In amongst the dreadful stories of the last few weeks are some positive signs of a fightback from Rome on the question of clerical celibacy. It is good to see another plank of the Pope's campaign to restore orthopraxy.
Priestly celibacy is important
I know clerical celibacy is a discipline not a doctrine. But it is a very long standing tradition in the West, and not one to be lightly discarded.
Clerical celibacy is important.
It is important because priests do voluntarily make a promise, and if they can't keep that promise, how can we expect them to be faithful on anything else - including things like the seal of the confessional?
It is important because living in sin is - well, a sin. If priests (or anyone else for that matter) can justify that to themselves, they are inevitably well on the path to heresy.
And above all it is important because we need priests who are prepared to make a total offering of themselves to God, manifesting Christ to us in his celibacy. Never more so in a time when sexual pleasure and indulgence has become an idol in our society distorting even some theologies within the Church (and yes, I am talking about the so-called 'theology of the body' and Natural Family Planning!); thus to counter it, we need counter-cultural signs.
There have been a number of truly dreadful stories on breaches of celibacy over the last few weeks - the American tv star-priest who when caught with his girlfriend defected to the Episcopalians (well, at least he is honest about his protestantism!); the 'strike' by African priests over the replacement of their Archbishop who had apparently not only failed to enforce discipline but engaged in questionable behaviour himself; and tales of hundreds of priests living in sin in Germany and Ireland.
Yet there is a positive side to each of these stories, because in most of these cases, the story has actually been sparked by action on the part of the Church. There is clearly more to come, as a story from Cath News today via the Congregation for the Clergy and the Catholic News Service suggests. Here it is:
New powers to dismiss priests
"Pope Benedict has given the Congregation for Clergy new powers to dismiss from the priesthood and release from the obligation of celibacy priests who are living with women, who have abandoned their ministry or who have engaged in seriously scandalous behaviour.
The new powers do not apply to cases involving the sexual abuse of minors by a priest. Those cases continue to be subject to special rules and procedures overseen by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Catholic News Service reports.
The new faculties were announced by Cardinal Claudio Hummes, prefect of the clergy congregation, in an April 18 letter to the world's bishops.
Cardinal Hummes told CNS yesterday that the new, quicker administrative procedure for dismissing priests was prompted by "many situations where canon law did not seem adequate for meeting new problems."
As an example, the cardinal said the 1983 Code of Canon Law made no provision for a bishop to initiate a process to laicise a priest who had abandoned his ministry.
Usually when a priest leaves the ministry of his own accord, he informs his bishop and sooner or later will request a formal dispensation from the obligation of celibacy, the cardinal said. But others "leave, they marry (in a civil ceremony), they have children. In these cases, the bishops did not have a way to proceed because it was up to the person who left," he said. "But if the one who left is not interested (in regularising his situation), the good of the church and the good of the priest who left is that he be dispensed so that he would be in a correct situation, especially if he has children," the cardinal said.
Cardinal Hummes said a priest's "children have the right to have a father who is in a correct situation in the eyes of God and with his own conscience. So helping these people is one of the reasons there are new procedures. In these cases, the initiative begins with the bishop.
"The cardinal's letter dealt separately with the situation of priests who simply abandoned their ministry for "a period of more than five consecutive years."
It also addressed the more serious cases of those priests who have attempted or contracted a civil marriage, are having a consensual sexual relationship with a woman or have violated another church or moral law in a way that caused serious scandal.
In every case, however, Cardinal Hummes' letter insisted that the local bishop carry out a careful investigation of the facts and, when the evidence confirms wrongdoing, "he should proceed formally to correct or admonish the accused.
"Prior to Pope Benedict's approval of the new norms on January 30, bishops seeking to dismiss a priest for abandoning the ministry or attempting marriage had to initiate a formal juridical trial against the person."
Hmm, I imagine a certain Brisbane priest who featured prominently in a recent Australian Story might be considered for early action under the new provisions. And I dare say there are a few others scattered about Australia...
In any case, please do keep our faithful priests in your prayers even as we pray for repentance on the part of those who need too!