By Donna Beth Weilenman
The Benicia Herald
While pursuing a degree from the University of San Francisco, then-doctorial candidate Lou A. Bordisso wrote his dissertation on “The Relationship between Moral Development, Sexual Orientation, and Roman Catholic Priests.”
He took vows with the Society of the Divine Savior (Salvatorians) in the Roman Catholic Church, but changed his alliance when his mother became critically ill and his father was diagnosed with cancer, because he didn’t want to be assigned to another state while his parents were ill.
Attracted to the American Catholic Church, under the umbrella of the Old Catholic Church, Lou Bordisso became a member of the Order of Saint John Vianney. After becoming an ordained priest, he was named Presiding Bishop of the Diocese of the California American Catholic Church until his retirement in 2010, when he became Bishop Emeritus.
He had long considered writing a follow-up to that dissertation, perhaps incorporating and Richard Sipe’s 25-year study of 1,500 Catholic priests that indicated that 50 percent or fewer attempt celibacy, and only 2 percent achieve total chastity, he said.
But Bordisso didn’t want to write just a sequel or make a new study. Instead, he wanted priests to relate anonymously how they deal with the vow of celibacy they take on their way to priesthood.
Recent health issues that led to his retirement also convinced him “to put the rubber to the road” and get the book written.
And a diagnosis of dementia caused the bishop to begin “living in the moment,” he said.
“It’s a spiritual gift: ‘Be still and know that I am God,’” he said of his diagnosis. “I’d been putting (writing the book) off, but there’s no better time than now.”
Bordisso said the diagnosis caused him to shed unimportant battles and focus instead on new priorities.
One of these is hosting the public access program “Political Inquisitions,” which can be accessed online at the Vallejo Independent Bulletin.
And of course the book, to be released later this year, has been another priority.
It’s titled “Sex, Celibacy, and the Priesthood,” though Bordisso said he wanted it called “The Elephant in the Middle of the Sanctuary,” because, he said, few care to comment publicly about celibacy.
In researching the book, the Mare Island priest cast his net wide to hear from the largest number of North American Roman Catholic priests. Though he openly gay, he sought responses from all orientations.
He spoke at conferences, placed advertisements in the National Catholic Reporter, posted requests on message boards and sent letters to schools of divinity.
He sought a cross section of priests rather than a single pool, he said, before sending his questions. The primary one: How do you resolve conflicts, if any, between your sexuality and vocation?
Because the American Catholic Church doesn’t require priests to be celibate, Bordisso sent the questions to Roman Catholic clergy. He offered those responding anonymity in exchange for their stories, so the priests could be truthful about the ways they deal with their vows when challenged by human sexuality.
Some told of professing celibacy publicly while having relations with men or women — in some cases, both — in secret. One declared, “I have a right as a person to healthy sexual expression” — though he elaborated it was his right “as long as I am prudent …”
Some described how they realized the promise to refrain from sexual relations would be impossible for them to keep. But instead of having affairs, they chose to leave the priesthood, instead.
Others, Bordisso found, have yet to resolve their struggle.
One priest told of his regret he would never have children. Another called the requirement a “foolish law,” saying it guarantees that noncelibates would become priests.
“I think I am one of these, and have wrestled with the question of leaving the priesthood for years,” the priest wrote. Saying he was happy to be a priest, he added, “In no way, though, am I a true celibate,” saying he would consider a long-term commitment though he no longer engages in “anonymous sex.”
Bordisso also heard from priests who accepted the vow as their calling, and through prayer and meditation lived chaste lives.
One told him that personal growth and experience made celibacy a free choice after mistakes. Another compared his vow of celibacy to the promises made by those who marry, except that his commitment is to the priesthood. Others cultivate a support system.
Bordisso waited until the end of the book to offer his own reflections, including that of the definition of “celibacy.” He said that members expect it to mean that priests won’t marry, and that they aren’t to engage in sexual activity.
But the priests’ own response showed him they are at odds with what Bordisso called “the orthodox and traditional definitions of celibate chastity.”
“This is not a scholarly book,” Bordisso said. “My review is not exhaustive, but it has substance.”
One topic it didn’t cover is pedophilia, another issue with which the Roman Catholic Church is wrestling.
Bordisso said those engaged in pedophile behavior aren’t just people who are involved with minors. Comparing it to rape and saying it was more about violence and power than sex, he said it can involve others over which a person in authority has power.
And when priests are involved, it’s comparable to marriage counsellors who take sexual advantage of vulnerable clients, Bordisso said.
For his book, Bordisso said he wanted to explore only relationships between consenting adults — for priests, alternatives to celibacy.
“The purpose is to contextualize the reality versus the ideal,” he said, explaining he wanted the book to have “a sense of integrity, and movement away from duplicity, and toward the value of transparency in the church.”
Bordisso has suggested that churches that impose celibacy redefine it as a continuum rather than an absolute. And he added, “I don’t take a position in the book — on purpose. I wanted the voices of the priests to speak for themselves.”