Infidelity in Marriage and in the Priesthood

Blaming clericalism and the Church’s teaching on sexual morality and celibacy for the sexual abuse crisis will not protect the priests and members of the hierarchy from further acts of abuse.

(Image: Lin Yu Xin |

Marital infidelity

Infidelity in the Sacrament of Marriage is one of the most challenging of all wounds to heal. Infidelity creates severe betrayal pain for spouses and children and, unless properly addressed, can result in marital separation, divorce, repeated unchaste behaviors and severe emotional and spiritual trauma in the loyal spouse and children,

In order for healing to occur, the causes of infidelity need to be clearly uncovered and decisions taken to engage in the hard work of overcoming them, so as to be loyal to one’s spouse and children and to lead a chaste life.

The origins of infidelity in Catholic marriages often arise from unresolved conflicts from youth and, to a lesser extent, from adult life. These include loneliness, low self-esteem, buried anger, mistrust and anxiety, selfishness and a lack of faith.

The sexually acting-out behaviors can be unconscious attempts to escape from intense emotional pain, or simple self-indulgence, with a belief that one is entitled to use another person as a sexual object. In addition, marital infidelity is of epidemic proportions today resulting from the use of pornography.

The resolution of the psychological and spiritual conflicts in the unfaithful spouse requires difficult and humble progress in self-knowledge and engagement in the hard work of growth in virtues and in grace.

The important effort to resolve marital infidelity is comparable to the valiant struggle for chastity in the priesthood.

Clerical infidelity

The present sexual abuse crisis, provoked by sexual infidelity by cardinals, bishops and priests, is a severe betrayal of the spouse of Christ, the Church. These priests were called and anointed to be loyal fathers and good shepherds and protectors of Christ’s Church. Instead, a multitude of confirmed reports exist about sexual abuse, primarily of adolescent males, as well as seminarians and adults.

The response to the crisis, with McCarrick as but one of many examples, has been profoundly weak and disappointing. The major cause of lack of clarity and truth is the refusal to recognize the scientific findings on the crisis that clearly identifies homosexuality in priests as a leading factor in the crisis.

As with the healing of marital infidelity, the origins of clerical infidelity need to be clearly uncovered. In my clinical experience with priests over the past forty years, major psychological conflicts from youth are similar to those of unfaithful spouses. After uncovering the origins, priests need to decide to configure themselves to the Lord, to teach, and then to live, the fullness of the Church’s truth on sexual morality. This teaching helps protect priests from relapses.

As with many unfaithful husbands, many priests, bishops and cardinals are attempting to deny their guilt and to even blame their spouse, the Church, for their infidelity. They claim the cause is clericalism. This rationalization is comparable to blaming marital infidelity on being married.

The sacrament of marriage, in which a spouse has an active loving and sexual relationship, does not protect someone with significant spiritual and psychological conflicts from engaging in infidelity. Nor will blaming the Church’s teaching on sexual morality and celibacy for the sexual abuse crisis protect the priests and members of the hierarchy from further acts of abuse.

Deep insecurities and rebellion against Humanae Vitae would seem to have led bishops and priests to give in to the unChristian moral views of the secular culture. As a consequence, their sense of entitlement and pretentious thinking has led some of them to communicate as though the Ten Commandments do not apply to them. For example, the term ”consensual” sexual behavior would seem to excuse unchaste activity between a cleric and another adult as quite legitimate.

So, the term ‘consensual behavior’ is nothing but an attempt to normalize immoral activity by priests and members of the hierarchy. Consensual immoral activity between adults is never okay. It is a grave offense in both the Sacraments of Holy Orders and Marriage.

Spiritual infidelity

Cardinal Gerhard Müller, the prefect emeritus of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith responded to the clericalism theory in a recent interview:

It’s very unjust against Jesus, who gave spiritual power and authority to the apostles and bishops, with their priests. The large majority of such abuses are not due to the sacrament of holy orders, but to sexual incontinence, a false understanding of sexuality, not respecting the Sixth Commandment.

In response to the failure of Church leaders to identify homosexuality as a factor, he responded:

I think they don’t want to confront the true reasons for sexual abuse of minors, of boys and young men, and want to make their own agenda. They’re against celibacy, against the Sixth Commandment, and therefore they instrumentalize abuse and this terrible situation for their own agenda.

Cardinal Müller also identified a root cause of the abuse crisis as the laxity in the 1960s and 1970s. “This goes back to the ‘60s and ‘70s,” Müller explained. ‘There was an [attitude that] Jesus preached love and we don’t need laws in the Church.”

He also expressed that the abuse crisis was caused by “absolute false politics” within the Church that allowed abusive clergy to remain in active ministry instead of facing the canonical penalties they deserved.

This harmful cover-up needs to end, and bishops who have enabled it should be asked to resign.

In these, as in other challenging times in the history of the Church, the laity has an important role through prayer, penance, and witness. Laity are not exempt from offering fraternal correction to priests and the hierarchy. This correction is particularly important when our shepherds reject the Lord’s teaching on any matter and encourage others to do so without direction or correction from the Vatican.

At the upcoming Vatican meeting on the clerical sexual abuse crisis of youth and adults may the Holy Father encourage priests and bishops to be loyal to the Lord’s teaching on sexual morality and bring to an end the terrible plague of infidelity through their chaste lives.

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About Richard Fitzgibbons, M.D. 5 Articles
Rick Fitzgibbons, M.D. is the director of the Institute for Marital Healing outside Philadelphia, has worked with hundreds of couples over the past 40 years and authored Habits for a Healthy Marriage: A Handbook for Catholic Couples (Ignatius Press, 2019). In 2019, Forgiveness Therapy: An Empirical Guide for Resolving Anger and Restoring Hope (APA Books, 2014), which he co-authored with Robert Enright, Ph.D., received the Benedict XVI Award for Expanded Reason in Research. He has written a number of articles on the crisis in the Church.


  1. Thank you Dr. Fitzgibbons. Well beyond time someone alluded to the reality — the correlation between these two rabid phenomena. It is all of a piece. Time to wake up, all of us, to the hideous cultural swamp we inhabit and to which we so often contribute unwittingly. We are living during a moral plague. A pandemic.
    This is not just a Catholic problem. It is not just a priest problem. It certainly is not a celibacy problem. It is a global problem. The consequences of Original Sin cannot be eliminated by pretending there is no sin, or that unbridled sexual self-absorption and expression is healthy thing. That is the vacuous message of the sixties carried through to today. Now we pay the price. It doesn’t come in one bill. It is a recurring charge and with interest.
    Our “global village” is inhabited by protracted adolescents addicted to their own self-gratification and it is only getting worse. Leaders in Church and society are the searing examples. The groundlings merely follow along and cheer, camouflaged in self-deceit and denial.

  2. Theodore McCarrick was ordained by Francis Spellman, who may have been an abuser himself (such is the allegation; I do not know if the truth will ever truly be known). This has been around much longer than the excesses of the 60’s and 70’s.

  3. Cardinal Muller is quoted as saying “…They’re against celibacy, against the Sixth Commandment, and therefore they instrumentalize abuse and this terrible situation for their own agenda.”

    And what is that agenda?

    In the 3rd century, Manichaeism came as a conglomeration (a “pluralism”!) of Christian elements, Gnosticism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and especially Zoroastrian dualism. To complete the package institutionally, Mani replicated the Catholic Church–with exactly twelve apostles and their successors, a hierarchy of priests and deacons, and even three facsimile sacraments.

    The “AGENDA” today, it would seem, is to do another Church replica. But why a duplicative replica when there’s the awaited efficiency of infiltrating and commandeering the Church itself?

    A church within a Church, and then elevate modern-day “consequentialism” above any pesky (“rigid, conservative, bigoted”) notions of INTRINSICALLY evil actions… as between “consenting adults” and such.

    So, in late February (beginning on the feast of St. Peter Damian, author of Gomorrah), is the real story for the sexual abuse summit NOT the compressed calendar (only four days), but rather that this very choreography IS the agenda, such that attention is stuck ever more permanently on the prophylactic of mere crisis management–new procedures to prevent/manage CONSEQUENCES, i.e., the (yes) horrible victimization of the young–while NEVER quite finding time to focus on the abysmal and intrinsic immorality (the what?) of the beast at all ages.

    Unspoken, surely for lack of time: the Christian vision so clearly understood for millennia and so recently taught in the Catechism and in Veritatis Splendor, and including with specific clarity (what’s that?) the “objectively disordered” nature of homosexual activity or of any sexual activity outside of marriage (as not recently mis-defined by the barbarians no longer outside the walls).

    The surprise desert in Amoris Laetitia was footnote #351; the surprise desert in the Youth Synod was unread paragraphs on undefined and un-vetted and diverse (?)”synodality”; and the surprise desert at the summit?….

    By calculated omission will it be the subliminal message of silence and of practical indifference toward anything but a deliberately myopic and “instrumentalized” proceduralism? Clericalism? Even the coincidental (?) upstaging of St. Peter Damian?

    Thank God all of this is just the wild imaginings of an uninformed layman (an “ordinary Catholic”).

  4. In my mind justice will not be served until the abusers and co conspirators are sentenced to time in prison like any other human being. What they did is criminal, and the church admitting this is sickening. We were lead to priests were good, holy, had a calling, beyond the common man. Now I see that what the crergy are actually above is the law. So sad

  5. The analogy of unfaithful spouses and unfaithful clerics is clear. Same roots but worse for the cleric because of his priestly ordination. Enough with belittling acts of infidelity! God deserves fidelity. The example of fidelity or the scandal of infidelity affects other people profoundly.
    When a Cardinal dismisses “consensual” sexual relations between clergy, he has a problem. While the Gospel says, “it would be better for him if a millstone were put around his neck and he was cast into the sea” perhaps that Cardinal and other members of the hierarchy would at least consider resigning from office.
    Please see Robert George’s article on Fidelity:


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