Youth, ere it attains a beard, is totally unqualified for choosing a life without sex. I did – at age 16 ! So did my classmate, Billy. He became a Marist, Brother Christopher, and I became a Franciscan, Brother then Father Leon. We had no idea what we were doing, of course. The religious and priestly vocation demanded celibacy and we knew that meant never (again …) having not only a voluntary solitary but especially a shared orgasm. Billy and I were virgins (I certainly was) and like most adolescent Catholic boys regularly confessed the “sin” of masturbation. But “coitus” was neither in our vocabulary or personal project. We may have stolen a kiss here or there, but had no idea what we were renouncing in making the vow of chastity.
I would later discover the adage “Abusus non tollit usum”. “Self-abuse” was something we would strive, and hopefully learn, to banish, like “impure thoughts” – the other “mortal sin” I guess most of us also confessed. But the vow meant not just avoiding the abuse but the legitimate enjoyment of sex. Forever ! For me, that put Venus, any female, off-limits. It never occurred to me that Adonis, the other half of the human race, was too (a fortiori). Heterosexual sex, consummated or not, was forbidden. But unthinkable homosexual activity was also excluded (only more so). I was so naïve and wet behind the ears that I never associated the latter with the “particular friendships” we were put on our guard against in the monastery and friary.
Billy is in jail, serving an 18-month sentence for pederasty. He is one of the scores of Australian Catholic religious convicted not of breaking their vow but of committing a crime. He pleaded “not guilty”. If in fact he is innocent, something is terribly wrong with the country’s judicial system.
My own sexual history is much simpler. Totally ignorant of homosexual or heterosexual activity that may have been going on around me, inside and outside the friary, I never touched the genitals of either a woman or a man or a child during my fifteen years as a religious and seven years as a priest. But at age 31 – in the revolutionary year of 1968 – that suddenly changed, and my future wife gave birth to our first child ten months after we fell in love.
It had taken me years to realize I was not cut out to be a celibate (I never said I was quick … ). I will never know Billy’s story and, like Pope Francis, can only say “Who am I to judge ?” My decision, exactly fifty years ago, to live a normal life, was the best I ever made. I have more than pity for Billy.