Several voices — high-ranking clerics among them, including the Archbishop of Munich and Friesing and President of the German Bishops’ Conference, Cardinal Reinhard Marx — have proposed considering a change in the discipline of secular clergy in the Latin Church, which currently prohibits ordaining married men to the priesthood.
While I think we do need to have a serious conversation about clerical celibacy in the Latin West, this essay does not purpose to consider the merits of that proposal. Before that we need to have a serious conversation about the whole clerical culture in the Church, secular and religious, East and West.
Two things have conspired to convince me of the need for such a conversation: First, the unequivocal failure of bishops to grasp the nature of the evil that plagues the Church; Second, the unhealthy docility among the lower ranks of the clergy (especially, though not only, the secular clergy), which has the effect of perpetuating a preference for silence and a mentality of “going along to get along” throughout the whole clerical body.
We are told that celibacy frees the priest from worldly attachments, thus facilitating his undivided attention to the service of the Gospel. Nevertheless, I have heard too often over the past year, that a cleric aware or suspicious of all manner of wrongdoing within the body of the clergy in the jurisdiction of his belonging, could not go on the record for fear of reprisal.
I do not mean to cast aspersions, but I must say I am perplexed by this state of affairs. A man with a family to feed, house, clothe, and educate, must occasionally put his head down and keep his mouth shut in the face of a thousand circumstances less than perfectly ideal in his workplace or in his community. Even in the absence of circumstances that stir up grave moral unease, he might occasionally find himself constrained by circumstance to say, “Enough,” and speak his mind.
Freed from all such concerns, ought not the cleric be the readier to be impatient with and intolerant of genuine wickedness and rank wrongdoing of every kind?
Nevertheless, we are told clerics of the lower ranks — men I like to think are the “grunt priests” in the pastoral trenches — depend entirely on the Church for their livelihood, and so are afraid of losing it. The willingness of some bishops to take heavy-handed measures, such as declaring a man unassignable, or even to use the nuclear option — declaring a man irregular for the exercise of Orders — has been documented. The more frequent recourse for Ordinaries with troublesome underlings, however, is to give the troublemakers thankless chaplaincies.
Those are not cherry assignments, but they are also hardly hardship postings — and in any case, why ought any priest eschew one like it?
Said bluntly: if celibacy is the discipline we have chosen to impose on our clergy in order to free them from worldly concerns and thus make them ready to risk all for the Gospel, it is reasonable to expect they would at least be willing to risk assignment to a nursing home.
One major reason clerics and religious take vows of celibacy is to protect them from precisely the concerns someone with a family would have. “Where will we live?” and “What will my children eat” etc., are concerns anyone with a family will take into consideration when it comes to deciding whether to keep one’s head down and work within the system, or step out and blow the whistle.
There is a point beyond which even a husband, father, wife, or mother will find it impossible to go on without serious moral compromise, if not corruption. Siobhan O’Connor got there. We have a right to demand that the clerical and hierarchical leaders of the Church do at least as well, and indeed better.
Nor will it do for clerics to plead religious or holy obedience, or even pontifical secret.
There is no vow of religion, no promise anyone can make to any bishop, that can absolve, curtail, or otherwise bind the person who makes the vow or promise, from his or her duty under the natural moral law — and if you know about grave harm, and know that your superiors (or your fellow clerics) are part of it, you blow the whistle.
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