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A Rebuttal to Sex and the Single Priest

priest_1THE NEW YORK TIMES, December 1, 2013

Sex and the Single Priest by BILL KELLER

Given that he long ago quit the Church, it is more than disingenuous for Bill Keller to cite the ancient corpse of his own Catholicism as grounds for critiquing priestly ministry or to belittle the celibate love realized by the majority of our clergy.  He admits that he surrendered “citizenship” in the Catholic kingdom and is no longer “subject to [the Church’s] laws.  Nevertheless, he would urge change to a law that speaks to priestly character and service like no other.  It would seem to me that he forfeited long ago any right to participate in this inner-church discussion about priestly celibacy and the prospect of married priests.

The catalyst for his article is his tenuous tie to a religious sister from his school days; and not surprisingly one that met and married a priest.  She gave up her veil and he took off his collar 41 years ago.  The writer of the editorial is very sympathetic to them and their story.  He is far less so to good priests and nuns who kept their vows.  While he contends that the couple remained within the embrace of Catholicism while he did not; I would argue that both defected, although his was the more honest breech.  John and Roberta Hydar simply went from being young dissenters to elderly ones.  He remarks that they participate in a spin-off community where priests are married, same-sex marriages are solemnized and women are ordained.  In other words, theirs is a faith community which claims a false Catholic pedigree and lives a lie— women playing priests, defrocked clergy feigning legitimacy without faculties, and blessing what God has deemed as perversion.  This is his ideal for the Church, even though he has personally stopped believing.  Note how quickly the spurning of the Church’s authority leads not only to violations of discipline but also to heretical teachings and practices.

Keller categorizes faithful Catholic priests as lonely men.  Certainly the celibate must be comfortable with “aloneness,” but this is not the same as loneliness.  Married men and women are not exempt from sometimes feeling lonely.  Such feelings are part of the human condition.  The Hydars recognize that change will not come in time for them.  However, I would argue that the types of change they anticipate will never occur.  The Church will never rewrite the moral code.  Such subjectivism flies into the face of divine sovereignty.  Further, their ecclesiology is not one of humility or dialogue but of arrogance and intimidation.  They and their associates mold themselves into their own magisterium, albeit without any protection from the Holy Spirit.  Roberta employs the jargon-expression that exposes their hypocrisy.  She says that “there is no stopping Her by the institutional church.”  One can make distinctions, but there is no real division between the Church as an institution and as a community of saving fellowship.  The Pope, cardinals, bishops, priests, deacons, men and women religious and the laity are all part of a single pie.  It cannot be sliced or diced.  There is no dissection.  Separated from Peter or the Pope and we have no Church.  The true “sensus fidelium” is not found in dissenters but rather in the men and women who give religious assent and filial obedience.

Despite words and symbolic gestures, the writer is not optimistic that Pope Francis will bring about substantial changes.  Given that he means a reversal to Church stances, I think he is correct.  Ultimately the progressive voices will be disappointed.  Artificial contraception, homosexual relations and priestesses will never find acceptance in the Church of Christ.  That is not to say that they will fail in finding a home somewhere else.  There are plenty of faith institutions founded by men and swayed by the fads of the day.

But next Keller hits the nail on the head when he states that celibacy is a separate case.  As a discipline this could be changed.  It may not be retroactive and these men would still have to profess an orthodox faith.  That would exclude many of the dissenters; but, they still have the freedom to jump ship for the passing raft of Anglicanism.

He speaks about the urgency to change the discipline without any appeal to the supernatural.  Rather, he references that mandatory celibacy is driving away good prospects, that the shortage is immediate and dire, that we need clergy with firsthand experience with family issues, and that we must counteract the clericalism that has enabled and sought to cover-up pedophilia.  After colluding with an ex-nun and an ex-priest, Keller next quotes Thomas Groome, another former priest, who observes that celibate priests are viewed by most people as “peculiar” and “not to be trusted.”  He says that of the hundreds of priests he has known; only three or four have lived a rich and “life-giving” celibacy.  Of course, the problem may have been that as an unhappy priest, himself, he hanged around with other discontents.  Most priests I know are happy and faithful to their promises.  This article is biased or tilted against orthodoxy from the very beginning.

Keller then tells us that celibacy is not a doctrine (true) but blasts it instead as “a cultural and historical aberration.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Historical studies reveal that many early priests lived in perfect continence with their wives.  The periodic celibacy of the Jewish priests became perpetual for Catholic priests.  Except for the national churches of the East, celibacy quickly became the ideal in the West.  We see decree after decree in its favor reaching a climax with the First Lateran Council (1123 AD).  Priestly celibacy was no oddity but the norm and a signature element in priestly character or identity.  It signified total dedication to God and to his Church.  His very flesh became an eschatological sign.  Celibacy was not a refusal to love but a more expansive way of loving, close to the heart and witness of Christ.  The aberration was the married priest, but without any negative judgment against the validity of his share in holy orders.  The crimes and scandals of our times are not due to celibacy but rather to a refusal to be faithful to this solemn promise or vow.  The charge that celibacy was instituted simply to safeguard Church properties against children and inheritance is a slur with only isolated substance.  The resources of the Church had to be protected, for sure, but the greater possession of the Church was the priest, himself.  Why demand celibacy only to those men who would be candidates for the episcopacy?  Roman Catholicism requires and both God and his people deserve such a single-hearted loving from all priests.

Keller says that the Church looks the other way in regard to priests who attempt marriage in parts of Africa and Latin America.  I cannot say for sure if there is a hesitance to censure these reprobates; but regardless, they are not free to marry and they place both themselves and their love-interests in mortal sin.  Why should we reward rebellion and sin?  The truth and objective morality is not open to the democratic process or human capriciousness.  This is not dissimilar from the “everyone’s doing it” argument that we so often hear in regard to fornication, cohabitation and artificial contraception.  It has also been employed in regard to self-destructive behaviors like drug use.  It is the poorest possible argument.  Indeed, it is no argument at all.

Archbishop Pietro Parolin could certainly state that priestly celibacy would be open for discussion; however, this should not imply that any change is in the offering.  Indeed, I would not be surprised if there is a tightening regarding future Catholic Anglican-use priests (particularly sons of the current married clergy) and a reiteration that the Catholic Eastern rites should not ordain married men for priestly service in this hemisphere.  Pope Francis is all about poverty; celibacy more than any other trait points to the rich man who was asked to put aside everything to follow Jesus.  Like the apostles, we leave everything and everyone else behind.  This mandated a special suffering for the married apostles.  In light of Christ’s example and the preference of St. Paul, the Church would spare its priests from struggling with divided loyalties and hearts.  It is sufficient that we have many married deacons.  There is no need to open the priesthood to married men. It is a fallacious assertion that it will turn around the shortage in vocations.  Many Protestant communities have married clergy and they also suffer from a lack of good vocations.  Married ministers have also not preserved them from scandals.

Keller returns to his dissenting couple and John (the ex-priest) says that most of those who left ministry would have stayed if celibacy had been made optional.  However, even in the Eastern model, men are married before ordination, not afterwards.  Had it been permitted, he and the thousands who left with him could still not get married and continue to serve as priests.  Note that the married Episcopalian priests who become Catholic clergy are ordained “absolutely” because Anglican orders are neither accepted by Catholicism as valid nor licit.  Priests who promised celibacy would be expected to keep their promises; just as married men would be required to keep their nuptial vows as they entered holy orders.  It would not be retroactive.  Another wrinkle in John Hydar’s contention is that a majority of those priests who left ministry for marriage have since divorced and many are remarried.  Why should we think that men who cavalierly break one promise will keep another?  In any case, John and many like him also espouse a false ecclesiology where legitimate authority is undermined.  They campaign for doctrinal heresies like priestesses.  Some of these men who left have seen their wives ordained so that they can feign the sacraments beside them.  There is no way for them to come back.  There is no viable path for them, except after a heartfelt repentance demonstrated by public renunciation of their falsehoods and their counterfeit ministry.  Such might allow them back into the pews but they would never again stand before the altar.  That ship has forever sailed.

Optional celibacy and married priests may become a future eventuality; but I hope not.  The writer laments that Roberta Hydar passed from cancer.  She will never see that day.  We can pray for her soul.  However, I would submit that most of the priests and the women for whom they left are elderly now.  It may be the wisdom of the Church that they pass away and their small pseudo-churches with them before the Church further explores this issue.  If we see optional celibacy, the candidates with be committed and obedient Catholics, homeschoolers, with large families, filled with traditional piety and practicing timeless objective morality.  They will be the right kind of men.  Their wives will accept the headship of their husbands and suffer much in knowing that their husbands belong more to the Church than to them.

The history of celibacy in the Church is no aberration.  Rather, it is a calling intimately connected with the vocation of priesthood.  It is a discipline that has doctrinal implications in the bridal imagery of Christ the groom to his bride the Church.  Every priest at the altar enters into this mystery.  Celibacy best preserves its meaning and realizes it.  Celibacy is not a man-made construct.  As with the transmission of the deposit of faith and the efficacy of the sacraments, the legacy of priestly celibacy represents a significant movement of the Holy Spirit in the life of the Church.  Christ does not fight his Church.  If a man is truly called, God will give him the gift of celibacy.

One Response

  1. The article claims that these defected priests would be allowed to fill in at Catholic parishes “with a wink from the archdiocese.” I doubt you would know about this case in particular, but could you fathom such a thing? I know the men are still considered priests, but I wouldn’t think faculties could be given and revoked so easily, still less with men who are (presumably) excommunicated.

    FATHER JOE:

    I know of no such cases. Attempting marriage would estrange a man from the Church. Indeed, even for priests in good standing to get faculties in another diocese requires all sorts of testimonies and episcopal approval. If a priest is living a double-life then I think the man needs to be exposed and removed. Maybe people in the pews presume that lawful authority knows more than it knows? If a priest is a disgrace, we have to insist (in the pews) that something is done. God’s people have a right to good, faithful and holy priests.

    Having said this, there are some churches which masquerade as Catholic when they really are not. Even here in the Washington/Baltimore area, we have independent rentapriests who have left to get married. They hire themselves out for weddings and other celebrations. However, they have no faculties to do so. They are scoundrels who fool people into thinking that everything is on the up-and-up. I have encountered couples seeking the baptism of a child, shocked to find out that their marriages are neither valid nor licit… all because of these “for pay” ex-priests! These fallen-away priests are purposely deceptive about their standing.

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