Celebrating our Sexuality: Preparing future Church Leaders for Pastoral Care

Brendan Callaghan SJ

  1.  Jesuit, Catholic priest & (NHS clinical) psychologist by training

  2.  main mission has been teaching Psychology of Religion @ Heythrop (1980- 2010)

  3.  also involved with formation of Jesuits ordinands

  4.  at request of Jesuit Centre of Spirituality at Loyola Hall outside Liverpool, developed workshops in area of sexuality

    1. o originally for spiritual directors and retreat givers

    2. o then used extensively with ordinands

    3.  and with those already in ministry

  5.  more recently been involved with Safeguarding/Child Protection work on behalf of the British Jesuit Province

How to help people grow?

  1.  trying to steer course between

    1. o “French” approach (“…l’humanité, c’est quoi?”)

    2. o “USA” approach (“…and how was it for you, then?”)

  2.   some approach which doesn’t simply discuss abstract principles, but which doesn’t demand inappropriate self-disclosure

  3.  looking for a way of opening-up discussion around issues of sex and sexuality

    1. o mostly in a setting where celibate living is expected (and committed to by vow)

  4.  not an easy task

    1. o lots of vulnerabilities involved

    2. o no “track history” of such discussions

Actual practice in workshops is a mixture:

  1.  some didactic input

    1. o overall schemas of psychosexual development (c.f. extract)

    2.  drawing on different psychological perspectives

    3. o input on contemporary understandings of sexual orientation

    4. o and usually some input on abusive sexual behaviours and their consequences

  1.  work with imaginary-first-person-stories (c.f. sample)

    1. o not a “scenario” about which to talk

    2.  but an individual to whom to respond:

    3.  “what would I say to X if they told me their story?”

    4. o produces a slightly but usefully different dynamic

  2.  stories read individually, then discussed in small groups, then plenary

  3.  part of introduction is making explicit the possibility that some of a story might be my story

    1. o I have the possibility of exploring and discussing aspects of my story without going further in self-disclosure than I am ready for.

Some Reflections

  1.  my experience (with ordinands at least) is very specific

    1. o all RC ordinands are men, and committed to celibacy

    2. o women religious also have formal commitments to celibacy

  2.  cultural questions are to the point:

    1. o different national cultures

    2.  and different “subcultures” (churches/congregations/religious orders)

    3.  have very different assumptions about what can and cannot be spoken of.

  3.  crucial area of ministerial formation

    1. o lack of growth can produce individuals

    2.  who are dangerously repressed, out of touch with their own sexuality

    3.  and vulnerable to acting-out in inappropriate ways

    4.  who are too immature and anxious to be of service to others

    5.  either in areas concerning sexual issues or in any form of ministry which requires them to engage with another beyond the superficial

    6. o continuing growth can produce individuals

    7.  not only aware of “their own fallibility and limitations”

    8.  but reasonably comfortable with their own sexuality

    9. o and so able to help others be comfortable raising sexual issues

    10.  a valuable gift in ministry – and for “ministerial educators” 

PSYCHOSEXUAL MATURING: adapted from Ferder & Heagle, Your Sexual Self, Notre Dame, 1992


Phase 1 – Sexual fantasising:

- Rehearsal for relationships

- Male-Female differences in sexual fantasising

- The ethical issue

Phase 2 – Psychosexual preoccupation:

- Physical Changes and Personal Appearance

- Peers and Social Pressure

- Subcultures

- Personal Identity

Phase 3 – Relational Exploration:

- Falling in Love

- Normal Narcissism

- Levels of Physical Expression


- Accurate self-knowledge

- Empathy

- Interpersonal Sensitivity

- Trust

- Equality

- Capacity for Self-Disclosure

- Spontaneity


LEVEL ONE: Basic characteristics of psychosexual maturity

  1.  Deepening personal awareness and good self-knowledge

  2.  Body comfort and a sense of being at home in our skin

  3.  The capacity for intimacy, incarnated in sustained and consistent involvement in close personal relationships characterised by

    1. a. honesty and trust

    2. b. fidelity

    3. c. awareness and openness about one’s expectations

    4. d. self-disclosure that is appropriate to the level of the relationship

    5. e. open communication of feelings

    6. f. physical expressiveness that fits with the level of commitment and closeness in the relationship

    7. g. avoidance of control, manipulation, and abuse

  4.  Faithfulness to primary commitments

  5.  Adequate knowledge of sexual anatomy and physiology, as well as current information on sexual issues and concerns

  6.  Comfort using sexual words and talking about sexual realities in appropriate settings

  7.  Not ‘overspiritualizing’ sexual realities or engaging in emotional/psychic denial in relationship to them

  8.  Ability to make appropriate decisions and commitments involving sexuality

  9.  Taking responsibility for one’s sexual expressions and behaviour

  10.  Awareness of past hurts or traumas around sexuality and the willingness to take steps towards healing

LEVEL TWO: Signs of deepening psychosexual integration

  1.  A growing congruence between our personal behaviour and our public, social commitments; a sense of integrity about our lives

  2.  The ability to name and articulate our sexual story in an appropriate setting, and to understand how it has influenced our lives and relationships

  3.  A psychic and emotional balance between our sexual life and other aspects of living; neither being preoccupied with sexuality nor denying its place in our life

  4.  Growing integration between the human and the holy, between our sexual energy and our spirituality

  5.  An attitude of compassion rather than self-righteousness in relation to other peoples’ sexual behaviour

  6.  A deepening sense of generativity, i.e. the experiential knowledge that our presence to and with other people is life-giving and nurturing

  7.  Inclusivity in our relationships, without diminishing the depth of our primary commitments.


(Tom is a Roman Catholic priest, ordained after promising lifelong celibacy)

I’ve been a priest for twenty years now: I don’t suppose I am a very good one, but I know that I am a lot better priest as a result of my relationship with Sheila than I would be otherwise. We are not very unusual, Sheila and I, you know: we know of at least two other priests who have lovers in my own diocese alone. You wouldn’t know – you wouldn’t be able to guess, I mean. It’s all very discreet: none of this over-the-top american stuff here. But we are lovers: we weren’t for a long time, because we both took, and continue to take, the matter of priestly celibacy pretty seriously, but it slowly became obvious that we both wanted to sleep with each other, and that our relationship had reached a point of commitment where this made sense; well, more than ‘made sense’, more ‘was inevitable and natural’.

How do I fit this in with being a priest? Well, I’m certainly a better priest than I was, if you measure this in terms of compassion and openness to others. And you don’t have to take my word for it: a number of people who have known me in the various parishes where I have worked say just that, quite without knowing what has made the difference. I took on celibacy as part of a package: I knew God wanted me to be a priest, and I knew in seminary that I was not going to find it easy to live celibate, but I was sure that if God wanted me as a priest, then he would help me live as a priest: and he has! Sheila and I meet up regularly: my housekeeper at the presbytery is very amused by the devotion I show to the weekly clergy golf match, but she has never worked out how long I spend on the course and how long with Sheila at my own house outside the town. It’s one day of domesticity, really: apart from our holidays, which we take together most times, it’s the only time we get with each other. But it’s enough, though we are looking forward to eventually retiring and moving in together.

I know our relationship isn’t within the rules of celibacy, but they’ve long been honoured as much in the breach as in the observance, and I know what I am capable of, and what I am not capable of: I cannot live without an active intimate relationship, and nor can Sheila. No-one gets hurt by our relationship, because it only involves the two of us. In fact, lots of people gain, because of the beneficial effect it has on my priesthood and ministry. I look around at some of the old bachelors in the diocese, and I find myself thinking that they would be much the better off – as priests as well as human beings – if they had a lover. And I look at the men whose live-in housekeepers are more than just that – and there are certainly a few such arrangements in every diocese -and I think, “what’s so different about Sheila’s and my arrangement?”

What of my prayer-life? That, too, has been helped by Sheila. We pray the office together when we meet, and when we are on holiday it is a regular feature of our day. But more than that, loving Sheila has taught me how to get outside my own preoccupations and self-concerns, and that really has changed me. I’m not a romantic – I never have been – but I know what moves me and how I grow, and my relationship with Sheila has brought me closer to the Lord.

Carla Grosch-Miller:

It was the beginning of the second day of a course titled Sex and ministry: ‘living with the urgent power of the erotic’1I hadn’t slept well. The first day had ended with a strong statement offered by a participant that sex only belonged in marriage and marriage was God-ordained between one man and one woman. No one had risen to articulate a different view.

I had laboured to make the space safe and open. The participants in this course held diverse theological viewpoints; I had hoped that we could teach each other as we explored the topic. One of the three ‘S’s’ that shapes my teaching is space that respects the sanctity of the individual. In the first session, after I introduce myself and my assumptions (which include that all four sources of theology are of value and that each of us will weight those sources differently), I ask the group to create Rules of the Road: guidelines to enable respectful and searching conversation among people with diverse viewpoints. This group had included in those Rules:

  • Be open to where others come from; open mind – open heart

  • Disagreement is with ideas; respect the idea-holder

I view my educator role as providing information and making the space for participants to engage it and each other. When a viewpoint is expressed particularly strongly, I expect (or may ask for) opposing viewpoints to emerge from other participants. At the end of the first day in this course, in response to the strong statement articulating the traditional view, that had not happened. As I tossed and turned that night, I wondered if, in my striving to make the space safe for all, I had leaned too far in one direction.

At breakfast the next day, another participant approached and asked if he could talk to me. He said I’m really angry about how the class ended yesterday. I’ve been angry all night. I felt like I was being told that I was not a Christian. ‘Can you say more?’ I asked. He then told me his story: a story of a young man active in church struggling with his sexuality who, when he had his first sexual experience with another man, was full of self-loathing. He became strident in his opposition to homosexuality, as insistent as others had been the day before that sex was for married heterosexual couples….until he couldn’t bear the dissonance between what his heart knew and what he wished he could live up to. He told his vicar about his struggle – who promptly removed him from all church responsibilities and let him know that there was no room in the church for him. He continued to wrestle issues of sex and faith until he came to accept who he was and discovered a renewed and deepened faith that in time blossomed into a vocation for ministry. I asked him if he would be willing simply to tell his story at the start of the day’s class, and he said yes.

I began day two recalling that there are four sources of theology – scripture, tradition, reason and experience – and that they each had value and they each had problems. Three quarters of the first day had been spent mining the Bible and tradition for sexual attitudes and assumptions, and the class had come to understand that biblical sexual ethics are quite different from what we call Christian family values today. We had looked at ancient Hebrew culture, where women were considered domestic and sexual property, fertile women needed to bear five live children to replace their generation, and most births ended in death before the child reached its first birthday. Concern for procreation, property rights, and purity laws that kept the Hebrew people distinct from their Promised Land neighbours had created a sexual ethic that included polygamy, concubinage, levirate marriage, rules allowing rape in war with distant enemies, and the requirement that a rapist marry his Hebrew victim. We noticed the New Testament’s relative lack of concern about sexual matters and how a central message of the gospels was that people’s relationship was no longer determined by following physical purity laws, but by purity of heart: loving God and neighbour as self. We traced the development of Christian sexual ethics, shaped by the revulsion of the body present in late antiquity and dualistic and misogynist thinking, hearing Tertullian describe women as ‘the devil’s gateway’ and Jerome say ‘Blessed is the man who dashes his genitals against a rock’We noted how the development of Christian sexual ethics was a journey that attempted to modulate a basically negative view of sex by first finding it acceptable for procreative purposes and later a good for the sake of the communion of husband and wife. We then took a detour into contemporary times and heard what Freud, Jung, Kinsey, Fisher and others had to say about sex and love, its psychological importance and its neurological components. After all of this, we began to write and post on the wall theological principles that would enable us to think theologically and pastorally about sex. It was then that the strong statement was made, just minutes before the end of the day.

Now it was day two. I said that at the conclusion of the previous day, we had heard a strong articulation of a scriptural and traditional view of the place of sex in human life, and asked if there were any other viewpoints, perhaps drawing on other sources of theology. The man who had approached me at breakfast raised his hand and gently and simply told his story.

The impact of the story was to transform the space, opening and warming it. Others thanked him for his courage in sharing; there was acknowledgement by voices who held the “heterosexual marriage only” viewpoint that, while their opinions on the topic of homosexuality were strong, there was a need for pastoral sensitivity when dealing with this subject. That sensitivity was embodied by many and diverse people on diverse topics as the course progressed.

Whenever I teach in this area, I move from exploring scripture and tradition and identifying theological principles to the link between sexuality and spirituality. I said at the beginning that there are three ‘S’s’ that shape my teaching. The first is the setting up of a space that respects the sanctity of the individualThe second ‘S’ is structure: the course can be envisioned as a drama with three acts. Act One locates us as Christian people in the 21 century, reviewing biblical, traditional and contemporary views of sex and gender and teasing out theological themes that may help in thinking theologically and pastorally about sex. I begin with the Bible and tradition because whenever we deal with sexual issues in a church context, we bring our understandings of them, as well as our personal experience. We need to reflect critically on what the Bible and tradition actually say and what assumptions lie beneath those sources.st We then need to identify theological principles that help us to think about and respond to sexual issues.

The second Act of the drama introduces a new thought landscape, drawing on the link between sexuality and spirituality, and enables a new framework for Christian sexual ethics that affirms the goodness of the gift of sexuality. After a mini lecture about how both sex and spirit are operant in identity, development, relationship, creativity and transcendent experience, I ask the group to formulate a new framework for Christian sexual ethics: one premised not on procreation, property and ancient purity concerns, but rather on the aspiration to live out one’s sexuality sacramentally. Informed by the theological thinking in the first third of the course, the group articulates a holistic view of sex as gift and self-giving, using ‘thou shalt’ as a template. The lists generated come to include such things as: Thou shalt know, love, accept and become/be oneself; treasure the other and seek their flourishing; be faithful in relationship; be willing to learn to give and receive pleasure; nourish the fruits of the Spirit; be open to healing, transformation, grace and creativity.

Act Two also includes the opportunity to do autoethnographic work. One of the convictions I bring to this work is that that training for ministry must engage personal experience.2 Self-knowledge and self-awareness are key tools in enabling good ministry, which includes preventing sexual misconduct. Our personal knowledge of our own sexual experience and attitudes is subjugated, tacit knowledge.3Whenever I teach in this area, I invite participants to do reflective writing throughout the course– using oblique and not so oblique methods to enable them to uncover the experiences and attitudes that shape where they are in their sexual formation. Methods include: word-association; icon/image identification; reflective writing of prose and/or poetry; autobiographical ‘life lines’ for sexual and spiritual events; boundaried conversation. No one is required to share anything personal. Some do share personal information with the larger group, and some do not. In individual interviews conducted after the event, I have been struck by the identification of vulnerability and working through of early sexual experience those methods had facilitated.

In class, after giving time to work autoethnographically, I invite participants into pairs for a reflective listening exercise on the topic of ‘sexuality and spirituality’. In the plenary after the exercise, as the group reflects on what it is like to speak of such holy things and what it is like to listen, it is common for the room to be hushed and reverent as people acknowledge the privilege and the challenge of ‘hearing one another into speech’4.

Act Three takes us to the streets, addressing the nitty gritty of sex in ministry and enabling work with sexual issues, our own and those of others. The third ‘S’ guiding this work is most explicit here – Safety. Not just safety in the space opened up for honest exploration, but safety in the practice of ministry. One of the primary goals of this course is to enable people in the church to inhabit their vocations in a way that is healthy and safe for themselves and for their ministry settings. I became a church sex worker because of the shocking prevalence and potentially devastating impact of ministerial sexual misconduct: a Canadian study suggests that ministers transgress sexual boundaries with someone in their care at a rate of twice that of secular counsellors.5 I wanted to understand how better to prevent the suffering caused when ministers transgress sexual boundaries.

Thus the last third of the course works on safety in ministry: looking at boundaries, power, vulnerability and intimacy in ministry; considering the prevalence and impact of ministerial sexual abuse; and working with scenarios in pastoral ministry. Space is made to enable people to raise sexual issues in pastoral ministry. Issues that arise include pornography, sex addiction, marriage preparation, bereavement as a time of heightened sexual desire, youth work. The discussions I’ve witnessed have been frank, self-revealing and compassionate.

The final scene in Act Three is called taking good care, the focus of which is that self-knowledge, self-esteem, self-awareness and self–care are some of our most important tools in ministry. We look at the expectations of others in the ministry settings and our own, and labour to articulate how we may manage those expectations for the good of all.

At the end, I do a quick what worked and what could work better evaluation. Invariably people remark that the course should be required (if it is not already), that learning what the Bible and tradition really say is important, and that having a place in the church to struggle honestly and holistically with sexual issues is essential for these times.

The title of today’s exploration is Celebrating our Sexuality: Preparing Future Church Leaders for Pastoral Care. Good pastoral care is informed, sensitive and safe pastoral care. Good pastoral care is about the pastoral carer communicating in her body and by her words a sense of welcome and hospitality, and having at her disposal tools to enable light and space for sexual issues to be expressed and wrestled. The pastoral carer brings with her attitudes about Biblical and traditional sexual ethics and her own life experience, attitudes and experiences she has hopefully had an opportunity to work through. She also carries the imprimatur of church authority; she’s been given a role, a certification of approval, to hold these sensitive areas. She needs to be adequately prepared to wrestle scripture and tradition and know where she stands and why; to respond to contemporary understandings of sex and sexuality; to listen sensitively as others wrestle these questions themselves; and to articulate a holy and holistic ethic that enables the living out of sexuality sacramentally.

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