Reflection from Des Wilson
1 An issue raised in Holland during the Second Vatican Council was whether the church could annul marriages.
This is important in discussion about Catholic priests marrying.
Can the Church forbid anyone to marry, apart from some special inability or already existing marriage? People have a human right to marry, or not to be preventing from marrying. A church can say, If you marry you cannot act as our priest, but can it say, You are a priest and we forbid you to marry? It cannot and does not, but the price is loss of a chosen vocation and even of livelihood.
If a humanly made rule in church law can be obeyed only at the cost of notable or serious inconvenience it no longer applies. The law forbidding clerics to marry is a humanly made law and for those who keep the rule there is not only difficulty but often considerable hardship. And even for those in a union without marriage there is the spiritual and mental difficulty caused by living a life which must be concealed and lied about. And for a woman in such a situation there is the denial of her status and dignity as wife. Surely then there is an argument that this humanly made law cannot demand obedience in face of such distortion of a life?
Suppose then a priest decides to marry and yet remain a priest, he may not be strictly bound by the canonical form of marriage ceremonial, since this also is a humanly made rule. A civil or other formula of marriage then may well be canonically and theologically or morally acceptable to his conscience. What happens if priests who are already in marital relationships decide to marry with whatever formality is possible, that is, with the assistance of other priests or in a civil ceremony? We should discuss whether a priest can atement of fact and intent and status. It is unjust to a woman to be wife but not to be publicly acknowledged as such. Conceiving and rearing children according to Catholic ideals would be difficult and perhaps impossible.
What then would happen if a priest in an informal relationship who wanted to marry were to speak to his congregataion and tell them what he wished to do, asking them whether they still wanted him as their priest or not? It is likely that many congregations would accept such a priest and perhaps in the future when there may not be priests to serve every parish, the choice would be between a married priest and no priest at all.
Choice for priests to marry or not will come. In some areas bringing up children will be difficult or perilous and some priests will choose not to marry while they are in such positions. Some will decide not to marry because they want to lead an unmarried life where they believe they can serve more intensely that way. Some will join with others in communities. By such natural process and discussion and by the introduction of married deacons and Anglican priests, the change will come.
The church should make a positive, rationally and spiritually competent decision about it now rather than “wait for nature to take its course”. There are no convincing arguments that enforced celibacy should stay. There are convincing arguments that it will go anyway. There are also convincing arguments that it should be made to go while there is still time for the church to make a free decision on the matter. A time will come when there will be no such choice.
There can be no acceptance of the argument that either celibacy or enforced celibacy is responsible for abuse of children. Failure to achieve maturity may be responsible , and this can be contributed to by refusing priests opportunity – or even leave – to have normal social intercourse with men, women and children. Celibacy itself cannot be blamed. Most people who are celibate are so because they look after others, family for example, or because their way of life did not facilitate marriage or because they wanted to use their lives for some purpose other than family. Most people who are celibate for whatever reason are not priests or members of religious communities.
If discussion about celibacy takes place, it must include the question of the church’s ability to forbid anyone to marry, the church’s prudence in refusing priesthood to those who do, the inevitability of change whether church authorities wish it or not, the advisability of church law being changed by free choice now rather than by necessity later, the financial, social and other implications of change in celibacy laws.
2. There has to be a response to the question whether people in the church are to cooperate by carrying out the decisions of the hierarchy or to take a real part in making those decisions. The immediate answer when discussing matters of belief and practice,namely that the church is not a democracy must be challenged. The church claims its members are inspired by the Holy Spirit. If that is really so it is illogical to tell people they have no part in decision making – will church leaders then be courageous enough to define where the people’s inspired thinking begins and ends? They must.It must inform every decision the church makes, otherwise there is a denial of our belief in the presence and action of the Holy Spirit. Clearly, there will be differences of opinion and a central authority has to adjudicate – we believe it has the “grace” to do it – but that is a proper function of central authority, to keep peace between contesting people, to make sound judgments about which opinion is most in conformity with God’s will – it must not be simply to share thoughts between a few, however elevated in the institution, and to issue commands about belief under obedience.
3 Priests and others are not just to be commanded, they are to be protected. And if this protection is not created by those in high positions in the church they must create mechanisms to protect themselves. The Canon Law does not emphasise the need or desire of those in power to protect, it emphasises compliance and obedience. During recent revelations of abuse priests and others were not adequately protected. One single accusation was enough to stop a priest ministering. And one single accusation in such circumstances would blight a whole future life. Publicity was given to priests and religious accused, but much less, if any, to those who were shown to be innocent. One may say lack of evidence is not proof of innocence but either we believe in the principle that one is innocent until proved to be anything else or we do not. If we do we need to act accordingly No-one should be put in a position of danger on the basis of accusation.
It cannot be beyond the ability of authorities to make an investigation to see whether there is a prima facie case or not. Some priests and religious have lived under a shadow for years without their case being clarified. Children have to be protected but so do adults and adults in Ireland were never as vulnerable to accusation as they are now.
The Priests Association founded in the nineteen seventies had as one of its chief aims the setting up of due process in the church. If that had been done we might be in a happier position today, because people could have referred abuse to such a process and priests and others could be protected by such a process as well.
The relationship between priests and bishops must be thoroughly and critically examined. Things have improved but this is partly because bishops have become more realistic and partly because priests being fewer there is less possibility of arbitrary treatment. In an institution where clergy were either without responsible decision making until fairly old or with limited decision making at any age and where they were without the normal decision making by which men and women become more responsible through the necessities of everyday family life,immaturity may result and that immaturity may well extend to sexual relationships including with young people.