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My father, my lover: Priests struggle with celibacy

Women who have had relationships with priests pen open letter to Pope Benedict XVI.

“This is something that happens quite often,” said Stefania Salomone, a 42-year-old office manager from Rome. “Most of them are not ready to give up their life as priests for a woman. They want to have it both ways.”

Some of the relationships are not even sexual ones. Salomone's priest never went beyond hugging her, she said, and when he finally admitted that there was something “real” between the two of them, he said it was over.

After this and another similar experience, she started a website for women who are in relationships with priests and is now in contact with about 50 other women. “There is never a happy ending,” she said. Priests cannot stand to give up being “sacred ministers,” “God's intermediaries,” for the sake of the daily routine of married life.

Celibacy is compulsory for Catholic priests in the Western church, but its critics always point out that this rule is not spelled out by Jesus in the Gospel. Most of the Apostles, Salomone pointed out, were married, and so were the presbyteroi, the elders who exercised priestly authority in the first Christian communities, as described in the Act of the Apostles and St. Paul’s letters.

Though it was a common rule in the first centuries of the Christian era, celibacy in the Catholic Church started to be more strongly enforced only in the 11th century, and then after the Council of Trent, in the aftermath of the Reformation. 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.

However many men still feel both callings — to the priesthood and to marriage — and struggle with the rules. “One of the most recurring statements of priests to their 'companions,'” wrote the women in their open letter, “sums it up in a few words: 'I need you in order to be who I am,' that is, a priest.”