Celibacy and the Priesthood.

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I was saddened recently to hear the extremely disturbing news of a priest who has recently decided to leave the priesthood to take up with an 18 year old girl. I’m not sure when the girl’s 18th birthday was, but I do know this is not a decision that would have happened over night. I understand he began thinking of leaving several months ago. How long were they involved before he decided to officially leave the priesthood? When did she turn 18?

It does raise the alarm bells for some extremely serious safeguarding issues that I very strongly hope are being fully investigated by his Bishop. God only knows what her parents are going through right now.

My hope is that he has the best intentions for this girl and has decided to do the right thing by her and marry her. Perhaps the obvious age gap will not cause a problem? Who am I to judge? After all she is an adult now – just, and legally able to make her own decisions. But then again, at 18, I was extremely naïve and vulnerable and an older man did take advantage of me.

I hope that his Fatherly background will ground them both solidly in the understanding of God’s plan for marriage and family and they will be able to live out this extremely important vocation for the rest of their lives. I hope he is making chastity a priority right now. But then again – I hear he is a supporter of gay marriage, and other equally false theological notions.

Somehow, his dodgy theology and his dodgy actions seem to complement each other perfectly. The man needs prayers. And so does that 18 year old kid.

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I’ve had long discussions recently regarding priestly celibacy. Personally I think it is a difficult argument to make when I see married Anglican convert priests often doing a better job than some of the celibate priests I know. These men are living proof that the duality of vocations is possible, and many of them describe the two vocations as complimenting each other rather than opposing:

“I am a Catholic (Anglican convert) priest, with lots of children, and a long happy marriage. My parish has 1,000 parishioners on a Sunday who appear very happy and cared for. I work extremely hard at both vocations and I understand the celibacy discipline. But my vocations aren’t in competition but are complimentary to the other. I not less committed to either. Both have sacramental graces and responsibilities attached to them.

I have a wife who is 100% behind me and children who are gracious in sharing me. It’s all of grace and I claim no power in it. I have to rely fully on God and listen to my wife, children and parishioners. It’s not always easy but when is either marriage or priesthood easy? It’s grace.”

However the beauty and incredible witness of celibacy are not to be overlooked:

“Besides all the practical benefits of a celibate priestly class there’s something even more important. The world is obsessed with sex and its advertisement, for the world it is the be all and end all. Celibacy shows the radical nature of the Faith, without it, not just the priesthood, but the whole faith would become something bland. It would be seen as just another part of life, when it is supposed to be life.

There’s also the added advantage of dealing with people that are having difficulties in relationships e.g., I was talking to a man suffering from SSA the other day and was able to talk to him about the heroic virtues without looking two faced. In other words, “We priests and religious can live life without sex or emotional relationships that involve intimacy and God will give you the grace to do it too!” It would be a very different case if I was married with four children.”

The fact that the other rites within the Catholic Church successfully have married priests and the fact that our Roman rite has not always required celibacy also makes the argument for celibacy more difficult. It would be naïve to think that the celibacy requirement did not have a lot to do with keeping money within the church rather than it going to widows of priests – but I’m sure the Roman Church would never be so materialistic, would it?

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I guess the best explanation I can understand is that a priest is called to love all equally with everything he can give, and in this way he is required to forgo exclusive relationships. I guess several decades ago when priests lived in community this would be good. The community would be the ‘family’ of the priest and stop him from having to endure isolation and all the temptations that come with that. But nowadays priests are more and more living alone. I’m not sure this is a good thing. Jesus always sent the disciples out in pairs, He didn’t expect anyone to go it alone.

And then there are the wonderful ex-priests I know who left to get married. Given the chance I know they would still be excellent priests today. Their decision to leave must have been agonising.

There is also the issue of older Deacons whose families have grown up and left home. They are already successfully dedicating themselves to their parishes. Would it not be reasonable for them to become Fr’s if they felt the calling? I know of one such deacon who did just this after his wife died. His adult children support him totally. But this situation is of course completely different to that of a young man with young children.

The jury is out for me on the issue of priestly celibacy. I can see major benefits and disadvantages to both states. And after all, it is a discipline not a doctrinal issue which means that it can be changed at any time. But I must say that I hold the deepest respect for those of you who are celibate priests, and who have given everything to serve God’s church. I pray for you everyday.

I must also make it crystal clear – in my eyes, an adult male leaving the priesthood to be with an 18 year old kid has very little to do with the issue of celibacy, and much more to do with the issue of sexual abuse.