From all over Italy they gather, putting pen to paper, expressing their heartfelt longing.
How, exactly, did these women find one another?
It’s not a poetry slam or a self-help group. It’s… get this!… a group of 26 women who are in love with Catholic priests. So in love, in fact, that together they have petitioned the Holy Father to reconsider the Church discipline which requires priests to remain celibate.
Not eager for the notoriety that would come with self-disclosure, the women sign only their first names and their initials. And they “explain” to Pope Francis that it’s hypocritical for priests to live a “secret life.”
But wait! I have another idea: Priests could obey their vows! They were, after all, well aware of the self-mastery which would be required at ordination, yet they chose freely. They knew that they would be married to the Church and would, for the love of Christ, forego the pleasures of a wife and family.
And if they found, in later years, that the pull of intimacy or the desire for marriage grew strong, there was a way out: They could request a dispensation from their vows and permission to marry. I found a statistic that between 2000 and 2004, some 5,383 priests–less than 1% of the world’s population of Catholic clergy–left the ministry to marry. That the Church provides this avenue for priests to secede from their positions is yet another way that the Church demonstrates its care for souls.
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The Tablet carried the story about these 26 women and their very public appeal to Pope Francis. The open letter read, in part:
“We are a group of women from all over Italy who write to you to break the wall of silence and indifference that we are faced with every day. Each of us is in or wishes to have a loving relationship with a priest with whom she has fallen in love.
“Few people realize the devastating suffering of a woman who goes through the powerful experience of falling in love with a priest. With humility, we place before you this problem so that something might change not only for us, but for the good of the Church.”
The letter continued:
“We love these men, they love us. Even with all the will in the world, these solid and beautiful relationships cannot be broken. The only two choices then are leave the priesthood or have a secret relationship.”
“…It could be seen as hypocritical for priests to remain unmarried while having a relationship with a woman, but unfortunately it’s not uncommon for them to have to make this painful choice.”
The vow of celibacy which is required of Latin Rite priests is a discipline, not a matter of dogma; and so it could at some point be changed. (Women’s ordination, on the other hand, has been proscribed by Church teaching, and cannot change.)
In fact, in Eastern Catholic churches, the tradition has been that priests are permitted to marry.
And in 1980, Pope John Paul II instituted a provision which allowed the ordination to the Catholic priesthood for married former clergy of the Anglican or Episcopal church who convert to Catholicism. My friend and fellow blogger at Patheos, Fr. Dwight Longenecker, was ordained to the priesthood following his conversion, after years as an Anglican priest. Father Dwight is married with four children. I was privileged to attend his ordination to the Catholic priesthood in Greenville, South Carolina, some years ago.
As I said, priestly celibacy is a discipline. There seems a logic to it: Priests imaging Christ, giving of themselves, strapped for time in an already hectic week. Parishes already facing financial challenges, not further burdened with the expense of providing for a family, with all that that entails: new tennis shoes, braces, college tuition, a second car…. The reasons go on and on.
But that discipline could change. There have been some who have called for a discussion and reevaluation. Perhaps at some point, the Church will change this long-standing rule.
* * * * *
But that point has not come. For priests living in the now, and for these 26 women who signed the letter this week, what is the right thing to do?
Priests are to be models for the rest of us: models of holiness, of love for Mother Church, of obedience and service. Is it possible to show support for the Church, while at the same time breaking her law?
And what guidance can a priest who is engaged in sexual activity outside of marriage offer to a teenager who is becoming intimate with a boyfriend, or a spouse who is engaged in an affair? Can he explain the Church’s theology on human sexuality, on the sanctity of marriage, on abstinence, while breaking that law himself?
As for the women: If you love someone, do you not want to lead him to God? Is it truly “love” to tempt a man to sexual sin?
Is it not a great sin to cause scandal to the entire Church family, to demonstrate by your lives that the Church and Christ’s law are not as important as your feelings and desires? That remaining chaste is just too difficult? The media will have a field day [wink, wink] reporting on your pain, happy to see the Church once again being pressured to change, to facilitate the sexual mores of the day.
Dear women in love: Do the right thing. Wait. If it is to be, let your man follow the normal channels and leave his position.