One of my dear priest friends announced to his parish last Sunday that he would no longer be their priest because he had fathered a child. He told Channel 10 the next day that “it has been very hard to live a double life.” To some degree we all live “double lives,” hiding our big and small infidelities from others and attempting to hide them from God (it didn’t work for Adam and Eve). I am sure that my friend will receive all kinds of “support” in this difficult time. The news media will doubtless quote many people saying that priests should be able to marry, that the Catholic Church must change, that this priest did nothing wrong, etc.
But my friend does not need this kind of “support.” He needs true support, in the first place prayer, but also the support of friends who will tell him the truth. The truth is, he broke his vow of chastity. It’s not the end of the world, and not the end of my friend’s relationship to God and His Church. But it is a grave sin, calling for humble penitence and reparation. In breaking his vow, a priest scandalizes the Church (causes people to lose their faith) and scandalizes himself (compromises his relationship with God, for after all it is to God he made his vow). A priest can survive such a breach in fidelity, and indeed become a saint, but he will need to clearly admit his mistake and work to restore what he has stolen. This is the daily work of anyone’s spiritual life.
My friend said in the TV interview that he hopes the Church will change her teaching on priestly celibacy. He implies, I think, that to be true to himself, he had to violate his vows, since the Church expected something unnatural and unreasonable of him. But even should the Church change her discipline of clerical celibacy (I don’t think she will), we priests are bound by the vows we made to God on the day of our ordination. We all knew that to which we were committing on the day of our ordination (we spend 6-8 years preparing for it). We knew that we were committing to a mystical marriage with the Church, to celibacy for the sake of the Kingdom of God. We know very well that we cannot keep our vows without His grace.
Priests pray every day that God preserve them from violating their vows. I love my friend, and it is not easy for me to write this. We have shared many beautiful years as brother priests. I am sending this blog to him before I post it. But it must be said that the Church is not at fault in this case. Man’s weakness—his, mine, the woman’s, the bishop’s, the laity’s—is at fault. But Christ’s Church—she is not at fault. Celibacy is difficult, even impossible, for men, but the Church is not wrong in requiring this of her priests. God calls his priests to do the impossible, after the example of His Son, so that we will depend entirely upon his grace. If we fall short, we must simply and sincerely admit our failure and seek to rebuild what has collapsed. God will give us the grace to do so.