A little over a year ago, Father Jonathan Morris revealed on FOX to an adoring Martha MacCollum that he was forsaking the active ministry and had petitioned Pope Francis to return to the lay state. On his visit back this past week, he informed her (and the world) that he was engaged to be married and that his nuptials would take place at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York; Martha dotingly promised to dance at his wedding.
In a normal world, people express sadness when commitments are broken. In the 1970s, Father John Haughey, S.J., wrote Should Anyone Say Forever? It was the era of instability and inconstancy: marriages failed at an alarming rate; defections from the priesthood and religious life outnumbered those entering those states (half of the priests who taught me in high school abandoned their vocations and three-fourths of my nuns). In a better and healthier time, such failures were bemoaned; in the 1950s, even Protestants were embarrassed by divorces within their families.
Why? Because the ability to make (and keep) a commitment is intimately tied up with human integrity, maturity and dignity.
Although I have known many men who have defected from the Sacred Priesthood, I have never commented on their situations publicly because to do so would be unseemly. Presently, I feel compelled to put aside my customary taciturnity on such matters because of the shockingly brazen manner in which Jonathan Morris has conducted himself. His shamelessness and the resultant scandal cannot go unremarked. This should not be interpreted in an ad hominem manner, for he has put himself into the limelight, or better, he can’t leave the limelight (which his Roman collar gave him and which he never would have had without the collar). His mantra seems to be an echo from the movie Independence Day, “We will not go quietly into the night!”
So, let us briefly rehearse the salient elements of Morris’ life. He entered the Legionaries of Christ at the age of 21; after ten years of priestly formation and “discernment,” he was ordained a priest in 2002 at the age of 30. Seven years later, he parted company with the Legion and was subsequently dispensed from his perpetual religious vows and incardinated as a priest in the Archdiocese of New York. After God allegedly approved of his decision to abandon his vocation, he received a fast-tracked rescript of laicization.
Rescripts of laicization are not a novelty in the Church. However, Pope Paul VI modified the process and results, so that the petitioner not only returned to the lay state but was dispensed from the two solemn promises he made at ordination, by which he bound himself to the obligations of perpetual celibacy and the daily recitation of the Divine Office. The overall effect was that more men abandoned the priesthood in those years than throughout the entire Protestant Reformation.
In return for those two dispensations, however, the petitioner was barred from the exercise of any liturgical ministry (even serving as a lector), from teaching religion/theology, and from assuming the headship of any Catholic educational institution. Further, the decree makes clear that any possible ecclesiastical wedding must take place in a private, reserved way.
Why this last demand? Because failure to maintain one’s solemn commitments can never be anything but cause for sorrow. After all, St. Paul teaches us: “For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, whom we preached among you. . . . was not Yes and No; but in him it is always Yes” (2 Cor 1:19). And we priests stand in persona Christi!
Although the Church would have us turn a merciful countenance toward one of her sons who has failed, she also must ensure that scandal does not ensue (scandal here defined as leading others to commit the same act). The Church is ashamed of this departure, and the man should be ashamed as well. The pagan Roman orator, philosopher, and statesman Cicero decried the moment when “all sense of shame disappears” (De Re Publica). Centuries later, Blaise Pascal opined: “The only shame is to have none.” Jean Racine makes the point that a public figure’s negligences are magnified: “The glory of my name increases my shame. Less known by mortals, I could better escape their eyes.” Talleyrand, himself a laicized priest and bishop (reconciled to the Church on his deathbed), offers these sage remarks: “The bold defiance of a woman is the certain sign of her shame, – when she has once ceased to blush, it is because she has too much to blush for.” That goes for the males of our species as well.
And so, the shamelessness of it all leads to scandal and confusion within the community of the Church and in society-at-large. Putting oneself on public display would be bad enough, but the scandal will be exacerbated if it is true that the Morris nuptials will take place in St. Patrick’s Cathedral; the Cathedral staff has not been helpful by telling inquirers about the veracity of the claim: “It is not our policy to release such information.” How can such a public sacrament as Matrimony be treated as a clandestine affair – especially since one of the potential recipients of the sacrament has made such open declarations?
If this marriage proceeds as planned, the Church will get yet another black eye. What are the messages that will be sent to a variety of persons? Married couples will wonder how a priest can get “off the hook” so easily, given ten years to consider and decide about his vocational path at a very mature age. People waiting years for a decree of marital nullity will rightly ask, “How did this happen so quickly for him?” For faithful priests, this will be yet another blow to their morale, leading them to ask why the Church rewards infidelity. Seminarians and possible candidates will be led to ponder, “Is priesthood anything more than a job?”
Jonathan Morris was entirely formed as a priest during the pontificate of St. John Paul II. To Morris’ blithe and confident declaration that God has led him to lay aside his priestly commitment, the sainted Pontiff’s words in Philadelphia on October 4, 1979 should give pause: “Priesthood is forever—tu es sacerdos in aeternum—we do not return the gift once given. It cannot be that God who gave the impulse to say ‘yes’ now wishes to hear ‘no.'”