THE CELIBATES by James Kavanaugh


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Two Catholic priests--one a life-long celibate, the other a nonstop dynamo of copulation--struggle with the Vatican's dictates on priestly love-and-sex, from late-1940s seminary days to their late-1960s break from the Church. Ted Santek, a street-kid from Detroit's Polish ghetto, grows up as a brawling, wenching teenager--but after his girlfriend dies in a car accident (near-fatal for him too), Ted finds God and determines to spend his life helping the urban poor. How? By becoming a priest, a charismatic, beloved figure--part social worker, part activist, part spiritual guide--for his flock. Ted's lustiness never leaves him, however; he indulges in a decade of one-night stands, with only half-hearted attempts to abstain. Then, at 35, he adds Love to Sex when he meets shy, French-Catholic schoolteacher Angle: he's willing to quit the priesthood for her; she won't let him; he joins the Air Force as a chaplain, she enters a nunnery; they later reunite for secret quasi-marriage, split again when Angle demands motherhood. But finally Ted and Angle wind up together, with a baby on the way--while Ted still refuses to leave the priesthood, convinced that domestic/sexual love only makes him a better priest: ""his very vows had only been an excuse to avoid total love and joy. . ."" Meanwhile, in alternating chapters, we also follow the murkier story of Ted's seminary pal Gerry Beauvais--a withdrawn, insecure youth who retreats from the real world into Church music, remaining celibate with no effort whatsoever. But when Gerry is removed from a top Church-liturgy position and sent to a small-town parish (thanks to false rumors of sex with choirboys), his defenses break down: he suffers from severe, suicidal depressions; he discovers sexual desire for the first time, lusting after young housekeeper Peggy. (""He had never really been celibate because he did not know what celibacy was."") Still, though Peggy becomes his nurse/soulmate, Gerry now chooses celibacy--as does Peggy. And, despite Church persecution (because of the appearance of sexual union), Gerry, now open to real life, remains a priest, at least in his own mind. (An epilogue reports that Gerry committed suicide in 1980, after John Paul II's dogma-trumpeting visit to Chicago.) Unlike Andrew Greeley's priest/nun fiction, this fiat, lumbering novel--by the ex-priest author of A Modern Priest Looks at His Outdated Church--hammers away at a single issue, from an obvious viewpoint, throughout. There's no dramatic interaction between the two major characters, no one to present the arguments for a celibate priesthood (aside from deeply neurotic Gerry), and no real tension in the two separate, linear plot-lines, Some obvious appeal for readers who share Kavanaugh's rage, then, or those still titillated by priestly sex scenes--but too shallow and monotonous for a broad or sophisticated readership.

Pub Date: May 1st, 1985
Publisher: Harper & Row