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How can a woman build an appropriate relationship with a priest?

December 5, 2011 by  
Filed under Challenges, Fr. Bartunek, Spiritual Direction

Dear Father John, I am a woman working hard to deepen my relationship with Christ.  In this process, I have begun to befriend priests.  I wonder how you would suggest molding relationships with clergy to maintain detachment yet create mutually beneficial relationships.

This is a real issue.  We have all read or heard about tragic tales of priests having affairs with married or single women whom they were directing spiritually.  And many times, both the priest and the woman are upstanding members of the parish, honest and fervent Catholics.  None of us wants that to happen.

Two concepts can, I think, help answer your question and shed some light on the situation: realism and respect.

Realism

We have all got to be realistic.  People are people; men are men; women are women.  This doesn’t change when a woman begins to seek holiness.  This doesn’t change when a man becomes a priest.  Neither chastity nor celibacy is maintained and matured by pretending that certain circumstances will remove all temptation.  And temptation can be especially subtle precisely in the midst of a relationship that begins on a deep spiritual level – the level where a priest and a female directee are interacting.

In this relationship, the woman receives affirmation and guidance regarding the living out of her faith.  This can be deeply satisfying.  The emotional release and joy that overflows from spiritual growth can lead her, little by little, often subconsciously, to depend on the priest not only for spiritual support affirmation, but also for emotional support.  Temporarily, in moments of crisis, this can be fine.  But if it becomes habitual, the emotional momentum can easily, and tragically, begin to override the spiritual connection, and the chaste relationship can be compromised.

A similar dynamic can happen from the priest’s perspective.  If he feels a natural attraction towards a particular female directee, he can begin enjoying and looking for the emotional connection that he feels when interacting with her.  He may look for it consciously, or subconsciously.  At this point, his purity of heart is already being threatened, and he is vulnerable to temptation.  If he then enters a period of personal difficulty or spiritual dryness (and this happens periodically – it’s normal), he will feel drawn to look for tangible comfort and understanding, instead of courageously bearing his cross and renewing his faith-commitment until the storm passes.  At that point, going to a female directee with whom he is already emotionally involved will seem like a direct, clear, and satisfying solution.

The most obvious application of this concept is that women need to develop faith-based friendships with women where they receive emotional support.  They should be very clear about what they seek from their relationships with priests: spiritual support and guidance, encouragement and instruction in their faith and in their pursuit of holiness.  Priests need to have faith-based friendships with men, preferably brother priests, wherein they receive their emotional support.  They must take seriously their role as spiritual fathers in relation to the people God gives them to serve.

This doesn’t mean that priests and women can’t be friends.  What it means is that this particular friendship has a specific character and purpose, and that needs to be acknowledged and accepted.

By the way, this complex dynamism is often at work in relationships between lay people too, relationships that can lead to adultery.  We can never pretend that we are immune from temptation, that we have conquered perfectly and forever the beautiful, powerful, and fruitful virtue of chastity.  We need to be realistic.

Respect

As a result, in all interactions between women and priests, each party must have and show respect for the other’s calling in life.  This starts in the heart: being brutally honest with oneself about emotional charges and attachments as soon as they begin to appear.  But it has a lot of practical manifestations too.  A good rule of thumb is to avoid situations where outsiders could infer the appearance of something unhealthy.  Here are some practices that have been common in Church tradition, and that even married Protestant ministers (like Billy Graham) have found helpful:

  • A priest and a woman (who is not a family member) should avoid riding in cars together, just the two of them.
  • A priest should wear his clergy attire when giving direction to a woman.
  • Spiritual direction should take place in a room with windows or an open space where others can see what’s happening.
  • Spiritual direction should take place during normal working hours, not late at night.
  • A priest and a woman (again, a woman who is not a family member) should avoid getting together tête-à-tête casually, or for simply social reasons.

I am sure we could each extend the list.  And, again, similar respect should govern other relationships too – a single man and a married woman, for example.

I want to be explicit about the reason behind this mutual respect.  It is not because the Church considers femininity intrinsically evil.  It is not because the Church considers sex intrinsically evil.  On the contrary, it is precisely because the Church herself respects the reality of gender in God’s plan and the sacredness of sexual intimacy that chastity is valued in the first place.  But the Church is not naïve.  We live in a fallen world and bear a wounded human nature.  Therefore, we must make a conscious effort to be faithful to God’s plan for our lives.  When it comes to relationships between women and priests, that conscious effort must include sincere respect for God’s plan for each person.

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About Fr. John Bartunek, LC

Fr. John Bartunek, LC, S.Th.D, received his BA in History from Stanford University in 1990. He comes from an evangelical Christian background and became a member of the Catholic Church in 1991. After college he worked as a high school history teacher, drama director, and baseball coach. He then spent a year as a professional actor in Chicago before entering the religious Congregation of the Legionaries of Christ in 1993. He was ordained a Catholic priest in 2003 and earned his doctorate in moral theology in 2010. He provided spiritual support on the set of Mel Gibson’s "The Passion of the Christ" while researching the 2005 Catholic best seller "Inside the Passion"--the only authorized, behind-the-scene explanation of the film. Fr. John has contributed news commentary regarding religious issues on NBC, CNN, Fox, and the BBC. He also served as the English-language press liaison for the Vatican’s 2005 Synod of Bishops on the Eucharist. His most widely known book is called: "The Better Part: A Christ-Centered Resource for Personal Prayer". He has also published four other titles: "Seeking First the Kingdom", "Answers: Catholic Advice for Your Spiritual Questions", "Meditations for Mothers", and "A Guide to Christian Meditation". Fr. John currently splits his time between Rome and Rhode Island, where he teaches theology as an adjunct professor at the Pontifical Athenaeum Regina Apostolorum and at Mater Ecclesia College. He is also continuing his writing apostolate with online retreats at www.RCSpirituality.org and questions and answers on the spiritual life at www.RCSpiritualDirection.com. FATHER JOHN'S BOOKS include: "The Better Part: A Christ-Centered Resource for Personal Prayer", "Inside the Passion"--The Only Authorized Insiders View of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, "Meditations for Mothers", and "A Guide to Christian Meditation".

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  • aimer

    Thank you for this. I’m new to Catholicism so priests are confusing to me, i don’t want to appear disrespectful by being casual around them, but i also don’t want to be all awkward and come across unfriendly. My two current priest was friendly and warm to be when i first came to the church, hugging me (quick and appropriate, along with my husband and other parishioners), joking, etc. I have ALWAYS been respectful and receptive. But now he goes out of his way to ignore me or will be very formal with me. No weird incidents stand out and I’m sure I’ve never said or done anything wrong. He’s friendly and jovial with my husband and other people, including women, but with me…..,.awkward. It hurts my feelings because I can’t figure out what I’ve done. I’ve been around Protestant clegy all of my life and this never happened and it feels too awkward to talk to him about it.

    • Jajee

      Don’t think about him too much. Let him be.

  • Trish

    eHere’s my take on the question: Fr. John was absolutely right. Women must be very careful in their interactions with a priest. He cannot be a friend in the usual sense of the word “friend.” He is busy, and his time is precious.
    A friend of mine had a crush on her priest and would call me about it all the time, trying to convince me that they were doing nothing wrong. I tried to convince her that he was not “available.” I kept repeating it until she started listening. Later on, she married a guy who was available. Good for her!
    Another friend of mine told me about the time she was driving in a car alone with her priest, on a road trip (a mutual decision), that involved some alcohol and an overnight stay at a hotel. I asked another friend (a fellow Catholic) what he thought about that. He said, That was NOT a good situation (violation of Safe Environment and Boundaries). He said, “Who knows what that woman was thinking when she related the indiscretion to you.”
    It’s more dangerous for the woman than for the priest. If someone sees them alone together in a car, a restaurant, a movie theater—tongues will wag. Parishioners will most likely give the priest a benefit of a doubt, but not the woman whom they might brand as “the bad one.” Not a pretty picture.

  • aimer

    Thank you Deacon. We seemed to have worked it out, whatever it was because now he treats me like everyone else and any joking around feels very “mother/son” since I’m a mom and he’s younger than I. I guess we just needed to get to know each other better :-)