There is scope for trial and error on the road to celibacy

Seminarians promise to remain celibate when ordained deacons in their sixth year

Thousands of Irishmen have entered through the gates of Maynooth College with the intention of becoming diocesan priests, and while most of them subsequently decided against priesthood or left following ordination, most of them entered the seminary as idealistic young men, believing they were responding to God's call. By the time they left the seminary, many had become disillusioned and critical of the seminary system.

For example, priests who were students before Vatican II criticise the seminary because of its regimented nature and 'pernickety' rules, which reflected the strictly hierarchical Church and cultic priesthood that prevailed in Irish society at the time.

While the seminary became less restrictive following Vatican II, and the servant-leader model of priesthood had effectively replaced the cultic model, nevertheless, many priests ordained following Vatican II believe that the seminary did not prepare them for the priesthood or life as an adult. Ironically, in recent years, the seminary has been criticised by younger students who perceive that it has become too liberal and that it lacks an ‘authentic faith base’.

Seminary life can be difficult at the best of times, and especially if you are a young man, struggling with your sexuality, be it heterosexual, homosexual or bisexual, and you feel that you are part of a ‘soap opera/reality show’, where people get to comment on your life and judge you without knowing you or understanding your life.



One can only imagine how hurtful the recent allegations of a gay subculture and abuse in Maynooth College must be for the seminarians and their families. Surely the allegations and revelations could have been handled in a more appropriate manner, which did not require senior Church officials ‘facing off’ in the national media.

After all, most Irish adults engage in sexual behaviour. Why should diocesan priests be any different? The main reason is that celibacy is an obligatory part of priesthood, which persists in spite of much criticism from different sources, including the majority of Irish priests and some bishops.

Unlike their religious counterparts who take the vows of chastity, poverty and obedience, diocesan priests promise to remain celibate when they are ordained deacons and they make a promise of obedience to their bishop at ordination. To be celibate is to be unmarried, although within the context of the Catholic priesthood it has come to mean being unmarried and refraining from sexual activity.

It is an ecclesiastical discipline that is governed by Church law, as laid down in canon 277 of the new Code of Canon Law. However, while it is a legal requirement, it is not necessarily a lifestyle that comes naturally to most people, and priests have to learn how to be celibate. Inevitably, they will make mistakes and there must surely be some scope for ‘trial and error’ outside the glare of public scrutiny. We would not expect any different for our own children.


Clerical sexuality has been shrouded in secrecy and research suggests that celibacy and sexuality were rarely if ever discussed in Irish seminaries when most of the current diocesan priests were students. Prior to Vatican II, the possibility of inappropriate sexual behaviour was controlled by rules that strictly forbade students from entering other students’ rooms or developing ‘personal friendships’ with other students.

Students were also divided into junior and senior divisions, which minimised the risk of sexual abuse by older students. Following Vatican II, there were fewer restrictions on student friendships with other seminarians or mixing with lay people. Students in Maynooth and other seminaries attended universities where they developed relationships with other students, male and female.

More recently, seminaries have introduced personal development courses to help students cope with the demands of a celibate lifestyle. However, the secrecy surrounding sexuality and particularly homosexuality remains. International research and anecdotal stories suggest that homosexual men have been in the priesthood since ‘time immemorial’, even if this not publicly acknowledged, and that this trend is likely to continue.

Perhaps, now would be a good time for the Church to acknowledge the diversity within priesthood and to distinguish between sexual orientation and sexual activity. The former is of no concern to anyone other than the individual concerned, while the latter is subject to Church guidelines.

Dr John A Weafer is the author of Thirty-Three Good Men: Celibacy, Obedience and Identity. A Sociological Study of the Lived Experience of Irish Diocesan Priests in Modern Ireland, 1960-2010 (Columba Press)