In the second season of Fleabag, Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s black comedy about modern urban life, the titular character strikes up a friendship—really, a barely sublimated sexual interest—with a Catholic priest. One evening, she visits his church to pray, but stumbles instead across the (somewhat intoxicated) priest. He takes her into a confessional, where she begins to name her sins (premarital sex, sodomy, and so on) and then segues into confessing something she’s genuinely ashamed of:
I want someone to tell me what to eat, what to like, what to hate, what to rage about, what to listen to, what band to like, what to buy tickets for, what to joke about, what not to joke about. I want someone to tell me what to believe in, who to vote for, and who to love, and how to tell them. I just think I want someone to tell me how to live my life.… And I know that's why people want people like you in their lives. Because you just tell them how to do it.
The priest commands her to kneel; she does. He then comes to her side of the confessional, and kisses her.
The dominant reaction to this scene is that it’s “really, really hot,” so hot that the priest himself (who is known only as The Priest) is known on the internet as The Hot Priest. Power, control, submission, ritual, and costumes are all hot, at least on a screen. Fleabag embodies, in this moment and in others, what Kierkegaard describes as “feminine despair”—the desire to lose oneself through devotion to another person, or, failing this, through suicide. And who has not felt the desire to dissolve into another human being?
For an audience seeking a morally ambiguous relationship that they can still enjoy—a rarity in an era of sexual ugliness being dragged into the light—Fleabag and The Priest hit the spot. He’s violating his vows, sure, but who really believes in them these days anyway? And how often do we now get to enjoy the drama of a well-suited couple renouncing each other for a higher purpose? You can only rewatch Brief Encounter so many times.
Yet I couldn’t view this scene without thinking of a few things. One, there is in fact quite a long history of the confessional being sexualized in just this way (in real life, one imagines, it is less hot—for one thing, confessionals are not very accommodating spaces). Two, there are many, many cases in which sexual violence is still carried out in the confessional or other spiritual contexts. Nuns are raped when they confess their sins. A priest rapes a woman at a private Mass intended to celebrate their “mystical marriage.” The Pennsylvania Grand Jury report includes the following story (not the only one that involves the confessional):
Flohr’s final act of sexual abuse against the victim occurred in November 1969, when Flohr allegedly took the victim into the confessional of the Immaculate Conception church and began kissing him and tied him up with rope into a “praying position.” The victim began to scream, so Flohr tried to silence him by forcing his penis into his mouth. “When the [victim] refused the priest allegedly became angry and sodomized the [victim] with a crucifix approximately 7"x 5"x 1" in size.” Flohr then stated that the victim was a “bad boy” and let him go. Following this incident, the victim deliberately set the church carpet on fire.
Is it fair to bring all of this context to Fleabag? Perhaps not, but I don’t see how it can be avoided. The show nods to the sex-abuse scandal at least once. The Priest certainly fits in with, and I think is meant to suggest, stories about Catholic priests (like, for instance, The Power and the Glory) who are, in one way or another, trainwrecks. But I’ll admit that while I’ve always drawn a certain degree of comfort from the literary figure of the broken priest, my relationship to it has also become much more fraught—and not only because of the sex-abuse crisis. There is no way to discuss sexually active priests without considering the ways in which the priestly role can attract not only people who are abusive, but also people who might think that being a priest can contain them in ways that prove inadequate.