Two of the most troubling aspects of institutional Catholicism are a lack of compassion for its own and a reluctance to allow alternatives, even when these are clearly within the norms of Scripture and Tradition.
A case in point, only one, but a painful case, is the treatment of inactive priests. I believe that one day, in the not too distant future, when mandatory celibacy becomes optional, that we shall look back on this policy in shame.
It would be short-sighted and ideological to find all the villains on one side and all the heroes on the other. There have been brave and sensitive bishops, pastors in the fullest sense of the word, who, at great risk to their self-interest, have reached out to inactive priests. Sometimes this was limited to social engagements but, most luminously, it included occasions when bishops dealt with married priests as their brothers and confirmed them in ministry. The norm here was not the rights of the inactive priest nor the politics of changing the celibate system but the needs of people. When we deal with one another with human decency and Christ-like love, no one loses.
As president of CORPUS, I have dialogued in the last few years with Cardinals and presidents of Episcopal Conferences in Asia, Europe and North America. I have found to an astonishing degree a deep concern to reach out and welcome back inactive priests.
In a particularly moving meeting with Cardinal Basil Hume of England, I responded to his request that I speak about my spiritual journey. I was never disillusioned with faith, Church, priesthood or celibacy. Yes, even celibacy. Celibacy taught me much about God and commitment, about Christ and myself. And I admire what celibacy has accomplished in some of my brother priests.
Recently, Cardinal Hume asked the Pope, in the name of the bishops of England and Wales, for amnesty for all married priests and for their return as a gesture of millennial reconciliation.
When I fell in love, it was not out of disillusionment with anything. Love does not require disillusionment. Indeed, my experience with thousands of married priests is that those who loved their ministries best, those who cared for the Church and its people and give themselves generously, were those that found departure most painful but also those who had the best marriages. When marriage is a choice rather than an escape, when one sacrifices a great deal for someone deeply loved, then the marriage is truly charism, profoundly spiritual, and endlessly life-giving. There is enormous grief in the fact that marriage for a priest in the Catholic Church necessitates the catastrophic surrender of official ministry, the resignation, in my case, from seminary teaching, and the banishment from the fraternity of priesthood.
Because so many in the hierarchy never talk freely and openly with married priests, because there is often an adversarial relationship brought about on both sides, stereotypes proliferate. And so one hears that inactive priests are faithless, that they never loved the Church of Christ, that they are men of broken promises and a danger to God's people, that they must never be allowed back to canonical ministry. The discussion of married priests is done, almost always, about us, as though we are objects or enemies. It is not done with us, taking the chance that we are friends, and that the grace of God has led us where we are. If only the Pope, the Church's elder brother, would invite married priests to have dinner with him, talk with him, pray with him! Why is this idea so preposterous? What does it tell us about how far we have traveled from the Christ who talked with everyone?
Recently, in talking to the bishop of a diocese, I asked him if he felt I had been called by God to be a priest. He answered that he had no doubt. How, then, I offered, can we reconcile the Church's refusal of a vocation the bishop knows, as well as one can judge, came from God's Spirit?
The toll that mandatory celibacy for priests who are life-long Catholics in the Latin Church has taken on the Catholic Community has been incalculable, devastating. Mandatory celibacy has not made us better Christians. Indeed, its implementation has made us vindictive.
To tell a departing priest that he will not be dispensed from celibacy unless he claims he was not freely ordained or that he has a sexual disorder, this degrades us all. To treat the marriage of a priest as a scandal God's People ought not to bear is an unwarranted dismissal of women and marriage and sexuality,
To tell an officially dispensed priest that he can no longer function in lay ministry, that he can never read at a liturgy or give communion or teach religion and that his spouse will not be employed in Church work, this is simply not worthy of the enormous goodness of which our Church is capable. Could Christ have wanted his Church to come to this?
One of the greatest sorrows in our present policy is the difficulty 100,000 resignations has caused for our celibate priest brothers in active ministry. The massiveness and persistence of the resignations have demoralized them and made their pastoral work inhumanly demanding. Most priests are good, caring, sensitive, idealistic Christians.
Although I grieve for the pain our departure has caused it is important to note that the official policy of the Church is most responsible here. In overwhelming numbers, we want to marry, not stop being priests.
At some point, the practical issues of reintegration and return need to be addressed. It is clear that ecumenical reunion will never occur on the level of mandatory celibacy. It is clear that there will not be again a sufficient number of male, celibate priests for the needs of people. It is clear that this Church can financially afford a married priesthood if all other Churches can. It is clear that people will be less alienated and give more generously if they have the pastoral ministry they require. It is clear that married priests need to be accepted back on a case by case basis and not automatically.
The Church accepted marriage and priesthood for 1200 years in the Latin Church and for 2,000 years in the Eastern Church. The apostles were married and traveled with their wives as St. Paul tells us in Corinthians. He did not see this as a concession to weakness but as a right, a divinely-given right, in the language of later theology.
A number of bishops who are open to ordaining married men are opposed to welcoming married priests back into active service. To make so much of whether one was married before or after ordination is to make ordination into a taboo. A right is a right. Does sequence make such a difference? Where in the Gospel do we read anything that would validate such a policy? Was it not formulated because we once believed that ordination was a higher calling and that, after it was received, one ought not to descend to anything as common as marriage? Do we wish to continue saying this anymore?
In any case, CORPUS was created to give witness to the willingness of married priests to serve God and the Church. Twenty-five years later, this remains our focus.
It has not been an easy journey. But, I believe, we are now at a point where we need not fear one another. The love of most married priests for the Church has deepened over the years. I believe I am competent to make that observation.
This love is present often as a wordless yearning for fuller institutional inclusion and for the lost fraternity of priesthood. To be a brother in a broken family, a needlessly broken family, breaks your heart.
We were told once that when family members ask for bread we should not give them a stone. We need to ask ourselves whether there are possibilities for common ground that have not yet been explored. Surely the Gospel and the Church give us larger horizons just when we thought all the spaces and options in our lives were exhausted. When the possibility to heal is no longer present, the Church has lost God's Spirit. Who would dare say this? Who would need to say this?
In the name of God and for the sake of Christ, is it not time for us to celebrate with one another all we have lost and gained?
Anthony T. Padovano
President of CORPUS