Sunday, 7 June 2015

Good Priests, Bad Priests and Celibacy

St Jerome, St Thomas Aquinas, St Francis of Assisi

Good priests

A good priest is a wonderful human being. The minister of spiritual rituals, the mediator between God and mankind, the community figure who heals and balms, who inspires and unites. A good priest is courageous, wise, thoughtful, studious, respectful, loving, generous and collaborative. Not much to ask! But they exist!

Great priests

Monsignor Thompson was the benevolent parish leader at St Austin’s parish in Wakefield through my childhood. I’m not aware he did anything other than act for the good of parishioners. The scholarly St Jerome worked for over 40 years in the 1st Century to produce the first translation of the Bible into Latin; by all accounts he was a dedicated and kind man. St Thomas Aquinas defied his rich family in the 13th Century to become a leading open-minded philosopher. Another rich young man who abandoned wealth and had a world impact was St Francis of Assisi with his love of the environment and respect for poverty.
Troubled priests in literature - the Unnamed 'whisky priest', Father Ralph and Frollo

Literary priests who are not so good....

Literature has its fair share of troubled and corrupt priests (think the Unnamed protagonist in Grahame Greene’s The Power and the Glory or Father Ralph in Colleen McCullough’s The Thorn Birds not to mention the lascivious Archdeacon Frollo in Victor Hugo’s Notre-Dame de Paris.)  As far back as Chaucer’s marvellous Canterbury Tales, the Pardoner and the Summoner are portrayed as despicable and evil religious figures (and plenty of historical sources suggest that many priests in those roles in medieval times were indeed duplicitous and open to bribes.)
Medieval monsters: the Pardoner and the Summoner from The Canterbury Tales

But my friend you left so early….

But there are also some exemplary religious figures in literature: Victor Hugo created one of the most moving portraits of a church figure in the Bishop of Digne (Charles-François-Bienvenu Myriel.) In the prologue of the musical Les Misérables my first tears always spring up when Jean Valjean is arrested and returned to the Bishop’s house for stealing his silver and the Bishop surprises the arresting officers and his housekeeper by singing:
But my friend you left so early
Surely something slipped your mind
You forgot I gave these also;
Would you leave the best behind?
And Bishop Myriel hands over his precious candlesticks, inherited from a great-aunt.  But in Victor Hugo’s astonishing (and angry) novel the descriptions of him chime with my own view of social responsibility:
(The Bishop) “was indulgent towards women and poor people, on whom the burden of human society rest. He said, “The faults of women, of children, of the feeble, the indigent, and the ignorant, are the fault of the husbands, the fathers, the masters, the strong, the rich, and the wise.” He said, moreover, “Teach those who are ignorant as many things as possible; society is culpable, in that it does not afford instruction gratis; it is responsible for the night which it produces. This soul is full of shadow; sin is therein committed. The guilty one is not the person who has committed the sin, but the one who has created the shadow.”
Les Misérables 

Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín

I have recently finished reading the exquisite Colm Tóibín novel Brooklyn and in that novel I expected the character of Father Flood to eventually display some faults but he acts in a benign and generous manner throughout.  Jim Broadbent is playing him in the forthcoming film and that, for me, bodes well. Despite Colm Tóibín’s public criticisms of the Catholic church, he has created a character in Father Flood that can only be described as charitable and compassionate. (I thoroughly recommend Brooklyn along with Nora Webster, a companion novel, as believable depictions of repressed feelings and hopeful yearnings in a small Irish community.)
Forthcoming film of Brooklyn

Bad priests

How do you identify bad priests in real life?
Hypocritical words and actions
Uncharitable deeds and impulses
Sermons that instill fear and shame
I have encountered examples of bad priests in my life who have demonstrated the above bullet points: the priest who led a double life, the priest who would not forgive someone who acted with the best of intentions but made a mistake, the priest whose words WOUNDED members of the congregation. I have even had a conversation with one priest that led me to believe he had evil thoughts.

“Their hearts are far from me….”

I have never (knowingly) encountered a sexually abusive priest. The media has been throwing light on the blight of abuse in the priesthood (and, for that matter, in other areas of the establishment.) I surmise that each case of abuse is complicated by circumstance, opportunity, nature and nurture – but that each case has in common the hypocritical misuse of power.  How can religious people preach one set of morals and perpetrate another? In Matthew’s gospel (Chapter 15, verse 8) Jesus is clear that “these people honour me by what they say, but their hearts are far from me.” This dichotomy is what makes the modern church seem so out-of-touch with modern responses to Christianity – it is no longer possible for post-Enlightenment people to be submissive to an organisation rife with corruption and cover-ups.


By no means do I think celibacy is the only root of moral hypocrisy in the Catholic church but it is interesting to note that celibacy is by no means a fixed doctrine.  (Just like circumcision, mixing meat with dairy and wearing mixed fabrics – all Biblical “laws” that are now ignored.)

Celibacy in history

For the first thousand years after the death of Jesus, priests were often married – and not in a church (see my previous blog.) It was only in 1139 that celibacy was forced on the clergy and that was largely because of inheritance rights. Prior to that it is thought clergy sometimes chose to be celibate and there were indeed encouragements to be free of the ties of family life. But it is interesting that Pope Francis in his book On Heaven and Earth acknowledges that celibacy has only been enforced for ten centuries.  Further he also wrote that celibacy “is a matter of discipline, not of faith.  It can change.” Admittedly these words were written when he was Archbishop of Buenos Aries – but his views are highly significant.

Asexuality and Abstinence

I do believe (and have known) asexual men and women – people for whom sex is not a driving force. I also think abstinence as a choice is a legitimate stance. Asexuality and abstinence seem to me to be natural human states, though not if the sexual instinct is perverting your life. And it is the perversion of instinct that worries me about celibacy. The definition of a pervert is a person whose sexual behaviour is regarded as abnormal and unacceptable. I think enforced celibacy is abnormal. The sexual impulse is surely a natural instinct. If a creator God exists, then God created the sexual instinct. To deny the sexual impulse for religious reasons seems to be a pathway towards self-oppression, something that risks destructive eruption at a later stage.

Pressures to drop celibacy   

Enforced celibacy will, I think, eventually end, especially for priests who work in the community (parish priests.) The day will come (again) when priests will be encouraged to marry. The Protestant Reformation faced the reality of human nature and encouraged vicars to be family men; and of course any Anglicans who are already married and convert to Catholicism remain married, often with children. Priests in the Eastern Catholic Church can be ordained even if they are married. The signposts to positive change are already in place. The future will have definitely arrived when gay married priests are fully integrated members of the church.

From where will all the future Catholic priests be recruited?

A shortage of priests is on the horizon. The path to priesthood will be a more welcoming road if married people could walk on it. By writing “people” I mean, of course, that women priests should be on that road too. If not sooner, then later. If not later, then eventually. Women and the church?…. a whole other topic!