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Sonnenberg: Why I Get Relationship Advice from a Celibate Man

(Photo by Zach Nguyen)


Most people ask their friends and family for relationship advice and try to learn from couples that they admire — couples who have been there, done that and survived the hard times. I get relationship advice from all of these sources, too, but the best advice I’ve ever received actually came from my celibate priest. I don’t say this because I have some internalized misogynistic sense of needing a male authority figure to tell me what to do. I go to him for advice because he understands romantic relationships. Even though he himself will never get married or have kids, his bird’s eye view of relationships, his understanding of the importance of spirituality in all areas of life and his experience in counseling couples means that he is able to help me think about relationships in a way that no internet advice column would ever be able to do.

Bird’s Eye View

The idea that a man who will never have sex is qualified to give romantic relationship advice is a bit counterintuitive. Even some Catholic clergy don’t think that celibate priests are qualified to give relationship advice. Cardinal Kevin Farrel, the prefect of the Vatican’s Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life, said in an interview with an Irish Catholic magazine that “[priests] have no credibility; they have never lived the experience; they may know moral theology, dogmatic theology in theory, but to go from there to putting it into practice every day … they don’t have the experience.” In this view, we can only give advice about things with which we have direct experience. I agree with the idea that experience is good, especially when it comes to relationships — after all, that’s why I ask advice from couples I admire. With that said, I strongly disagree with Cardinal Farrel because he mischaracterizes priests’ lack of experience in relationships as a lack of understanding.

I go to my priest, Father Lukasz Misko OP, for advice because he helps me understand the basics of being in a relationship in a way that is impossible to do when I’m immersed in the real-life experience of a relationship. I asked him for his thoughts on why he, as a celibate man, is qualified to give relationship advice and his answer contradicted Cardinal Farrel by emphasizing the importance of not being in a relationship himself:

“Obviously being a celibate man, a Catholic priest and a member of the Dominican order which includes a vow of chastity, I don’t date anymore,” Misko said. “As a celibate man, I really have to study my desires and needs and emotions even more, in a sense because I don’t follow them right away. I don’t satisfy every single desire of mine in the area of sexuality, of intimacy, of romantic expression. The Catholic wisdom is not about suppressing those or denying those, but rather reclaiming them as a gift from God who wanted us to be drawn to each other. Then, because I spend more time in a prayerful, kind of contemplative approach to how God is moving with his grace through my human needs and desires and longings, I think I have a certain deeper understanding of what those things really mean.”

I would go so far as to say that a celibate person is the most qualified to help people examine the basics of relationships because they study the human experience in a profound way because of their oaths to not act on their desires. In my own experience, I’ve learned more about my own “human needs and desires and longings” by talking about them with a person who doesn’t act on his own than I have by talking about them with my friends or family.

Spirituality in Everything

The second reason I get relationship advice from my celibate priest is that my spirituality impacts every area of my life, including my relationships. Misko summed up my view on the integration of human life when he said, “Now, obviously we don’t live in a vacuum, right? As humans, we always are in different interpersonal relationships — family, friends, co-workers and so on. So it’s impossible to imagine that your spiritual life is somehow an exception from that network of relationships and network of factors that impact the way we see ourselves and we see the world, and potentially we see God.”

My faith impacts my relationship by informing my ideas about the purposes of relationships, the ways that couples connect to their families and communities and, of course, sexuality. It impacts how I treat everyone in my life and affects how I show other people that I love them. I go to my priest not to have him tell me what to do, but rather to hear what my faith teaches so that I can be informed when I make decisions about my relationship. As Misko describes his role, “I don’t tell [couples] what to do. I try to help them interpret their own desires and needs and of course, being a priest, I do that through the lenses of Catholic imagination, Catholic faith — not just the morals, you know the morals are a tiny part, but the whole big image of what it means to be human, what it means to be masculine or feminine, to be drawn to each other.”

What it means to be human, what it means to be masculine or feminine — those aren’t questions you’d usually hear from someone giving relationship advice. For me, however, they are the most important questions to consider when trying to get to the root of problems in a relationship and I want to consider them from a faith-based perspective. Misko thinks that few people think about relationships in this integrated way, but he thinks that they should.

“Among the population of the University of Utah, probably a tiny minority of students would ask their minister, priest, rabbi for some sort of spiritual perspective. I think they should! It’s just for that wholeness of our human experience, of spirituality and the set of morals that we have — whatever your spiritual background — it has to be incorporated, otherwise, we live in a kind of weirdly cracked personality, like there’s some lack of harmony in our experience.”

It’s Free!

The least important reason I go to my celibate priest for relationship advice is also the most practical — it’s totally free and comes with years of experience. The U Counseling Center offers couples counseling, but difficulties with scheduling may prevent the members of the relationship from getting individual counseling through the Counseling Center. On the other hand, talking to a priest or other spiritual leader is free and most are happy to help young people learn about relationships and their spiritual dimensions. This is especially true because many spiritual leaders or clergy have extensive experience in counseling couples and many actually have advanced degrees in counseling. Misko, for example, has assisted with preparing couples for marriage for years. He’s counseled people who have experienced everything from teenage heartbreak to a spouse of decades dying after a long illness. He may be celibate, but he is experienced at guiding and advising people in all stages of their relationships.

It’s Not Weird

Believe it or not, talking to a priest about my relationship isn’t as awkward as it sounds. Misko and I are friends of the “drink beer and talk about the mysteries of the universe” variety, so it’s easy for me to talk to him. Usually, I’ll find him in Cate’s Cafe or the Newman Center’s free coffee shop and tell him what’s happening in my life. Other times, I’ll go to his office and rant in private. Regardless of where I find him, he always listens, helps me get to the root of my problem and usually offers me a beer. Father Lukasz’s combination of a bird’s eye view of relationships, integration of spirituality and years of experience has served me well in my relationship and his advice is so solid that my agnostic boyfriend doesn’t even mind that I get relationship advice from a celibate man.

I am active in my church, so it is easy for me to ask my priest to counsel me, especially since we are friends. Not everyone has that type of relationship with their spiritual leader or has one at all, but for those who do belong to a congregation, of whatever faith or spirituality, I highly recommend asking a spiritual leader for advice, guidance or general thoughts on what it means to be in a relationship.

This article is part of the Poynter College Media Project. Click here for more stories and information on the topic “Are U Mormon?”

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