Confessions of a Married Clergyman
©Deacon Keith A. Fournier
I recently returned from two events that gave me great hope for the future of the clergy. First, I had the privilege of visiting a seminarians retreat. There, I met forty wonderful men, in love with Jesus Christ and His Church, clearly called to the celibate life and ready to give themselves to the Lord and His people.
Later, I spoke to over a hundred permanent deacons, their wives, their priest director and their wonderful Bishop. These men are serving sacrificially as an order of clergy in the midst of the world, committed to the "new evangelization" proclaimed by the Pope.
I left both experiences with a deeper conviction than I already had (which was quite deep!) that the "gates of hell will not prevail" against our beloved Church. Like every person who has heard or been in any way affected by the "sexual scandal" and resulting crisis facing the Catholic Church, I am still outraged, deeply hurt, concerned and moved to both prayer and action.
I have prayed my heart out, appeared as a guest on Television programs, attempted to explain this horror to my children, tried in any way I can to support the victims, promote proper prosecution of the offenders and help provide insight to other Christians and people of good will who have been shocked by this grievous scandal.
Because I love the Catholic Church, I have proposed, along with many others, that this is a time of purification that sets a course, a way of response, paved by justice, truth, penance and authentic conversion, if she responds in a manner that is faithful to the gospel she proclaims.
This way has been forged by the Lord who "hears the cry of the poor" - the abused and the faithful who deserve a Church that can be trusted. He is the One who will guide us all through this time of testing, travail and eventual triumph. I believe that we have begun the path down that road and I am deeply grateful once again for the leadership of a giant in the Chair of Peter, John Paul II.
Because I believe that the Church is a gift, a communion that has been given from above, I know that it is intended to be a home for the whole human race. It is not the possession of anyone but it's Divine Founder. The Church is also, as her servant/leaders said so well at the Second Vatican Council, "an expert in humanity."
I believe in faith that the Church will rise to the occasion and do what is right because the promise of her Leader and Savior that "the gates of hell will not prevail" can be trusted.
However, this is also a time when ideas on how to "fix" the perceived "problem" abound -some sincere and some not. Instant "experts" tell a troubled and angry public how to "remedy" the problem. This has become a "moment" for everyone who has an agenda with the Catholic Church to "jump in" and "pile on" From editorial writers, cartoonists to talking heads, they continue to do so.
Perhaps the ones I find most distressing are the disingenuous, those who have spent entire careers from within the Catholic Church seeking to conform it to their own designs. Ironically, many of these new "experts" have long supported a counterfeit notion of "freedom" that actually promotes some of the very deviant sexual behaviors that lie at the root of some of the criminal acts involved.
For example, months ago I was saddened to see one such priest /"theologian" who has systematically sought to serve as a fifth column from a tenured faculty position in a prestigious catholic School in the Midwest, don a collar (for the first time to my knowledge in many years) and become an "expert" during this scandal.
First, there already are married clergy in the Catholic Church. I am one. I have been happily married for twenty seven years with five children! Even that would surprise many readers. There are many of us however!
I am a Deacon, the first Order of Clergy in the Catholic Church. It is followed by Priest, and Bishop. The sacrament of "Holy Orders" unfolds itself through three stages as deacon, priest and Bishop. Each order of Clergy serves in a different way. Deacons are ordained for the ministry of Word, Service and Sacrament.
In the West, we are mostly married and serve as an order of clergy in the midst of the word. We go from the altar to the world, mostly also have careers and are called to manifest Christ the Servant in the real world.
Though in the early Church this order of Clergy was often a "terminal" order (meaning that men served as deacons for a long time, often for life) and never proceeded to priesthood, in more recent centuries in the West, it fell into "disuse" and became a "transitional order". That was changed by the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council. The ancient practice was resumed and Deacons once again are flourishing in both the Eastern and Western Church.
Deacons are a growing body of married clergyman, ministering in the areas of social justice, charity, and care for the sick. In addition to our ministries outside the local parishes, we are also baptizing, assisting at the altar, at marriages and at funerals. We are not priests. We are deacons. Because this order of clergy is often not yet within the common experience of many Roman Catholics, we were sometimes referred to as "lay" deacons. That is a misnomer. We are clergy.
The decision for marriage in our lives was made before our ordination to the clerical state. It was a separate calling and invitation. Some deacons embraced the invitation to celibacy out of love for Christ, in sacrificial service and in prophetic witness to His bride the Church. All of us who are married deacons promised to remain celibate should the Lord call our wives home before us!
In the Eastern Catholic Church, we have served as clergy in an uninterrupted line back to the first ordination of the "seven" recorded in the Acts of the Apostles. (See e.g. Acts of the Apostles, Chapter 6) Similarly, our brothers, called to priesthood in the Eastern Catholic Church, are both celibate and married.
That's right. There have always been married Catholic priests! In the East, following the ancient tradition of the unified Catholic Church, the decision for state in life (married or celibate) was made prior to ordination to the first order, the Deaconate. Even though there were married priests, it became the custom (and is still the practice) to choose Bishops from among the celibate clergy.
Finally, in addition to these married priests, a growing number of ministers from other Christian communions, embracing full communion with the Catholic Church, are being ordained to both the Deaconate and the Priesthood as married men.
One would not know any of this if your only sources of information were the editorials and articles in newspapers, the discussions (good and bad) on talk shows, or the simplistic recounting of the history (as well as the canonical status) of the discipline and witness of consecrated celibacy in the Catholic Church. In fact, misinformation in all of these channels of communication has all too often informed the trough of public opinion.
All of the discredited claims concerning the discipline of celibacy in the Catholic Church are once again being presented as 'facts". You have heard the most prevalent- that celibacy wasn't imposed in the Church until the 6th (or 9th, or 10th) century and that the motive for imposing celibacy was to prevent Church property from being inherited by the children of the clergy. Both fall short of the truth.
The truth is that the witness of consecrated celibacy (for the sake of the kingdom) goes back to the invitation of Jesus (Matthew 19:12). It is bolstered by the witness of some of the Apostles and encouraged by the pastoral experience (see, e.g. 1 Corinthians 7) of the early Church for those who would serve as clergy. It forms an unbroken witness and a treasure, both for those who embrace it and for the whole Church that has been enriched by those who have.
The true original motivation for celibacy was the response to Jesus who invited his apostles to forsake marriage to become "eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom". (Matt. 19:12) This was even more "counter cultural" in the Semitic world as it is today in the west. The prophetic witness of celibacy has endured beyond the ranks of celibate clergy.
It is both preserved and flourishing in the inspired vowed life of monastic orders, the sacrificial witness of religious men and women, and the increasing new associations of lay men and woman, who have chosen it not to avoid marriage but to enter more fully into the very nuptial mystery that marriage reveals.
At the heart of both marriage and consecrated celibacy as a response to the invitation of the Gospel is the Christian claim that all of those who are joined to Jesus Christ are, in a real and substantive way, invited into the great "marriage", the nuptial mystery of eternal communion with God.
Secondly, celibacy is not the "culprit" or the problem behind these reprehensible criminal acts that have been committed by a minute minority of priests. Rather than a problem, celibacy is a gift. Yet, this shallow claim is the most frequently offered "solution" or "fix" for the present scandals. It is expressed in the in the oft quoted question of the six O'clock news "Should priests be allowed to marry?"
The very phrase reveals a true lack of understanding of both the theology and history of the celibate life as discussed above. A priest who has vowed celibacy before ordination is, in a sacramental and theological sense, already married to Christ and His Church. He has made a vow. His marriage would be a breaking of that sacred vow and would not only be invalid under canon law; it would be akin to me, as a married clergyman, divorcing my wife!
Even if the mandatory discipline of celibacy were to be relaxed in the western Church, the actual question should be "should married men be admitted to candidacy to the priesthood" There is more than semantics involved in this rephrasing.
To properly and truthfully use an old cliché "some of my best friends" are priests, both celibate and married. They are all wonderful priests, living their vocation with dignity and holiness. Yet, even within that community of celibate and married priests, there are different kinds of ministry within the one priesthood of Jesus Christ. The Eastern Church understands this and assigns married priests to different types of ministry.
Celibacy has absolutely nothing to do with this scandal. The fact that celibate priests (at least in the West) are involved does not make it the cause.
Other communions demonstrate through their history and experience that lifting the mandatory discipline of celibacy in the Western Catholic Church is not some "fix". Unfortunately, one has unfortunately only to look at the Anglican church of Canada, where their ordained ministers may marry. It may soon be bankrupt in western Canada because of sex abuse lawsuits.
Additionally there is still another dark cloud on the horizon, about to burst forth as this sad dark night of our contemporary crisis unfolds. The undeniable facts will reveal that the majority of the incidents of sexual abuse involve homosexual relations with young boys, not technically pedophilia. Some would say that this comment is a "technicality". I do not think so.
There is a biblical principle here. Only the truth, the full truth can set us free. What has been "hidden in secret" will be shouted from the housetop. We must uncover the whole awful truth if we ever expect to make amends and to heal the wounds. These actively homosexual priest perpetrators would not be marrying women if they were "allowed" to marry.
Unfortunately, there are those who are using this tragedy to promote their agenda of married clergy or women "clergy" are any number of other such demanded "changes" in the Church. They are often the same ones who, if they would be truthful, are also calling for the "ordination" of women and actively practicing homosexual men to the ranks of deaconate, priesthood and the episcopacy.
They present "Holy Orders" not as a vocational call but as some kind of job or ecclesial political power position that people have a "right" to!
Behind their efforts are often other agendas. They reveal a bigger motivation for being so involved in this crisis and a flawed ecclesiology (theology of the Church) wherein they view the Church not from above but only from below. In this view, the Church is only a convocation, a human organization and the orders of clergy are some form of power position that everyone has a "right" to occupy!
Sometimes within the world view behind their claims is a belief in a power matrix view of human freedom, the very sickness that lies at the root of the rape and abuse of the predators they now rightly oppose!
Ordered service in the Church that belongs to Jesus Christ and to the community who have been baptized into Him, is an invitation to the Cross, a vocation, not a right or a job. It is also not some position of power but a call to serve---even when it is abused by some who have occupied these positions.
The clerical state is a call to a particular way of serving. I served with great fervor of soul for decades as a layman in both the Church and the world! When I was invited to Holy Orders, I knew that it was just that, a call. I also came to understand the theology that I had studied, that there is an "ontological" change that occurs at ordination. In fact, my life was turned upside down!
Then there is the prevailing assumption behind much of the agendas that have seized the day, something I call "modern-olatry", the worship of the modern. This is the idolatrous notion that because something is "modern" it is better. That is not always the case. One has only to look at some of the bad fruit of enlightened modernists to quickly see that in some instances the opposite may be true.
Philosophers and Theologians often speak of "asymmetry" when trying to explain the great "mysteries" that are integral to the Christian faith. Very often the "answer" is not "either/or" but "both/and". At the foundation of all asymmetrical insights is the Christian claim of the Incarnation of Jesus Christ. He is BOTH God and Man.
Proceeding from this central claim are many other important understandings about God, the human person, our relationships with one another, life, death and the meaning of our lives.
There is an asymmetry that must be grasped if this entire discussion concerning whether married men should be admitted to the candidacy leading to priesthood once again in the Western Church is ever to bear good fruit.
I personally believe that in the beautiful unbroken witness of the Church, the "two lungs" of East and West (as Pope John Paul II refers to them) is revealed the answer. It is not "either or" but "both and." There is room in the Church and the priesthood for a celibate and a married clergy, both deacons and priests.
As the unbroken tradition of the East has shown, both celibacy and marriage are a response to the invitation to holiness that is the Christian life. They are both a participation in the one nuptial mystery of following Jesus Christ in the universal call to holiness, the baptismal vocation of sacrificial love.
Both celibate and married men have responded to the invitation to the first order of Clergy in the West, the order of Deacon, since it's reinstitution by the Second Vatican Council. In that experience the Roman Catholic Church has a history and lived pastoral witness of how mature married men can fruitfully serve as clergy.
I have read many recent articles on this vital issue in which the authors adamantly oppose any consideration of changing the discipline in the West to re-open the order of priests to married candidates. I think this is an overreaction and misses the point.
In the East, the admission of married men to the priesthood has not diminished or done away with the witness of the celibate clergy. The wonderful prophetic sign of celibacy flourishes. I believe that this would also be the case in the West. For that reason I would support the reinstitution of allowing married men to enter the candidacy to the order of priests.
However, such a consideration must be measured with pastoral prudence. I fully support my Church if it is her decision to NOT open this issue for consideration at this time. Why? Partly because some of the shrill voices trying to force some of the issues are not following the Holy Spirit but "another spirit."
What is truly needed most in the midst of our current crisis is a massive movement of penitential prayer. That would be the strongest resource to lead the Church through this dark night of the soul. The Holy Spirit is exposing sin so that it can be repented of and so that its' roots can be excised.
What is also needed is a proper prosecution. As a former prosecutor, I represented a State Children's Service Agency. I saw first hand the horror of sexual abuse. Prosecuting the perpetrators protects the children. It is also is not at odds with the extraordinary hope of forgiveness and conversion. Conversion and forgiveness does not give rise to a "right" to ministry.
Then, we need a renewal of good teaching to all the faithful, lay and clergy, concerning the dignity of the human person and the beauty of human sexuality. Perhaps more than any Pope in history, John Paul II has laid the groundwork for this kind of prophetic and profound renewal.
The content of his teachings (compiled among other places in a volume entitled, "The Theology of the Body") on human sexuality should become the framework for this catechesis and the foundation for all catechetical instruction within the Church including in our Seminaries. This would result in healthy marriages, happy families and holy celibate vocations and communities. It would lay the groundwork for a genuine flourishing of holiness throughout the Church that could change the culture.
The call to consecrated celibacy must be presented as the sacrificial giving up of the good for the better! Marriage in Christ must also be presented as a vocational call to gospel life! Chastity must be presented as binding on all the faithful and practiced in accordance with one's state in life. Additionally, the classical "evangelical counsels" of poverty, chastity and obedience, too long considered only possible for "religious" should be re-presented as the building blocks of the universal call to holiness.
The nature of the Church as both from above and below must be re-presented and work its way into models of governance that recognize that the Church belongs to Jesus Christ; is a communion, and that we have all been invited into its governance through differing kinds of participation.
Both the hierarchy and the lay faithful are called to serve. Without sacrificing the great gift of the hierarchy and the irreplaceable role and gift of the Magisterium, the teaching office with some newly concocted "democratic" model, the lay faithful should be invited into the leadership of those areas where they can most fruitfully serve the one work of the Church.
The role of lay faithful from important fields of expertise serving on the committees that deal with the priests who have sinned, committed criminal acts and are facing prosecution is a good idea. There are other areas where the lay faithful can and already are assisting.
Priests and other clergy will be more available to do what they alone can do by this participation. What we do not need is a new "clericalism" of sorts, wherein a "professional caste" of the laity starts acting in the manner of the old "clericalism" that all too often atrophied the Church in the past.
The principles of dynamic orthodoxy, a vibrant faithfulness to the Tradition and a freshness and openness to the Holy Spirit are not at odds with one another. They also form an asymmetry that should guide us in all these areas.
It may surprise some to know that laymen served as Cardinals at one time in the Church's history! The office of "Cardinal" has nothing to do with Holy Orders. It is a rank of honor in the Church. Cardinals are personal advisors to the Pope and serve as a sort of "cabinet officer."
Though only priests and Bishops are now appointed to this office today, there was a time when laymen and deacons were also numbered among their ranks. I wonder if this ancient approach were reinstituted in our time. Some traditionalists might see it as a modern aberration while those practicing "modern-olatry" might think they "won" in their struggle to make the Church "contemporary". All it would be is a return to a past approach in a new context.
The renewal of a vision of the concept of "vocations" should be fostered in the entire Church wherein all baptized Christians are encouraged to be missionaries and the universal call to holiness is presented as normative of the Christian life and binding on all men and women in accordance with their state in life.
Without lessening the precious role of the call to perfection that is the priesthood and the great witness and gift of consecrated celibacy, marriage and family life in Christ should also be presented as a vocation. Deaconate in Christ should be fostered, matured and presented as one of the "signs of spring" that John Paul II wrote about.
Deacons can and should play an increasing role in active ministry within the Church and from the Church in the world.
The Church needs to clearly teach - and implement pastoral strategies that support its teaching- about homosexuality. Though she must clearly insist on the dignity of every human person, including the "homosexual" person, she also clearly teaches that homosexuality is "disordered"; and that homosexual acts are intrinsically immoral and grave sin.
There is a vital need for revisiting this entire issue in the Church. The recent cogent, clear and firm decalaration from the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith was a great first step. The application of the teaching of the Church on this controversial yet essential truth has led to vastly different approaches from Diocese to Diocese.
In her empathy for all men and women, the Church must be careful not to indirectly allow the continued proliferation of structures and approaches that undermine this teaching. Some may be rooted in the seminary system and even in Chancery offices in Dioceses. She must safeguard the faithful with strict entrance procedures to seminaries and bring into the full light the full truth about this politically volatile situation -no matter what the consequence.
Finally, the Church needs, in imitation of her Pope, to highlight the "Signs of Spring" in the Church. There are new associations of the faithful growing, new religious communities forming and the fact is that there seminaries that are so full they have no more room!
Perhaps it is also time to acknowledge that there really is no "vocations crisis" in the sense of a lack of priests but rather a distribution problem! Perhaps, as in other missionary ages, it may be time to send priests from those dioceses and communities where they are flourishing into the dioceses where the faithful deserve priests to minister their families.
Unfortunately it is sometimes in those places, where the seminaries are empty, that the novelties so often associated with "modernolatry" are allowed to continue with the faithful being injured in their wake!
Now is the time for all Catholics, all other Christians, indeed all good men and women to pray that this dark night will become the backdrop for a new dawn. This current crisis we face may in fact become the birth-pangs for a renewed Church that rises out of the purification, made holy and ready - just in time for the new missionary age.
Deacon Keith Fournier is a constitutional lawyer, a graduate of the John Paul II Institute of the Lateran University, one of the founders of the Your Catholic Voice Movement and the President of the Your Catholic Voice Foundation.
Your Catholic Voice is a movement to promote faithful citizenship based on the fundamental truths of the Catholic Church relating to Life, Family, Freedom and Solidarity. For information go to Your Catholic Voice http://www.yourcatholicvoice.org
Your Catholic Voice Foundation
http://www.ycvf.org VA, US
Deacon Keith Fournier - President, 757 546-9580
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