Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910)
"Church Dumps Priest Who Wed". That's the headline over a story in the Sydney Morning Herald this morning, after a Roman Catholic priest announced to the media yesterday - it was on national TV - that he had wed the woman he loves. The church, in the form of the Bishop of Parramatta (in Sydney), Anthony Fisher, acted quickly in this instance of a priestly misdeed to remove said priest from his duties overnight. I'm sure this makes perfect sense to loyal Roman Catholics and it is probably also what those of us who understand - more or less - how the Roman Catholic Church works expected: priests of the Roman rite take a vow of celibacy and the church deems that breaking that vow means a man cannot continue to exercise their priestly ministry (perhaps my RC correspondents will fill me in on the points of fine detail in canon law, exceptions for Anglicans swimming the Tiber, und so weiter).
The difficulty the RCC has made for itself by promulgating this medieval rule as church law into contemporary times is that it has long been commonly known in RC circles - and outside them - that very many priests do not keep their vow of celibacy and in fact lead double lives. I know this reality disturbs RC laity; frankly, it disturbs even me - I sympathise with Roman clergy who feel the pressures of celibacy are too much to bear but being duplicitous is no solution. For that reason I commend Fr Lee, the priest who has "come out" as married, for his honesty. The bigger question here is: to what extent do the RC hierarchy connive at this duplicity in order to preserve the veneer of priestly celibacy? It seems that having a girlfriend (or a boyfriend - informed estimates from US studies are that 20% of Catholic clergy are homosexual) is winked at, but dare to marry that girlfriend as God has ordained and the church will act very swiftly indeed to remove you from active ministry. The priest in question has apparently written a book detailing the situation in the priesthood as he knows it from the inside and is set to appear again on TV tonight. I think many priests in the Sydney archdiocese and elsewhere around the country, not least the bishops, will be very nervous as to what he may reveal.
Then also there is the troubling fact that we now know that priests with long histories of pedophilia and hebephilia have been allowed to continue their ministries - indeed the bishops even facilitated this by moving such priests from parish to parish and protecting them from the civil authorities, taking a long time to admit their error in doing so. This makes the decisive action of the bishop in this instance, however justifiable it may be according to RC canon law, look hypocritical in the extreme. This is especially so given the other news story concerning the RCC getting headlines in Australia at the moment concerning a priest who allegedly sexually molested (including one charge of rape, I believe) several teenage girls and one boy but who was allowed by Catholic authorities to continue in ministry after they were made aware of the allegations; indeed, the priest was even permitted a celebratory Mass on the 50th anniversary of his ordination. On the same day -yesterday - that the story of the married priest broke, TV news bulletins showed this priest being led into a police station after being arrested. Given that the Roman Catholic Church is the largest single church body in this nation and is thus seen to represent Christianity to an increasingly secularised public, what message do you think these two news stories, inevitably juxtaposed by the editors of the TV news bulletins, send? At best it's an "own goal" by the church, at worst an egregious example of churchly hypocrisy.
What would Lutherans say on the matter, if given the opportunity? Perhaps something like this:
"There has been common complaint concerning the examples of priests who were not chaste. For that reason also Pope Pius is reported to have said that there were certain causes why marriage was taken away from priests, but that there were far weightier ones why it ought to be given back; for so Platina writes. Since, therefore, our priests were desirous to avoid these open scandals, they married wives, and taught that it was lawful for them to contract matrimony. First, because Paul says, 1 Cor. 7:2,9: To avoid fornication, let every man have his own wife. Also: It is better to marry than to burn. Secondly Christ says, Matt. 19:11: All men cannot receive this saying, where He teaches that not all men are fit to lead a single life; for God created man for procreation, Gen. 1:28. Nor is it in man's power, without a singular gift and work of God, to alter this creation. [For it is manifest, and many have confessed that no good, honest, chaste life, no Christian, sincere, upright conduct has resulted (from the attempt), but a horrible, fearful unrest and torment of conscience has been felt by many until the end.] Therefore, those who are not fit to lead a single life ought to contract matrimony. For no man's law, no vow, can annul the commandment and ordinance of God. For these reasons the priests teach that it is lawful for them to marry wives." The Augsburg Confession, Art XXIII