The following is an interview with Thom Burkett of A Hopeful Hero's View.
Since a requirement for priesthood is celibacy, atheists often think those who would choose to enter the clergy are less into women than the average population. In your experience, did you find that your fellow priests struggled with their abstinence? Could the prohibition of healthy sexual relationships be a contributing factor into the Church’s history of sex crimes and scandal?
Sexual orientation is certainly a controversial topic regarding a seminarian’s choice to be celibate or abstain. While I do believe based on my experience that many young men entering the seminary, at least whilst I attended were gay, I do not believe it was because of their sexual orientation they choose to be celibate. Rather celibacy, based on theological teaching that homosexual behavior is a sin/immoral, is an option in the Christian life. In fact Bishops have called for homosexuals to engage in abstaining from sexual activity as a way to continue to live a moral life within the catholic/Christian context of their community.
I did find that many priests struggled with celibacy and abstinence, but I would not say it was the majority. In fact I experienced that most priests are able to be celibate and abstain from sexual or intimate relationships. I think that seminarians – those studying to be priests – struggle with celibacy more than a parish priest. Partly because it is so new/foreign and partly because these young men are living in close quarters together and the temptation may be for some, overwhelming. However, I think that by the time these men are ordained priests (usually after 9 years of seminary) they are more capable of maintaining celibate lives. Though obviously not all the time, I included.
From psychological studies done, for example http://m.psychologytoday.com/blog/do-the-right-thing/201003/six-important-points-you-dont-hear-about-regarding-clergy-sexual-abus, celibacy and in fact sexual abuse are NOT more prevalent among catholic priests or the catholic clergy. What is more disturbing is the hierarchy of the Church covering up abuse and moving sexual predators from one parish to another with no with regard for the safety of the children involved. I have observed that the scandal of “predatory priests” is more sensational and therefore finds more press than sexual scandals say among family members, teachers, or other professions (doctors, etc.).
The phrasing of the question itself, “healthy sexual relationships” implies those celibacy/abstinence are not healthy sexual practices. I would disagree, and remind readers that in fact many people are celibate, and not always for religious or faith based reasons. Being celibate/abstaining from sexual activity can be fruitful/healthy lifestyle choices, but they would need to be practiced by persons fully aware of their own sexual appetite and desires. Appropriate ways to reassign sexual urges in healthy activities would need to be discovered and practiced. All in all, celibacy/abstaining from sexual activity aren't bad – I believe it is in the context the Church applies them and the lack of providing seminarians and priests with the context for how to successfully live a celibate life that create issues and infidelity to celibacy and theological teachings of the context of celibacy in an active minister’s life.
How does the hierarchy of the Catholic Church compare to military chain of command? From an outsider, it seems like the authority of the Pope is nearly absolute. To what degree could you, as a priest, influence the higher-ups? To what degree did you have to follow your superiors?
The Church is indeed hierarchical; however I wouldn't compare it to a military structure. It’s more of a medieval feudal system. The pope while having some absolute authority only has it in matters that are solemn papal declarations (ex-cathedra). The doctrine and theological teachings of the church do not hold that the pope is infallible on all matters, and there are many instances of papal declarations made that have been reversed. It is extraordinarily rare that a pope make an infallible declaration in the manner required by their own theological institution. My experience of practical living as a priest was most certainly in a “hierarchical chain” – however I had complete autonomy regarding preaching, teaching, day to day operations of my parish and church. In larger context, disagreement with Church doctrine/theology would result in corrective action and would be met with swift retaliation and discipline. My influence as a priest of higher ups was nominal to non-existent.
As a priest you heard the confessions of members of your congregation. (As much as I'd like to ask what about the most outrageous confession you ever heard, I won't.) Do you feel the admission of guilt helped these people in anyway? Do you feel it helped you when you went to confession?
I think the practice of confession can be reconciliatory for some people who may be struggling with issues of morality or guilt from something that they have done/did to another person. However, my usual experience of confession was it was extraordinarily routine – for example, “I was angry at my husband”, “I lied to my wife”, “I stole a grape at the grocery store”, “I had impure thoughts.” I never personally enjoyed the experience of confession and felt it was an unnatural way to resolve issues of moral conflict in a theological context. Confession to a priest is a construct for believers to confess to the priest acting “in persona Christi”, as well as acting as a representative of the human family. It was a way to say “sorry” without taking accountability to the persons/person that wrong may have been inflicted upon. Often most of the “sins” confessed were day to day normal human emotions, anger, lust, greed, pettiness, and most people confessed such trivial things that it was a fruitless endeavor.
Is there a specific doctrine of the Church you found especially hard to accept? Did you feel pressure to preach on topics that you didn't believe were true?
Abortion was especially difficult. I do not oppose the legal right of woman to control their own bodies, and the absolute teaching of the church regarding abortion was impossible for me to accept. I also absolutely disagreed with the church on its stance regarding homosexual activity and gay rights (they still qualify homosexuality as a moral wrong). I disagreed with the church’s stance regarding woman and their role in the church (no woman priests for instance). I refused to preach or discuss these topics with my congregation.
Leaving a religion usually means leaving a primary social group. This must be doubly so for a man of the cloth. Did you experience difficulty maintaining friendships or finding new ones after leaving your church? Do you have any advice for others facing this problem?
I lost every friend I had as a priest and literally haven’t heard from a single person I knew as a priest, including a few who were my best friends. Additionally leaving the priesthood cost me relationships with most of my family and I maintain relationships only with my parents (I have two brothers and two sisters whom I have lost most contact with). I had no issue making new friends after ministry and discovered very quickly a close group of friends (all of whom are atheists) that have been my friends for nearly 15 years. My advice – make friends based on common interests, music, arts, sports, food drink. Get out, explore the world. There are almost 8 billion people here; there are other like-minded folks who don’t define themselves by their theological beliefs.
Have you found yourself taking up other more atheist-typical viewpoints since dropping Christianity? For example, are you more socially or fiscally liberal today? Why do you think certain values that aren't necessarily linked to belief or disbelief tend to fall in line with theists or atheists?
I am most certainly more liberal since leaving the church. The biggest difference now though is my lack of desire to ask others to conform to my way of thinking. I am an atypical atheist in that I hold no malice towards theists, nor do I describe their belief systems as inferior or wrong. I know from my own experience there is no divinity, god, spiritual being in charge or interacting with humanity, space or time. We are the result of a chaotic but glorious happenstance in the universe, a perfect collision of atoms and matter and anti-matter that resulted in life as we know it. The only divine force is that of the universe itself, the laws of physics and nature.
I believe humans are genetically basically the same and our evolutionary journey has been such that many of the same “beliefs” exist from place to place, practice to practice. On a very base view, humans are only able to survive because we are “pack” animals. Our evolution of culture and society are the reason we are the dominate species on earth, without these, individuals humans would not exist, we have neither the physical strength nor instincts to do so. Much like a solitary ant or bee, our success is gained by our hive. A point of this evolutionary growth is the practice of religion, much of that religious experience evolved as a way of understanding a universe so as to hold it in context for greater growth. The soaring cathedrals of Europe helped us develop and grow cities, language evolved as a way to preserve theological thought, science math all have roots in theological and religious context. Yet as we evolve our understanding of “divinity” has evolved and I see atheists as the next step of that evolution. We no longer need mythology to justify humanism, our own desire to grow as species naturally evolves from the need to support and tend to each other in a consistent respectful way. Our very nature dictates this, no moral code assigned by a theological system is necessary. There is no evidence of the divine, yet evidence is overwhelming for evolution, big bang, natural law and physics. I think theists cling to their beliefs because it makes a very complicated universe, which is inconceivable, a concept they can grasp. Think of it, when you look into the night sky there is no end to that which you see, yet because we are finite in mortality, our brains cannot truly grasp the infinite, and thus to make it understandable some folks turn to theology/theism, and that way when the look at the infinite sky they can define it in a finite way as part of a “god’s” plan. Thus their brain is capable of understanding that which truly is not understandable. I can acknowledge as an atheist that the universe is bigger than my understanding – and that is perfectly okay.
What do you see as the most beneficial aspect of religion? The most harmful?
The benefit of religion – its ability to move people to do good to one another, to care for, and tend to each other’s needs. The most harm? Religion’s exclusion of the possibility that they might be wrong about their belief is absolutely harmful. They are so afraid of being wrong they cannot admit it, and thus is born fundamentalism and from that so too hatred. Religion tends to be absolute, rigid – in most if not all theological systems, belief in god is fundamental.
Even as an atheist I’m not afraid to acknowledge I might be wrong about the universe – but so far everything about the world I experience has proven me right - in ways that are measurable by others outside of my own experience. Faith, religion cannot make that claim (why are there so many examples of divine in the world and its history).