With the latest revelations concerning sexual abuse by the clergy, the Church has once again asked the question “What is to be done?” One answer often given is that of a married clergy. While this proposal is not contrary to the Faith, there are arguments which make it unsound, perhaps particularly at this time and in response to this issue.
The argument seems to be that as the problem of sexual abuse by the clergy is one of homosexual behavior, if we allow a married clergy, we shall have heterosexual men as priests, and this will “push out” the homosexual clergy, and thus there will be no more abuse. I don’t think this would work for a number of reasons.
First, I think we must keep in mind that a man with homosexual tendencies, and perhaps even homosexual activities, even today often does get married. (And by “married” I mean “married” in the Church’s sense, i.e., married to a woman.) He may even get married in an attempt to “cure” his homosexuality. With the current state of confusion in the Church regarding sexuality and marriage (apparently even in the upper echelons), it wouldn’t be surprising to see bishops pushing promising seminarians in this direction. Also, if there is a homosexual “ring” in the Church, they must be almost altogether blind and deaf (if not hostile) to the Church’s teaching of sexuality, and it certainly wouldn’t be surprising for them to try to “get their favorites in” by this ruse. There is also the fact that marriage does not “cure” homosexuality or pedophilia; Protestants, with their married clergy, also have this issue. Finally, if a priest who is single creates such scandal by his misdeeds, think of the far greater scandal a married priest would create.
The primary question seems to be, “How did a man (such as Cardinal McCarrick) stay an active priest for so long and reach such a high level in the Church, if, as seems the case, so many knew about his behavior?” There are, as I see it, two possible answers, neither of which would be resolved by a married clergy.
The first answer is, “Because those who knew either wanted, or were not adverse to, or saw nothing wrong in someone with sexual perversions being a priest.” If those in power are of the first description—actually wanting those with a sexual perversion in the priesthood—then a married clergy might be a hindrance to reforming the Church. It may give the “inner ring” a good indication of who is not “one of us” and provide an understandable, and perhaps justifiable, reason that “We can’t move or promote (the heterosexual) Fr. So-and-so with his large family; it would cause too much disruption, add too much to his family burden, etc.” A family would provide a nice expedient—if what they wanted was an expedient—for keeping certain clergy “out of the way.” For those who are not adverse to, or see nothing wrong in, a man with a sexual perversion being a priest, a married clergy will have no effect on “outing” abusers. Their response could simply be, “Well, if married is how you like it, to each his own; but I don’t see anything wrong with any other way.”
The second reason why someone such as Cardinal McCarrick could stay on for so long and reach such a high level was fear. Those who knew were afraid to speak out. (I am excluding journalists who knew but couldn’t write anything because no source would go “on the record”; the reticence of the journalist is based on justifiable legal and ethical considerations as a consequence of those afraid to speak out.) I have to say that, while this fear should be seen as wrong and culpable, it is, at least to me, understandable. Cardinal McCarrick was a powerful and very popular figure in the Church—at least among his peers. Who of us can say he has never bowed to human respect?
Yet in this instance, with the stakes so high, we expect, and rightly so, I think, a seminarian, a priest, or a bishop to put himself on the line for the good of the Church. What has the single seminarian, priest or bishop to lose by speaking out? He may be ostracized. He may be denied advancement in the Church. How is being married going to overcome those fears? Granted, he may have the moral support of a courageous spouse, and that should never be underestimated. But he also may be more afraid because he has more to lose, and not only his friends, his career, and his advancement, but those of his wife and children as well. It also doesn’t take too much imagination to picture a kindly bishop or pastor approaching the wife of such a seminarian, priest, or bishop and saying, “Now, Sally, before you do anything rash, consider your family, consider your children: what good will the publicity do them? And think of what you owe to the Church. We’ll take care of the situation.” And we all know by now what is meant by “take care of the situation.”
No, I’m afraid the “solution” of a married clergy appears to me no solution at all. A courageous spouse may help her husband in this area, as the courageous spouses of Anglican clergy have demonstrated when that clergyman has “crossed the Tiber.” Yet it seems to me that it’s trying to stop the spread of a disease rather than applying the cure. Granted, we do need to stop the spreading. Those priests—of whatever rank—and seminarians who have sexual perversions and who do not accept the Church’s well-known teaching on sexuality and the priesthood need to step down and step out. Those in authority who know of such clergy need to have the backbone to confront and remove them if they don’t go voluntarily. (And I add again that a single man with nothing to lose except his own integrity may be in a better position to do this.) Henceforward, when those with such inclinations apply for the priesthood, the answer must simply be “No.” There is compassion, there is mercy, and there is help for them, but they can’t be in the priesthood.
It strikes me that these days every priest, be he of a religious order or diocesan, must regard himself as a missionary. In this respect, the less he has to lose, the more he—and the Church—has to gain.
(Photo credit: April 17, 2016 ordination at St. Peter’s Basilica; Alexey Gotovskiy / CNA)