Is the priest a man like other men?

Compulsory celibacy perceived as toxic; spectacular coming out and outings in the Vatican; sexual and sexist violence scandals hushed up by the Church, but also refusal to ordain women and political struggles against any recognition of homosexual conjugality and parenthood… So many reasons to question the Catholic clergy’s masculine authority in Western societies, which have become greatly secularized. Is the priest – that man who sometimes wears the cassock, who swears to renounce all sexuality but gives the impression of dictating others’ sex-lives – a man like any other?

However anecdotal it may be, Catholic priests’ masculinity and the tensions that currently affect it offer a unique vantage point for observing ongoing changes in Western societies’ gender and sexuality. These societies have been transformed from within since the 1960s by what Éric Fassin, a sociologist specializing in gender studies, calls “sexual democracy”. He means that the scope of the democratic debate has been extended to question gender and sexuality norms that were previously perceived as natural. The more the Church rejects such a transformation and its consequences, the more it runs the risk of drawing attention to the particular sexuality and gender of its representatives – priests –, even while numbers have plummeted.

  • Tricou J., 2021, Des soutanes et des hommes – Enquête sur la masculinité des prêtres catholiques, Presses Universitaires de France

Josselin Tricou is a member of the ISSR, University of Lausanne :

The Catholic “displacement” as to gender

The masculinity standards the Church imposes today on its priests, which dictate their conduct and justify it to themselves, result from a long history. It began with the 11th century Gregorian reform, which imposed celibacy and forbade priests to carry weapons, in order to set them apart from the lay faithful.

These norms were radicalized with the Council of Trent (1545-1563), which identified the priest with the sacrifice of Christ and made his person sacred, as opposed to the emerging figure of the Protestant pastor. Hence the concept of “sacerdotal priesthood” to define his mission. These norms were finally democratized at the Church grassroots during the 19th century, with the rise of popular recruitment and the magnification of the countryside “simple priest”.

This “sacerdotal priesthood” then crystallized into a real counter-model, constructed in a way that was out of step with – and even in opposition to – the masculinity models promoted by liberal bourgeois societies. In France particularly, republican ideology consequently perceived it as a threat. Let us recall that such a threat, notably fear of clerical control over women, legitimized, at that time, refusing to extend the right to vote to women.

Since then, priestly masculinity has become atypical of the culturally dominant masculinity models, despite their evolution. It is characterized, in fact, by the exclusion of priests from sexual and matrimonial activities, but also in part from military, political and economic pursuits

Now, these are all central practices in the construction and legitimization of male domination. Still in accordance with this priestly masculinity, priests are invited to practice values coded as “feminine”: care for others, non-violence or humility in particular. Not to mention wearing the cassock, a functional dress that the Church definitively imposed on its representatives in the mid-19th century, precisely when the dress was becoming the exclusive mark of the feminine as opposed to trousers (even though, today, wearing the cassock has become increasingly rare in favor of the clergyman’s suit, of Anglo-Saxon origin, which has only kept the collar).

Owing to this priestly particularity, the structuring of Catholicism has produced a “displacement” of the gender order – a “trouble” or a wobble, as is said of what has caused a blurred photograph. I mean it is a local variant of the way Western societies distinguish and order gender and sexuality. Now, this “trouble” in gender can seem doubly paradoxical, all the more so in a context of intense politicization of gender and sexuality issues:

First paradox: while the Church presents itself more than ever as the great defender of the naturalness of the sexes and of human beings’ universal orientation towards heterosexuality, it has institutionalized two models of masculinity for men: on the one hand, the married layman, which corresponds to this discourse and is therefore presented as natural; priests, on the other hand, who “supernaturally” break away from this universal orientation and from the division between traditional gender roles.

The second paradox is that the Church institutionalizes a hierarchy of masculinities that is inverted vis-a-vis the one that structures the societies it is embedded in. It gives precedence to atypical priestly masculinity over lay masculinity, which is considered normal.

The downgrading of priestly masculinity

First phenomenon: what I have called, with a touch of irony, a “symbolic emasculation” of the priestly male figure since the 1960s. I mean, the plausibility of the priestly ideal has lost ground in terms of gender and sexuality in today’s cultural and social representations. French cinema has provided an observatory for this evolution. Through these transformations, we can only observe that our contemporaries are gradually viewing the Catholic “discrepancy” in terms of gender as a “trouble”, (to use the title of J. Butler’s famous work, Gender trouble). A trouble that is today all the more heightened by the worldwide wave of exposing sexual and sexist violence perpetrated by some clergy members – it is even troubling the ranks of the catholic faithful.

Second phenomenon: at the heart of the institution, lies what I have called the “great cross-over of sexualities at vestries’ doors”. The desertion of heterosexuals in the 1970s, after the disaffection of the working classes for the priesthood in the 1960s, has led to an increase, within the Catholic clergy, in the proportion of homosexuals born and raised in a conservative bourgeoisie. This change has thrown the ecclesial “closet” into crisis since the 1990s. Until then invisible, even to those concerned, this social function of the clerical body – a refuge for non-heterosexuals – became transparent to itself.

The many homosexual clerics are, in fact, more tempted than ever to acknowledge themselves as such, in societies where the normalization of homosexuality is rampant. Worse, the “inversion of the homosexual issue” (É. Fassin), which today leads to indicting homophobia rather than homosexuals, as well as to the legal acceptance of homosexual conjugality, threatens to throw a spanner in the works of that latest social mechanism that makes priesthood attractive in secularized societies.

Such a risk of stalling has forced the Vatican to develop an explicitly homophobic policy, both internally (the official 2005 decision to prohibit ordaining candidates “with deep-seated homosexual tendencies” and/or “promoting the so-called homosexual culture”) and externally (via campaigns against the “gender theory”), in order to maintain the need for the closet – no longer guaranteed by some State homophobia.

However, the more the Church affirms its outrageous homophobia, the more it risks drawing attention to its internal homophilic stance, especially within the old religious orders, where relative tolerance towards its members’ homosexuality has been established, which contrasts with the institution’s discourse.

French Catholicism face to the institution’s inconsistencies

While both these phenomena have not failed to be addressed by the clerical hierarchy’s top echelons, they have also stirred grassroots reactions, at least within one of the two poles that are currently structuring French Catholicism.

French Catholicism has been concerned by it becoming a minority and is, indeed, caught up in a double dynamic: firstly, a polarization dynamic with respect to the rest of society between a “an outreach / inclusive pole” and an “identity pole” – according to Philippe Portier’s categories; secondly, an “archipelago dynamic”, that is to say, an internal fragmentation due to the multiplication of affinities and autonomous communities within it.

Now, at the level of the three main “islands” in that “archipelago” that constitutes the “identity pole”, attempts have systematically been made to counter the decline in priestly masculinity. Each of these “islands” has, in fact, implemented real masculinity policies on their own scale.

The first “island” is the so-called “restitutionist” communities, which aim to restore to the Church the form that used to make it great. These communities have produced a virilist policy that consists in turning out “real” priests – hence the return of the cassock – while nevertheless presenting themselves as virile through a number of typically masculine practices, and as such, seeking to escape suspicions of effeminacy or homosexuality.

The second “island” is the so-called “charismatic” communities in which both priests and married lay people live together. These communities have produced a redifferentiation policy, which consists in proposing pastoral activities in non-mixed groups in order to deepen each of the two sexes’ gender identities. The priests who have initiated this policy – availing themselves of the aura of the lay psychologists, managers or coaches they surround themselves with to lead these events – can thus appear as experts on lay masculinity (or femininity) without actually performing it.

A third, quite distinctive policy, is found with the parish priests implanted in the third “island” of this identity Catholicism, namely the bourgeois Catholic bastions such as Versailles. This liberal-conservative policy means these priests adopt an entrepreneurial posture and assert their role as a political authority. Their priesthood’s symbolic “productivity”’ depends, in fact, on an old bourgeoisie of notables, a clientele that is both conservative and troubled by the demands of adaptation to neoliberalism and globalization.

In this context, Catholic roots are converted into an ingredient of French identity, as is the “whiteness” put forward by these priests – invisibilizing in fact the foreign priests, essentially of African origin, who today represent 1/3 of active priests on the national territory. These ensure the perpetuation of the “public service” of the sacred in these bastions’ peripheries

The Church, an inverted figure of sexual democracy?

Although there are, obviously, heterosexual priests, and though of course, some priests, be they homosexual or heterosexual, fight against homophobia, the Catholic clergy sounds overwhelmingly obsessed by homosexuality. Moreover, in their discourse, they often reduce gender to sexuality and masculinity issues to the need for providing proof of heterosexuality. However, this homosexual, or homophobic, obsession (it’s all one) is the other face of the sexual and sexist violence denial that is being so forcefully denounced in Western societies.

Finally, the Church offers an inverted figure of sexual democracy: while Western societies see homosexuality less and less as a problem, it is precisely what matters most to them. And while the matter of sexual consent is increasingly becoming the nodal criterion of all sexuality, it remains to a great extent absent from the Church’s concerns.

The second remark, which follows from the first, is that the cover-up of sexual violence committed within the Church is not so much a matter of repression as of a profound misunderstanding and disinterest. Actually, masculinity erected as a sexual problem blinds this world women are excluded from, in the face of the seriousness of such violence and the issues it raises. At the very moment when this violence is becoming socially unbearable and its denunciation is shaking the patriarchal model implicit in the whole of society, it remains, for many priests, a secondary, peripheral problem, viewed according to criteria foreign to their contemporary understanding.

Although many people no longer confuse pedophilia and homosexuality as they used to, they still have difficulty distinguishing conceptually and morally between a consensual but illicit sexual practice under ecclesiastical rules such as homosexuality and the perpetration of sexual violence. The clergy is only just beginning to take the measure of this transformation of norms, so much so that the Church has constituted itself in reaction against it.

In fact, the institution regularly denounces modern societies’ “moral relativism” – according to the expression coined by Pope Benedict XVI – without realizing that sexual democracy does not spell the end of all ethical requirements in gender and sexuality matters, quite the contrary in fact. Should we be surprised? The few whistleblowers among the clergy who speak out against sexual violence are often also those who denounce systematic sexism and homophobia in the Church.

Last remark: part of the Catholic hierarchy’ identity-based withdrawal places the French Catholic Church in a reaction against sexual democracy, but also against racial democracy. Gender and sexuality, as already seen, intersect with class, with the rise in power of a bourgeois Catholicism that was exhibited during the Versailles revenge of “La Manif pour tous”. It also turns out that this national Catholicism is white – implicitly or explicitly, depending on the moment.

In this sense, the Catholic Church is not apart from the world: it participates in a general, both sexual and racial, reaction context, which involves emphasizing the national dimension, a paradox for an institution that claims it delivers a universal message.

Illustration by Adèle Huguet for Mondes Sociaux: CC BY-NC-ND
To discover her drawings,

Images in CC : Freepik, surang


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OpenEdition vous propose de citer ce billet de la manière suivante :
Josselin Tricou (16 octobre 2023). Is the priest a man like other men? Mondes Sociaux. Consulté le 24 juillet 2024 à l’adresse

Josselin Tricou

Université de Lausanne, Membre de l’ISSR (

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