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We embraced twice: once on his priestly ordination day and once on a city street—quick, kind.

I wondered if he held affection for me one summer evening when we stood in a friend’s backyard, suddenly awkward in saying goodbye, and he threw a paper plate into the air to break the silence and make me laugh. He was wearing his habit, the absurd glow of his white tube socks just visible at the worn hem; I was wearing a longsuffering quilted calico sundress that my brother calls a potholder. 

We were both in our thirties: a man who had given up a vibrant career to join the Roman Catholic priesthood, and an unmarried woman who had split with her family and friends to convert from Evangelical Protestantism to Catholicism. A bit awkward and interior, we are naturally the kind of people who yearn for friendship.

I have been thinking about this man as the Church sex abuse scandal unfolds. In and amid the bodily pulse of grief—sorrow, shock, a roiling desire to vomit—I have been considering the terrifying loneliness of a predator’s depravity and the original solitude of every celibate person.

I find myself in constant conversation with Catholic and non-Catholic friends about the odd, unstrung argument that abstinence breeds child abuse; the reality of homosexual predation in this scandal; and the truth that silence about priests’ heterosexual liaisons fosters a culture of duplicity in which sexual offenders of all orientations may flourish. I sense that beneath grossly overdue questions of evil and justice lie more pervasive, non-pathological matters of the human heart that are urgent to the priesthood’s non-predator majority: friendship, accompaniment, right stewardship of attraction, and the helps of sexual difference. These are the basic questions of lived chastity; untended, they seed sexual confusion where abusers may hide. And I am wondering if I can call this man my friend.

In The Four Loves, C. S. Lewis borrows from Emerson when he says friendship is the kind of love in which “Do you love me? means Do you see the same truth?” Answer “yes” and a kindred vision wells up; shared tasks gain a warm, inward verve. Christian ideals of chastity and celibacy assume that non-sexual love is necessary for human flourishing, that it carries a unique joy. Roman Catholic tradition lauds women and men who have forged deep, chaste friendships: St. Francis and St. Clare, St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila, St. Margaret Mary Alacoque and St. Claude de la Colombiere.

In some good ways, this man and I achieved friendship. If you examined our email correspondence over the last few years, you would find brief, intermittent exchanges about labor rights and Catholic social teaching, Simone Weil, the ideas and questions common to our distinct professions. Every once in a while we mentioned our siblings and parents, but the personal was only gently broached.

Undulating beneath the practical was the charge that sometimes surges between a man and a woman, usually cresting when he made me laugh or when conversation turned to a writer or artist we both loved. Once a year, we promised to meet up, but one of us always canceled quickly. If I were a different woman or he were a different man, things might have veered; we might have had something to hide. But we did not. We had something to manage.

Last winter, in the late, gray days before spring, I heard he was visiting my city. I purposefully skipped the event he was attending. But standing on the portico of a gallery that weekend, wrapping a scarf around my head before stepping into the chilly rain, I saw him walking up the stairs toward me.

My heart leapt and then fell, surprised to see him and almost ashamed at the happiness he could spur. I started down the stairs, knowing that with my head covered I could pass unseen. But the drama of avoiding him seemed overblown. I turned, went back to stand at the columns, and called his name.

“How long have you been standing there?” he asked as he met me on the portico.

“I just came out of the doors and you were here,” I said, which was partly true.

Lewis suggests that when a man and a woman are drawn together as friends, what “arises between them will very easily pass—may pass in the first half-hour—into erotic love.” Whether or not this always holds true, the fact that we made it several years before an awkward, chaste acknowledgment of mutual attraction—smiling, staring, trying and failing to speak, quickly saying goodbye—may be counted as both a feat and a lapse. A few weeks later, we corresponded about some practical matter and in a brief fit of honesty, confirmed our attraction—from the time we met to the accidental gallery meeting. I will not write to him again, and I trust he will not write to me.

As much as I felt relief at resolving the sexual tension, I was sad that we could not vault it. In considering Tradition’s litany of chaste male-female friendships, it seems to help that many were between vowed religious and so, as Lewis says, each loved elsewhere. They had no need for lovers’ privacy because in friendship, affection is expansive; the two stand side by side and “delight to be joined by a third.” Even now, in the communion of saints, each pair beckons us into their shared love for God.

Substantive male-female friendships are hard to attempt, especially in a culture that idolizes sexual pleasure as the only salient human connection. Perhaps such friendships are even harder for priests, who vow to live in persona Christi—as Jesus living among us—under the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience that marked Jesus’s ministry.

The primary challenge may not be suppressed sexuality, but something more practical. Priests usually live alone or in male-only communities, outside dual-gendered domestic circumstances in which practical, daily tasks place affinities in context and defuse the intrigue of sexual difference. For a whole range of reasons, this set-up is right and good. But because priests are called to shepherd both men and women, it is vital that they be encouraged to go out beyond their homes and workplaces to befriend, know, and understand the opposite sex.

I think of the relief I have seen in the bodies of priests at ease in mixed-gender Catholic communities and ecclesial movements like Communion and Liberation, Emmanuel Community, and Madonna House: doing dishes with matriarchs, hearing out half-hysterical teenagers, sitting with mothers as they nurse their babies. They are simply men living alongside women. Shared fraternal life bolsters celibacy by affording priests real, rooted friendships with female peers, in a communal context that can protect and guide both parties in the event that natural attraction arises—and, hopefully, intervene decisively at the first intimation of abuse.

The gallery portico was the second time this man and I spoke alone. The first time fell soon after his ordination, at a coffee shop near my apartment. Nothing untoward happened that summer afternoon: We sat in the sun and talked about books, God, our families, our separate streams of discernment. I was, at the time, seriously considering joining a religious community.

He told me he was reading Maurice and Therese: The Story of a Love, a beautifully glossed compilation of letters between Saint Therese of Lisieux and Father Maurice Belliere, an earnest, conflicted young priest struggling to fulfill his vocation. Silently chaperoned by Therese’s Mother Superior, who reviewed every note, poem, and photo that passed between the two, the letters are the tender words of a sister and a brother.

I see now that in sharing this book he may have been disclosing both his struggles and his truest desire: that I would be his friend, that I would pray for him, that I would offer him the kind of feminine accompaniment that allows a man a chaste glimpse into the mystery of the other. Perhaps if we had had friends to accompany us more closely, we would have been able to skirt the early hazards of attraction and find a lasting friendship. Absent contact, intercession endures. Perhaps, in the end, this is what God paired us for. 

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