop, he told me to have my child adopted."

A few years ago, in my opinion at least, this kind of letter would never have been written. The women would not have dared. However, in a world that is grappling with priestly pedophilia, the issue of celibacy has been raised many times.

Some say that celibacy causes priests to develop twisted outlets for their sexuality. (I don't believe that.) Others suggest that celibacy deters men with healthy and expressed sexualities from considering the priesthood. It becomes a hurdle over which many faithful men wish not to leap. Still others believe that celibacy creates men who are unable to relate to the real day-to-day issues facing modern families. Others might add that celibacy is entered into by young men in seminaries, who have yet to taste the freedoms (and the lonliness) of the real world.

Proponents of celibacy (beyond espousing theological reasons -- and we'll address that in a few paragraphs) will say that celibacy is a gift, a calling, and it allows the person to focus more intently on God and His work than on affairs of the heart or demands of a family.

But what happens when celibacy falls apart?

When I was in my 30s, I knew a man whose brother was a priest from an order with a large missionary presence in the sparsely populated areas in South America. While it is surely hearsay, his brother had told him that many of the priests on missionary assignment from his order took "temporary wives." I recall being shocked at the time. Now I am not.

NPR quotes Stefania Salomone, one of the authors of the letter to the Pope, a former mistress of five years' duration.

"There is a lot of suffering around the world due to this rule," she says. "Bishops know that priests are not celibate, but they don't care about this. They say, please do what you want but do it anonymously, nobody has to know, otherwise scandals arise and we cannot afford this, so please do what you want but don't let the world know about this, and [most] of all don't make it children."

Catholic priests were not always celibate. Nor were Popes. Various discussions were had about celibacy in the Catholic priesthood until a formalized statement was made in the 11th century. Originally celibacy uncomplicated the issue of who owned property. No one could claim any rights to property if no families of priests were around after a priest's death. Later statements tied celibacy to more strict theological interpretations, but that was not always the case.

The Global Post broke the story of the "Mistress Letter," which included interviews with several of these mistresses. They describe their experiences of being lovers with men who could not surrender their entire sense of self as a priest by leaving the church. In some instances bishops simply transferred such men, or offered them promotions in other parts of the world. When the Post commented about the history of celibacy in the priesthood after the Council of Trent in the 11th century, they add:

Priests continued to have clandestine relationships, of course, but it was not until the Second Vatican Council in 1962 that many of them came into the open and left their offices. According to the semi-official Vatican magazine La Civilta Cattolica, nearly 60,000 priests left the church to get married after the Second Vatican Council

The Catholic Church has declined to comment on this letter from the mistresses. But bloggers have plenty to say.

Nicole Neroulias, blogging at Beliefnet says:

Maybe this will prompt their "sisters" in other countries to write in, as well -- America must have at least as many clergy mistresses as Italy, if not many more.

Christina Odone, blogging for The Telegraph in the UK says:

I came across, when editor of The Catholic Herald, hundreds of priests. Many of them had “housekeepers” who adored them and … well, who knows what goes on behind net curtains in the priest’s house? Tongues wagged, but only mildly: the priest looked happy, worked hard, and his parishioners looked away.

Araminta of Boadicea's Chariot says:

I don’t subscribe to the view that allowing Catholic priests to marry would improve the lamentable incidents of paedophilia, but it would surely make them more understanding of the problems of their congregations, and would go a long way towards banishing the misogynist attitudes of the Roman Catholic Church.

This phenomenon is not unique to Italy. Scotland on Sunday just reported:

A support group for women who have affairs with Catholic priests is opening a branch in Scotland because its English headquarters cannot cope with the number of calls received from Scottish women.
Sonflowers says women from north of the Border have contacted them for support.

What do you think? Should priests continue to be celibate?

~~ Contributing Editor, Mata H. also blogs right along at Time's Fool

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