PRIESTS AND EMOTIONAL LOVE
by Rev. T. G. Morrow
Published in Homiletics and Pastoral Review July 2000
“Father, I’d like to speak to you. Can we go out to lunch?” asked the young married woman.
“I’m sorry. I don’t go out to lunch alone with women. Let’s talk in the office,” the priest replied.
“Okay.” So they found an office and sat down to speak.
“Father, this is difficult for me to say... I think I’m in love with you.”
After a moment of silence, the priest answered, “Well, that can happen. It’ll go away after awhile.”
“How can you treat this so lightly?” she complained.
“Well, I’ve been in love many times, before I entered the priesthood, and I’ve learned that it’s not the end of the world. The emotions go where they will. You can’t control that. If you don’t cultivate this feeling it’ll go away in six months.”
“Are you sure?” she asked.
“Trust me!” he promised.
Six months later the two were milling around in the school office, with teachers coming in and out. “You remember what you told me six months ago?” the young mother asked.
“Yes,” he answered, hoping she would not start elaborating right there.
“Well you were right,” she concluded.
This true story had a happy ending. Others don’t. Some priests, often young priests, are completely mystified when they discover a woman is strongly attracted to them. And when they feel the same attraction for her, it’s worse. The results can be tragic.
If a priest has never experienced emotional love for a woman, he can be tripped up by this phenomenon and get into all sorts of trouble. This is not to say that a man must have experienced emotional love to be able to deal with it properly. Ben Franklin wisely taught that although experience is the best teacher, only a fool can learn no other way.
So a priest can learn about the fickle nature of this love, and how it seems compelling but isn’t. But, are they learning this before ordination? It seems that many aren’t. Education in love will not only help the priest cope with his own situation, but it will help him in counseling couples.
The Greeks called this emotional love eros. It simply refers to the attraction one feels for the good, the beautiful and the true in another. It is not mere sexual attraction as Freud mistakenly taught, but the sexual aspect is not excluded. It is a profound attraction for the person, a desire to possess the person through love. Before considering how a priest should deal with eros in his own life, perhaps it would help to look at the important role it plays in marriage.
The Role of Eros in Marriage
Eros is an important catalyst for marriage, since without this overwhelming feeling, a couple might be hesitant to make the lifelong commitment of marriage. However, this feeling can get one into a lot of trouble. It isn’t always rational, so if one uses this as his/her primary criterion for marriage, rather than agape or friendship, the results can be catastrophic.
As C. S. Lewis points out in The Four Loves, if you make a god out of eros it will become a demon and destroy you. This is the love the Hollywood star claims to have for her fifth husband. “The other four men were nice, but this is totally different. This time I am re-e-eally in love.” Four or five years later this marriage is on the rocks as well.
Nonetheless, eros is a good thing in itself, as long as it is kept in its place. It is not “genuine” love or “the real thing” but simply a strong emotional attraction to someone. Unfortunately, it can appear when it’s not welcome. It can be misdirected. Only when governed and controlled by reason can it be the good thing it was meant to be.
Several times a married person has come to me in various contexts and told me that even though they are happily married, they feel like they are in love with someone else. “What does this mean, Father? What should I do?”
“It means you are human,” I tell them, “nothing more. It happens all the time. If you don’t cultivate it, it will fade away in time. Never go out to lunch or dinner with him, or let him drive you home. Avoid being alone with him for anything but business in the office.”
What to do when a man, let’s say, has fallen into adultery with a woman, and still has strong feelings for her? What should a confessor tell him? That he should try to avoid seeing her, and if he has to see her, because for example, they work together, he should be very polite, but very detached. He should never let on that he still has a strong feeling for her in his heart.
If she calls him he should say, “There’s no point in our seeing each other any more. This isn’t what I want.” He shouldn’t say, “I don’t think we should see each other again. I have to be true to my wife,” as if he’d really like to see her, but he shouldn’t. This will give an opening to his consort, and she will press him to seek his “happiness,” by continuing with her. This, of course is a terrible lie, since sin never brings lasting happiness.
The man should do something to break the timing of the relationship. If, for example, they often used to meet each other at the office happy hour on Friday afternoon, he should make it a point to skip it. If they would meet each other walking the dogs in the neighborhood, he should walk the dog in a different neighborhood or get someone else to do it. In other words, when she turns left, he should turn right, simply avoiding the situations which proved entrées to trouble in the past.
He should tell her “I love my wife,” even if he doesn’t feel a strong emotional bond for her at the moment. He at least loves her in the sense of agape, that is being concerned for her good, which is the love he vowed to have for her. (If he feels no emotional bond whatever for his wife, he should go with her for counseling.)
Before he tells his lover the right things, he has to get the support of a good priest and become profoundly convinced that adultery will never bring happiness. He needs to pray a great deal, after receiving the sacrament of Penance/Reconciliation. In other words, he must convert his heart to the truth that God’s way is the sure way to happiness, before he tells her the bad news.
The Priest and Eros
There are at least four situations in which a priest will encounter the problem of eros. The first, is where a woman to whom he is not attracted tells him she is in love with him. The appropriate response is given above, in the opening story. Simply help her to realize that this is something which happens fairly often, and will quickly fade if she doesn’t dwell on it.
The second is where he is strongly attracted to a woman, but she doesn’t know it. How does he deal with this? He certainly doesn’t tell her. He msut do nothing to help this feeling along: that is, he should not think much about her, nor seek opportunities to see her, nor invite her to run a program for him, etc. He should pretend the feeling isn’t there and do nothing to continue it.
Notice, we didn’t say he should purge the thought of her from his mind and ask for a transfer. You can’t ask for a transfer every time you are attracted to a parishioner. There can be a certain stoicism here which overly stresses the psyche. However strong this may feel at any moment, it is not the end of the world. We must constantly remind ourselves of this, even if we have experienced it many times before. It truly is a kind of peak experience, but it is only finite, it is not God, nor is it from God. By just saying to ourselves, “That’s a nice feeling,” and getting on with our other activities without clinging to it, all will be well in a surprisingly short time. In fact, if you are willing to be detached in this way, you can even enjoy the feeling while you have to be in the woman’s company, knowing that it’s just a passing thing.
Detachment is certainly the key word here. This is a time-honored virtue in the spiritual life which is often misunderstood. It doesn’t mean being cold toward others, or toward things you like. It means never coming to depend on them for your happiness. Any time we say, implicitly or explicitly, “I need xyz to be happy,” and the xyz is not God, or whatever God chooses to give us today, we are attached. We have set up a rival to God. We have made xyz a god, and as C. S. Lewis wrote, it will surely become a demon and destroy us. If you love your friend, fine, but don’t let him or her get between you and the ultimate Friend, Jesus. If you love the Washington Redskins fine, but don’t miss your son’s wedding or you wife’s funeral to attend a game. Everything in proper perspective. “. . . seek first his kingdom and his way of holiness, and all these things will be given you as well” (Mt. 6:33) This is what detachment is about, and you can’t enter the “narrow gate” without it.
Case three is when you are attracted to her, and she is attracted to you and she tells you. If a priest is naive, and his pastor is giving him a hard time, he could be very vulnerable. This is where his prayer life comes into play. By a strong prayer life he will be strong and able to think clearly to do the right thing.
So what is the right thing? First, if she says “I think I’m falling in love with you,” the last thing he should say is, “I’m falling in love with you too.” This is a recipe for disaster! Here again, he has to use the approach in the opening story.
Don’t say a word about how you feel for her. If she asks, “Do you feel the same for me?” say something like, “Not exactly [What two feelings are ever the same?]. I think you’re a lovely person.” Don’t reveal even the remotest corner of your heart. Simply defuse it from the start with a poker-faced calmness. If she senses you’re emotionally on fire, you could be in for a real catastrophe. Don’t deny anything, simply say something nice but rather sterile. If she presses you and insists you deny that you’re in love with her, simply say, “I don’t want to hurt you [which you surely would if you admitted strong feelings and then had to repair the damage]. That’s all I’m going to say.” Tell her, “Read my lips, that’s my final word,” if necessary.
What if she doesn’t tell you how she feels, but wants to see you all the time? Let’s say she is coming for spiritual direction and decides you should meet every week. Tell her you can’t see her more than once a month. What if she calls you several times a week? Let’s say her husband just left her and she needs someone to talk to. She feels so “comforted” when she speaks to you. (This appeals to our egos and our need to minister to God’s people, but because of that it can become very manipulative in time.) After a week or two of this, you need to cool it. Encourage her to pray more, to get into a prayer group or Bible study as well. This is the way to find consolation, not to monopolize a priest. Screen your calls if necessary, especially if you find yourself becoming emotionally attracted.
Manipulation of a priest can occur not only with young, attractive women, but with anyone. You need to develop antennae to home in on this quickly. When the compliments start coming strong and heavy, beware. Don’t panic, just beware.
You can’t put her off with words like, “I don’t think we should see each other so much.” It sounds like you’d really like to see her all the time but are trying to do what’s right. That may very well be the case but that’s just asking for trouble. If she wants you and knows you want her but are trying to hold back, this may heighten her interest. Simply say “I can’t talk to you so much. I’m not getting my other work done.” (The implication that talking to her is part of your “work” is a helpful one, even if unpleasant for her, given the circumstances.)
Case four is where a priest has made a mistake, and needs to back off. Let’s say he had a fight with his pastor and went to see this young, attractive divorcée in her apartment. They talked for a couple of hours and then hugged and kissed. Bad news. He broke every rule in the book. You never spend time alone with a woman away from the rectory office, and especially not after getting angry with the pastor (or anyone else).
So what does he do now? Exercise the same protocol as in case three. Be very polite to her when you see her, don’t let on there are any strong feelings in your heart, apologize for what happened, go to confession and go on about your business. Don’t make a federal case about it. Mention it to your spiritual director for some accountability, but otherwise, don’t think about it. It should never have happened, but you can’t dwell on it even if it’s guilt you are dwelling on (which of course, is pride: “How could someone like me have done something like that?”). Just let it go.
We haven’t said much about spiritual direction, but this is an indispensable element in all this. You must report these feelings to your director as soon as they come up, and keep him updated as to what is happening. You’ve got to have accountability. Otherwise you are an easy mark for rationalization. Objectivity is what is needed here.
Often when a man has never dated or has been unsuccessful with women before entering the priesthood, he is entranced with the idea that an attractive woman is romantically inclined toward him. In other words he is more vulnerable. He must know that his worth comes from God and his noble, noble calling to the priesthood. All the woman in the world couldn’t match that. And furthermore, it may be that she is attracted to him because he is a priest. Even an unordained, unattached bachelor should stay away from a woman like that. She’s headed for destruction, and will take her man with her.
One hears occasionally of a priest who realizes he has made a mistake in getting involved with a woman, and so plans to return to the ministry. Then his former consort tells him she will commit suicide if he doesn’t marry her. As a result, he gives up on the priesthood and returns to her. Such naiveté!
First, she wouldn’t commit suicide. Women rarely carry through on this. But even if she would, you may never commit a moral evil that good may come of it. Furthermore, the antennae should go up whenever anyone says “If you don’t do this, I’ll commit suicide [or even something less drastic].” This is horribly manipulative. Such a priest may be miserably controlled by the woman for the rest of his life.
The underlying principle to all of this is to guard your heart. You needn’t remove it or kill it, just guard it. Don’t reveal its ups and downs, and don’t become cold. With an attractive woman, as with everyone, be warmly spontaneous, but not candid. Know when it’s time to speak and when it’s time to keep quiet. Be cordial with all, and when the heart starts demanding, explain to it in a hundred ways why it can’t have what it wants. Tell your heart—an appetite, and thus a potential spoiled brat which must be governed politically, not “despotically”—to wake up to reason. Realize that though extremely powerful, eros is only a fleeting feeling, not a god. Only fidelity to God himself brings real, lasting happiness.
After one has reached middle age or beyond, his temples are graying, he is old enough to be a grandfather, and he has dealt with these feelings many times, he can rest assured that there is no danger, right? Wrong! “Three things are too wonderful for me, yes, four I cannot understand: The way of an eagle in the air, the way of a serpent upon a rock, The way of a ship on the high seas, and the way of a man with a maiden” (Prov. 30:19). A priest must guard his heart all his life. Love is a fickle thing. Emotional love will always be a mystery even to the most experienced.
It’s unfortunate we have to go into such detail on such matters, but things have changed a great deal in the past forty years. We have face-to-face confessions, women are taught to be more aggressive and they are more aggressive. There seems to be a lot more to this than in generations past. It’s unpleasant to think about and talk about what has and can happen with priests, but it appears to be necessary to spell it out. We have to be more aware of the problems and the solutions.
Experience helps, prudence is needed, but grace is indispensable. Unless a priest fills his life up with a strong prayer life–at least a holy hour each day before the Blessed Sacrament–frequent confession, daily Mass, devotion to Mary and reading the lives of saints to stir his heart, he will be an easy mark for the devil. If Satan doesn’t trip him up with eros he’ll catch him on something else. Prayer is at the heart of the priesthood. We have seen the sad things the evil one has done to our priests. There but for the grace of God go you or I.
See, for example, Pope John Paul II, Blessed Are the Pure of Heart, Catechesis on the Sermon on the Mount and the Writings of St. Paul, Boston: Daughters of St. Paul, 1983, pp. 180, 181.
C. S. Lewis, The Four Loves, New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1960, p. 154. There Lewis said, “. . . Eros, honored without reservation and obeyed unconditionally, becomes a demon.”
See Romans 3:8.
Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I q 81, a3.