The crisis in France concerning the Church and paedophile clergy festers on with discussions on TV (which I don’t watch except occasionally on YouTube) and Facebook threads. One such is to be found on a group dedicated to the Ordinariate.
From what I have been reading, including some participation from me, there are different schools of thought. One is that it is all about libido and desire for sex: let a priest get married and he won’t bugger choirboys any more. Another is that tempted priests are not spiritual enough in their observances or sufficiently orthodox. What about a woman involved with such a man whose attitude would be Nach dem guten Essen, eine Zigaretten nicht vergessen. Nach dem guten Rauchen, eine Frau gebrauchen! – This bit of German doggerel suggests that a woman is no more than chattel to be used once a man has had a good meal and a good smoke. The idea is quite appalling. How many men are so basic, especially if they are priests, that it would almost be better for them to go to a prostitute.
To lay aloft in a howling breeze
May tickle a lands man’s taste,
But the happiest hour a sailor sees
Is when he’s down
At an inland town,
With his Nancy on his knees, yeo ho!
And his arm a round her waist!
It is almost the idea of a reward after hardship or a long day’s work. With such a notion of marriage, we have the idea of a very selfish man who cares little or nothing about the suffering of the woman who is stuck in a relationship with him. If the priest has no more nobility or virtue than a rough fisherman or a drunkard press-ganged into serving a naval vessel in the days of Captain Bligh, then what are we to think of the priestly vocation?
At this point, we arrive exactly at the purpose of this posting. Vocation. The priesthood and ministry are a calling, the sense, purpose and meaning of life. Marriage and family life are also a vocation. However, we need to peel away the layers of meaning behind this word, often used superficially by clerics and seminaries. Someone once said that they were afraid that she would “catch” a vocation (like a disease) that would make her want to become a nun! A vocation is not (or extremely rarely) an e-mail from God, but something that comes from within (which can be caused by God, by grace, by illumination of some kind).
There are certainly many theological studies on vocation beginning with the call of Abraham, of Moses and others through the ministry of an angel or directly by God’s voice in the veil. A call to priesthood is one thing, another is celibacy and monastic chastity. It is not only repression of the sexual urge but also the acceptance of a solitary life.
I was ordained a deacon in the Roman Catholic Church and “contracted” the obligation of celibacy. I was in the Latin Rite. My superior put me into a situation where I acutely sensed the contradiction between what was expected of a cleric by the laity and their utter contempt and lack of care. It all brought out in me what the institution calls “instability”. As a psychotherapist once said to me many years ago, a person cannot keep his or her sanity when deprived of human affection, attention, empathy and opportunity to give. He related a story of patients in an asylum in Dresden when the Allies bombed the city. The building was damaged and the patients suffering from severe psychiatric disorders wandered out into the city. They found suffering on an incomprehensible scale, and began to help children, injured people and those trapped in bombed buildings. They seemed to have lost their mental illnesses and found their humanity. When they were rounded up and taken back to the asylum, their psychosis returned and they again lost their sanity. This gave me a very profound notion of vocation and our own spiritual health. This profound desire can bring an isolated and despised priest to desire marriage and some degree of normality.
I have already mentioned Le Journal d’un Curé de Campagne by Georges Bernanos in other blog articles. This is the story of a young priest in the 1930’s with stomach cancer and an inconsolable Weltschmerz. I know priests whose lives have become almost a living hell, perhaps through their fault, but also through that existential dilemma between the vocation they believed they received from God and the utter contempt and indifference of hypocritical parishioners.
The obvious problem with the RC Church opening the priesthood to married men is who is going to pay a stipend big enough for a family. Then the priest’s time has to be divided between earning his living and doing his ministry. The Orthodox and Continuing Anglican churches have married priests, but also priests who earn their own living through secular work. Consider the dioceses here in France. They don’t have the money or means to employ married men with their families. That is the practical consideration.
Very often, those who are the most opposed to the married priest are the women themselves. It can be a challenge to the woman’s self-esteem to become higher in importance to the priest’s vocation. Have him give up the priesthood and become a layman might be a very appealing idea to some women. Not all women are the same, but it is frequently in the feminine psychology to remove any sense of vocation or meaning of life from her husband other than her and the marriage. It is existential and depends on the degree to which she might be a narcissistic personality.
Other women are prepared to accept her husband’s dual vocation. It is no different when the husband is in the armed forces, the merchant navy, a lorry driver doing long hauls, anyone who works more than 9 to 5 in an office job. With the priesthood, there is the added element of a complete philosophy of life and something that might be perceived as serious competition for her love. The natural instinct is to make sure that the husband will “have no other gods than” her. However, it would be wrong of me to be too sweeping in my generalisations. The experience of many priests is different, in which the women truly support their husbands’ ministries in a self-effacing and altruistic spirit.
One aspect of a Bishop’s ministry is looking after his priests. Few films give justice to this inner conflict other than The Cardinal from 1963.
The Cardinal of Boston was in no hurry to laicise this suffering priest who after a time returned to his calling as a priest. See this film from 1 hour 22. The drama unfolds in two parts, the second of which shows the agony Fr Fermoyle was going through. The Cardinal allows him to take time off, get a teaching job in Vienna and work through it all. It is a beautiful study of pastoral flexibility in dealing with a profoundly difficult situation. That is the discernment that comes from being deeply human and spiritual.
I have seen these conflicts in others and experienced them for myself. Taking time off without making a new commitment can help us find ourselves. A priest going through this suffering needs support from his Bishop and professional help if needed. He should not be laicised too quickly but allowed to take a rest from clerical life, live like a layman and get a job or start a business. He needs hobbies that change the mind and give rest. Lastly but not least, he should spend time as a working guest in a monastery and go through a thorough spiritual overhaul or “catharsis”. During this time he should above all avoid getting involved with another person, learn about true solitude and self-acceptance. Then go and see his Bishop with his enlightened decision.
Few lay faithful will take responsibility for a priest breaking or burning out. Priests have been known to commit suicide. It is not unique to the priestly vocation, but also that of any married man, depending on whether the woman is an empath or someone who is so deeply selfish that she has no care for the suffering of her husband. The human person is as deep and ineffable a mystery as God himself. I often reflect when I go sailing and look down into the sea. We know less about the depths of the sea than the far side of the moon or another planet. We will never understand what goes on in the other person. It’s hard enough to know ourselves. The mystery of the priestly vocation or the vocation to be a husband and father is just as deep and beyond the answers we think of giving to the questions. I am constantly confronted with my inability to understand many things about others, doubtlessly because of my autism. I have learned that we must find strength within ourselves where we find the Divine Kingdom within. This is what I learn from solitude and doing almost as much work in self-knowledge as Jung did in order to find something of an understanding of others. Beyond a certain stage the man can become so spiritually and mentally maimed that there is no coming back. We retreat into our eccentricities and live in our little lodgings from one day to another.
I don’t think there is any one solution for the well-being of priests in any Church, Roman Catholic, Orthodox or Anglican. Most need some kind of community life, either a religious community of some kind or marriage. Isolation and loneliness are true sources of suffering for those who have not learned self-reliance and the art of the solitary life. Like the priestly life, marriage is a place of giving and receiving the fruits of that oblation.
I recommend The Academy of Ideas in general. It can give many ideas for building a solid philosophy of life – for living as a priest, for being a husband and father of a family, for recovering from a broken vocation or a broken marriage. Please take the time to explore the many videos these people have made, and see what we can learn.
It is not about celibacy or marriage, but the deepest meaning of vocation, what makes our lives intelligible and meaningful. We should try to delve into the philosophy of everything and to be truly ourselves.
I will leave you with this delightful evening with Quentin Crisp.