Nov. 28 (Bloomberg) — Abbe Pierre, a 93-year-old prelate beloved by the French, swaps roles in the confessional booth to set the record straight in his iconoclastic book “Mon Dieu … Pourquoi?” (“My God … Why?” Plon, 105 pages, 13 euros).
Yes, the cleric admits, he occasionally had sex. Yet there’s more going on here than the “sex confessions” of a “living saint,” as Britain’s Guardian newspaper put it.
Abbe Pierre, who took part in the French resistance during World War II, has written a brief yet unquestionably brave book. Co- written with author Frederic Lenoir, it will probably be embraced among those Roman Catholics who would like to allow priests to be married and women to be ordained.
The international press has focused on a single page in the book, in the chapter “Sexual Desire and Chastity.” There the bearded cleric says his vow of chastity and devotion to God left him leading “the life of a captive.” Then he looses his bomb.
“That does not in any way lessen the force of lust, and I occasionally, and in passing, gave in,” he writes.
“But I never had a regular relationship, because I did not allow sexual desire to become rooted. That would have led me to conduct a lasting relationship with a woman, which would have conflicted with my life choice.”
The cleric gives no details about his liaisons, writing only that he indulged himself very rarely. The sex he did have brought him little, and was “a real source of dissatisfaction, because I felt that I was not being true to myself.”
Reverence and Lipstick
Over the years, Abbe Pierre has come to embody the spirit of France and its uneasy relationship with the Catholic Church. Devout and highly rational, he has repeatedly challenged Vatican doctrine. He has thrown himself into humanitarian work, founding the Emmaus movement that has provided thousands of homeless people with shelter and jobs, both in France and abroad.
The cleric routinely finished first in a regular IFOP-Journal du Dimanche survey on the top 50 personalities in France, until he asked in 2003 to be excluded from the ranking.
Not surprisingly, his confession has made waves. Soon after the book was released, French weekly L’Express published a cover photo of a priest with lipstick on his cheek under the headline, “The Church and Sex.” Inside was a package of three main articles and five sidebars.
Abbe Pierre “in his disturbing, sometimes moving way, has reopened the debate on the Catholic hierarchy’s contradictions vis a vis sex,” wrote L’Express Editorialist Jacqueline Remy.
The coverage featured a piece on the secret children of French Catholic priests. It told the story of 10-year-old Mathieu, born to a West Indian woman and a prelate who refused to recognize his paternity until hauled into court.
For churchmen like Mathieu’s father, Abbe Pierre recommends marriage. Jesus, he writes, had both married apostles like Peter and unmarried disciples like John. Marriage is acceptable for priests in the Eastern Orthodox Church and in the Maronite and Coptic Catholic sects, he adds. The Vatican’s rejection of married priests “does not hold up,” he says.
On the subject of women priests, the cleric is even more indignant than some women might be. “Who can still argue that women are inferior to men, or incapable of teaching or governing?” he asks.
Barring women from the priesthood reflects a “macho mentality” that prevailed in Mediterranean countries during early Christianity, the cleric writes. “It is hard to see why today, when mentalities have evolved deeply on the subject, the Church should stay faithful to this prejudice,” he says.
Though Abbe Pierre has long questioned such church taboos, this book pushes his arguments further. At one point, for example, he discusses the possibility that Jesus may have been intimate with Mary Magdalene, an idea Dan Brown popularized in “The Da Vinci Code.” The cleric also questions why the “completely human” Virgin Mary “should have had the privilege of escaping” original sin.
He also challenges the role of politics in the Catholic Church. In the early days of Christianity, the church was separate from the state, he argues. The two got mixed up only when Christianity became the state religion of Rome. “The papacy remains too powerful, and it still is a reflection of the Pope-Emperor,” the cleric writes.
His criticism isn’t confined to the Vatican. Abbe Pierre ends his book by drawing a parallel between the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and the “revolting” crusades of the Middle Ages.
“There have been so many lies behind the great speeches about freedom and democracy, so much blood spilled by innocent civilians,” he writes, “so many crass political and economic calculations, that one cannot help but say that history, alas, is repeating itself.”
Abbe Pierre voices hopes that Pope Benedict XVI will prove more open-minded as pontiff than he was as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. Benedict, he predicts, will allow divorced and remarried Catholics to receive Holy Communion and will permit married men to become priests.
Still, his confession and his call for local Catholic churches to be “freed of the tutelage of Rome” is unlikely to win him friends inside the Walled City.