LIKELY TO BECOME a classic, sure to be controversial and sensationalized, Richard Sipe's recently published study of celibacy (''A Secret World: Sexuality and the Search for Celibacy'') is a pioneering, landmark study of the vow of celibacy as actually lived by a group of Roman Catholic priests.
The U.S. sample was analyzed during the quarter-century between 1960 and 1985 -- coincidentally, the era of a supposed )) sex revolution, and a time of radical clerical questioning of church authority on sexual matters. This was also the time when in the Roman rite more priests and seminarians than ever were making the conscious distinction between the ministry they desired and the ''package-deal'' requirement of celibacy which many felt was forced on them, even against their natural rights. (Vatican II itself recalled that the charism of celibacy is not demanded by the very nature of the priesthood.) Currently there are an estimated 19,000 U.S. priests who have left the ministry and married.
Richard Sipe, a Minnesota-born, Maryland-based psychotherapist, is himself a resigned Catholic priest who spent 18 years as a religious. His serious, scholarly and sympathetic study of those who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom (Matt. 19:12) is professedly not the fruit of a survey based on a standardized questionnaire and a representative sampling.
Self-described as an ethnographic search -- clinical, anecdotal, contextual -- rather than strict research, this volume builds on the in-depth self-revelations of 1,500 persons: 500 priests undergoing psychotherapy; 500 priests outside of therapy who shared their stories and their impressions in workshops, discussions and interviews; and a final 500 lay persons who as lovers, partners or victims had first-hand experience of the sexual behavior of individual priests. Sometimes, to be sure, the priests were more the victims.
(For the sake of perspective, it should be noted that the 1,500 priests directly or indirectly involved represent less than 3 percent of the more than 50,000 U.S. Catholic priests ministering during any given year since 1960.)
Insisting he has chosen to err on the conservative side, Mr. Sipe suggests:
* 20 percent of U.S. priests are at any given time involved in a more or less stable sexual relationship with a woman, or with sequential women in an identifiable pattern of behavior. Many of these clerics are devoted partners as well as successful and happy pastors. Obviously a priest need not be emotionally ill to have trouble with celibacy or to have decided against observing it.
* 20 percent have some homosexual orientation -- twice the presumed rate in the general population. Half of these are sexually active -- twice the rate of heterosexual priests. If present trends continue, the majority will be homosexual by 2010 A.D.
* 2 percent are pedophiles in the strict, clinical sense, that is, attracted sexually to prepubescents. Another 4 percent are preoccupied with adolescents. Not all of the 6 percent act out their inclinations.
* At any given time 40 percent are practicing at least the letter of the law of celibacy. Another 6 to 8 percent closely approximate the spirit of celibate love. After passing through the various emotional stages of celibate adjustment, a final 2 percent fully embody the true Gospel ideal: profound communion with the Transcendent, seen and loved in all creatures.
After 35 years in the priesthood, I must honestly say that these estimated celibate ''failures'' are considerably higher than my own estimates would have been. (I have no trouble agreeing with the author that most nuns and housekeepers are not sexually involved with priests). Statisticians will surely argue about the author's figures. But in any case these estimates comprise a very small part of this thorough volume, which offers in transit various complex theories of sexual identification, development and abnormalities.
Mr. Sipe believes that vowed celibates make unique contributions to civilization, and their struggles have much to teach the world about sublimation, and about sexuality in general. A major cause of these struggles is the fact that at the time of ordination many seminarians have not reached psychosexual maturity; they are sexually naive and possibly sexually repressed. There are unconscious, unhealthy reasons for embracing celibacy.
Typically priests are loving persons, preaching a gospel of love. ''Man being a loving animal, he tends to love those who are around him.'' Appealing in their idealism and quick to win delicate confidences, priests can suddenly find themselves amorously loved and clamorously in love. Priests who need and search for legitimate intimacy can unexpectedly find themselves the far side of the boundaries they intended to observe. Wounded healers, priests are not infrequently struck by the arrows of the mischievous Cupid and grow as bewitched, bothered and bewildered as anybody else with a heart and a sex drive.