Desire, Pleasure & Faith: A Conversation

group photo of speakers

(left to right) Brahmachari Sharan, Ph.D., Saisha Mediratta, Mariah Johnson, and Fr. Gerard J. McGlone, S.J., Ph.D.

The Roman Catholic doctrine of celibacy, forbidding clergy from marriage, has a complicated history. It’s popular to date the enforcement of priestly celibacy to the 12th century, but this is a misunderstanding. The prohibition is much older. Though some of the apostles may have been married, the prohibition on sexual relations for priests and in the monastic vocations was widely accepted even before the Council of Nicaea in 325.

The council of Nicaea was almost two thousand years ago, yet today, according to Fr. Gerard J. McGlone, S.J., 50 percent of priests fail to keep their vow of celibacy. No matter how long the church has attempted to enforce this doctrine, no matter how many times, in however many documents it is reiterated, it remains uniquely hard to enforce.

This number, 50 percent, came as a surprise to me— but then, “Desire, Pleasure, & Faith: A Conversation” was full of surprising statements. The event was a discussion of, among other things, priestly and monastic celibacy among Hindu religions and in the Roman Catholic Church. Featuring Brahmachari Sharan, Ph.D., and Fr. Gerard J. McGlone, S.J., Ph.D., and directed by students Mariah Johnson (COL ’21) and Saisha Mediratta (SFS ’20).  “Desire, Pleasure, & Faith” was a healing experience for me, and, I’m sure, for many others there.

The students had several prepared questions for Fr. McGlone and Dr. Sharan, then took questions from the audience. At the end of the evening, I was left wanting. More from the student leaders and more questions from the audience; conversations like this are so rare.

The first set of questions dealt with the history of restrictions on sexuality in Hindu traditions and Roman Catholicism. While all these traditions have a history of restraining sexuality, the restrictions have often been less clear in reality than they are in their written form. Further, and the first part of the conversation did a lot to clarify this, official stances on sexual practice are typically more nuanced than the common interpretations of them.

An example of this is the history of a celibate clergy in the Catholic Church, discussed above, but another was raised by Dr. Sharan when describing the role of abstinence in Hindu traditions. There has been and is today, an embrace of abstinence for the purpose of spiritual development among adherents of the Hindu religions, but Dr. Sharan emphasized that these forms of spiritual development are meant only for those who have gone through the rest of their lives. Monastic celibacy within Hindu religions is ideally reserved only for those who have lived a non-monastic, non-ascetic life first, for those who have already pursued their own development and satisfaction.

Then, with giggles of discomfort from the audience, Saisha asked the question that all this history had been building up to: “And how do you,” she said, referring to Fr. McGlone and Dr. Sharan, “handle being celibate.” Dr. Sharan said, his devotion to the life of the mind would split his attention away from his family making it impossible to maintain a healthy relationship with a life partner. The development and curation of mind and spirit, not to mention a demanding schedule that includes, travel, studying and advising students and colleagues, means his lack of presence would be harmful to his family so, the decision is more-or-less a practical one.

Fr. McGlone also spoke about this idea, that different types of intimacy can take one’s attention away from the focus on one’s practice of faith, of being in love. He defined intimacy as a relationship of love- keeping focused on your love is essential. Christ has to be the center of one’s life. Put this way, he said, celibacy is about getting your priorities right. This response came after his initial answer to the question, an answer that unsettled the room and left Dr. Sharan momentarily speechless; when asked how he has remained celibate over his decades in the priesthood Fr. McGlone said, simply: “I don’t. I fail every day, I fail to love as I desire.” He said this to make a larger point of attempting to live celibately authentically as a daily quest and to point out how celibacy is a dynamic and ongoing process.

Half of all priests break their vow of celibacy, and for some this break comes not as a result of a choice, but by the assault from another member of the clergy. Fr. McGlone survived clerical sexual abuse as a child and again during Seminary.  The abuse crisis has changed the conversation for priests and it is in part because of this, he said, that he believed priests speak more openly about their sexuality. For someone, like me, who grew up Catholic, this candor was so, so welcome.

“What place do people in the trans community have in your traditions?” was the next question, asked by a member of the audience. Dr. Sharan took the question as an opportunity to remind the crowd that “South Asia has polar masculine, polar feminine, 11 non-binary gender identities, and 12 sexual orientations.” It was only with the arrival of the British that the thinking of gender as a binary became expected. He believes a return to an understanding of the broader spectrum will happen with time and is hopeful about the possibility offered by postcolonial thought to decolonize minds and restore the older framework, but he suspects, for those most affected by colonialism, the poor, “it will take a long time for postcolonial thought to get back to [them].”

“You are at the heart of the Church. This is your home. You are the heart of Christ,” said Fr. McGlone quoting Archbishop Wilton Gregory, while responding to the same question. He acknowledged that the Church or any faith community may be a hostile place for people who express themselves differently, and to those suffering, he suggested: “If someone hates; they hate. Go someplace that loves. While acceptance in the Church may not be absolute, Jesus will always accept you,” Fr. McGlone said. “I cannot conceive of the man to whom I’ve given my life rejecting anyone.”

Discussions of theology can tend towards the arcane and specific—this conversation reminded me that recalling specificity and history has value to us now. I felt I had witnessed, in the student facilitators and the two speakers, in their honesty and willingness to discuss that most delicate of subjects, something resembling grace.

Desire, Pleasure & and Faith: A Conversation was presented by the LGBTQ Resource Center and the Tagliabue Initiative for LGBTQ Life in partnership with the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs and Georgetown Dharmic Life. 

By Jonathan Compo

Jonathan is a Senior in the College studying theater and biology