Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Spiritual Formation and the Priesthood

Recent blogs and articles in the press concerning an Ordinariate priest have raised a number of interesting questions about the situation of married priests. This has led many to begin to ask some hard questions (and a few to make some unkind accusations). I am not about to comment on what has been written. I do not have all the information, and it is not my place to deal with the situation; that is the responsibility of my Ordinary, Bishop Steven Lopes, and those whom he chooses to have assist him. I would, rather, like to consider the situation in a very broad manner to help those of my flock who are wrestling with the issues involved to be able to think clearly and in a godly manner.

In my opinion, what has happened shows that we need to look deeply at the process of spiritual formation. It is not merely a question of whether a married man can be a priest, it is whether a man can be a priest and be married at the same time. These are two different questions and we need to keep them separate. The first question only regards the possibility; the second regards one's ability. Receiving these two sacraments at the same time is extremely rare in the western Church, and when done the great responsibility that both place on the man make each of them harder to accomplish. A man could be a good husband and father, but a lousy priest, and another man could be a great priest but a lousy husband and father. One does not equate to the other. I know some married priests who have said that their abilities as a husband and father would enable them to be a better priest. I am not sure that is necessarily the case.

Furthermore, we have another factor in this that cannot be ignored. We are not asking these questions a thousand years ago; we are asking them in the midst of a "sexual revolution" that has resulted in what is possibly the greatest mass confusion about marriage the world has ever known. Thus, we cannot use old paradigms to consider whether it is a good idea to have married priests. We live in a culture that is oversexed, and under-knowledged. We live in a culture that has no idea what the Church means when it talks about men as heads of their homes, and that means that it is highly likely that many men (even those in the Church--which does not exclude priests, married or celibate) do not understand it either. Couple this with the fact that the family is under great attack right now, and we have even more potential for problems.

Contrary to what many have said, it is not any harder to be a good husband or wife than it was in the past. The issue is that it is more confusing today because of all the static that exists in society around us. Therefore, the fact that marriage is a relationship of self-sacrifice is not as clearly grasped by as many people today as it was just a couple hundred years ago when most understood sacrifice better than we do now. The role of husband as head of the home means a role of self-sacrifice for wife and children; the role of the priest as head of his parish is a role of self-sacrifice for parishioners. Each one makes the other more difficult because the man is required to sacrifice in two different directions at the same time, and in today's context it is even more challenging to accomplish both and do them well.

I am going to be bold and say that when a married man is being considered for holy orders, for him to have a "good" marriage is not sufficient. "Good" in a society where vast numbers of people are cohabiting and where divorce is rampant is not a very promising category. From my own experience as a married Catholic priest (for almost 6 years now) and a married protestant clergyman (for 16 years before that), if my marriage had been "average" we would likely not be together today. We have gone through some difficult things in our years, and joining the Catholic Church (though a decision we rejoice over) was incredibly stressful. Only an extra-strong marriage could endure those challenges. That means that anything less than an "well above average" marriage cannot hold through the increased stresses that come upon a man in priestly ministry.

This is why the Apostle Paul said in the first century context that married clergy needed to be more faithful and holy than most (cf. 1 Timothy 3:2-5, and Titus 1:6). The very fact that he has to point this out says that not every man was qualified to be called to holy orders, and that the holiness in his home has to be higher than average if he is going to be able to fulfill the tasks of priestly ministry "for if a man does not know how to manage his own household, how can he care for God's Church?" (1 Tim 3:5).

There are many who say whenever a problem arises, "there's one more reason not to have married priests in the Catholic Church". Does marriage changes a man's susceptibility to temptations? Would we get rid of any problems if all priests were celibate or would the same sins be committed in another manner? Those who think that is the solution are showing a complete misunderstanding of what the subject matter really is. Bad things do not happen merely "because" a man is married. They happen because of a man's own inner spiritual formation (or lack thereof). If a man is prone to losing his temper, does he more easily lose his temper because he is married? No, it is just more noticeable because we sympathize more for a wife and children who are yelled at than we do for, say, a cleaning lady, or another priest.

It would be foolish for us to imagine that any sin is caused by the fact that a man is married (as though marriage necessarily prevents a man from resisting temptation to sin). We could compare this to the priestly sexual abuse of adolescent boys (which is what the majority of today's scandals involve!). Was their behavior caused by the fact that they were celibate? No, of course not. Therefore, if those same men were not priests, they would still have likely given in to their inclinations. It is not the situation of "being a priest and being married" any more than it is the situation of "being a priest and being celibate". It is, like I said above, an issue of spiritual formation, which cannot be rushed ("Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands, nor participate in another man’s sins; keep yourself pure" 1 Timothy 5:22).

I am not here seeking to criticize anyone in particular (and if you think that is my intent, you have gravely misunderstood what I have said); I am merely seeking to make sure that our thinking is clear when we struggle with news reports and blogger's claims, and giving some thoughts about how we can move forward. As is often my habit, I like to make sure that we are getting to the heart of the matter and not wasting our time with extraneous details. For those who can do something about this (especially my Bishop) I pray for you, and encourage others to do the same. May God be merciful to us as we seek to serve Him in all holiness.