Sexual taste has long been considered a matter of, well, taste. But that was before sexual taste met the hot priest in the second season of Fleabag, now a widespread cultural lust object who can only be described as empirically, scientifically sexy.
Previously best known as the villain Moriarty in Sherlock, Andrew Scott plays the unnamed parish priest as flirty and funny, intuitive and intense. He curses and he drinks too much, but then again so does Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s eponymous Fleabag. They meet because he has agreed to perform the wedding for Fleabag’s father and his fiancée, and they click instantly. The scene in Episode 4 that electrified many viewers is brazenly transgressive: After a boozy late-night conversation, the priest invites Fleabag into the darkened confessional, listens to her as she unburdens herself, and then hoarsely issues the command that launched a thousand horny tweets: Kneel.
I am not the only one who gasped and fanned myself like a corseted 19th-century heroine at this moment. The New York Times called Scott a “pulse-quickening, knee-weakening sensation.” One website is selling a “prayer candle” illustrated with Scott in a black cassock and the word KNEEL. The website PornHub reported that searches for religious pornography spiked by 162 percent after the season premiere in the United Kingdom. Normally I would not repeat such a dubious statistic, but this one feels so true.
The heat comes from Waller-Bridge’s writing and from Scott’s lively, humane performance. It also comes from a new twist on the old trope of the sexually unavailable lust object. In an era in which it’s difficult to see sexual boundary-crossing as cute, a sexy priest in an adult, consensual relationship offers the promise of a victimless transgression. As the writer B.D. McClay put it in an astute essay in the Catholic journal Commonweal this week, “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.”
The hot priest is not a criminal, and the relationship is consensual. But McClay goes on to write that it is hard to view these scenes without thinking of much darker stories with the same outline: the history of priests sexualizing the confessional, and even committing assaults there. “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,” she writes.
If you believe in the sanctity of the priest’s religious vows, meanwhile, their relationship is not actually victimless at all. Unsurprisingly, then, other Catholic and Catholic-adjacent writers have taken a dim view of his behavior. An essay on the Anglican site Church Times called the priest “just another abuser.” “The Priest in ‘Fleabag’ Is Not Cool,” announced the headline on a National Catholic Reporter column by the Rev. Thomas Reese, a writer who happens to be a priest himself. Reese argues that the priest’s gravest error is not that he violated his vow of celibacy, but that he violates Fleabag’s needs as a parishioner. “Professionals deal with vulnerable people and should not exploit them,” Reese writes. “What Fleabag needed was a priest, not a lover.” It would be better, he argues, if the priest had “picked up a stranger in a singles bar.” On Twitter, some other clergypeople seemed to agree.
Indeed, religiously speaking, the priest errs in ways beyond just having sex with Fleabag. He is not a nice guy who happens to be a priest. Rather, he clearly places himself in a role of spiritual guidance over Fleabag. He gives her a Bible with bookmarks in the passages he wants her to read. He invites her into the confessional. He listens to her tearful unburdening, and then bursts in and kisses her. That is arguably spiritual abuse, no matter how equal their relationship. When they part a few episodes later, he forbids her from attending his church, cutting her off from God. Yes, she could simply attend another parish, but it is arguably disturbing for a church leader to banish a congregant because he is not emotionally equipped to see her in the pew. (There are other off-notes that may be overlooked as narrative license: A priest would not ask to hear a confession from a non-Catholic, nor is he likely to perform a marriage ceremony in a backyard, which the priest does for Fleabag’s father.)
But disapproving of a character’s behavior is not the same thing as disapproving of a television show. And in fact, mainstream Catholic objections to the show’s handling of the problematic priest are hard to find. Peter Stanford, a former editor of the Catholic Herald, concluded in a recent column that the complex relationship between the two leads is a “sympathetic—and arguably much needed—portrait of what it really is to be a Catholic priest.” The behavior of a fictional priest can pose no greater threat to the Catholic Church than the behavior of many of its real ones. Scott himself has spoken of being “damaged” by the church. The “hot priest” may struggle with his vows, but he is also compassionate, respectful, energetic, and a true believer. The priesthood has had plenty of worse representatives.