No sex please, we’re Catholic

No sex please, we’re Catholic January 30, 2013

The perils of re-writing another news outlet’s work were on full display this week in an article that appeared in the New York Daily News. Based upon a news story broadcast by Buffalo’s WGRZ-TV,Call him ‘The God Father’: Husband and dad will become Roman Catholic priest — and take vow of celibacy” reports that a former Episcopal priest who upon his re-ordination as a Catholic priest will begin a “sex-free life”, is filled with errors of fact and false assumptions about sacerdotal celibacy.

It is not clear at what point the errors entered into the food chain. Perhaps the subject of the story John Cornelius misspoke; perhaps WGRZ-TV misstated the quotes — or it may have be the fault of the Daily News. Whatever the reason, the only trustworthy fact that I would take away from this story is that former Episcopal priest John Cornelius will be re-ordained as a Roman Catholic priest on 26 Jan 2013.

Beware of everything else.

Let’s start with the lede.

John Cornelius will be ordained a Roman Catholic priest this weekend — and with the blessing of his wife they’re giving up their sex life. Cornelius, a father of three, will become the first married Roman Catholic priest in New York — and Sharyl, his wife of 33-years, has agreed to the whole celibacy thing. “We have decided to do that voluntarily,” Cornelius told WGRZ-TV. “I have always had friends that are Roman Catholic priests and I appreciate what they’ve given up to serve God and the priesthood.”

The story continues:

Cornelius, 64, is a former Episcopalian priest who converted three years ago to Catholicism. He said his old church had gotten too liberal for him. “There was the ordination of the homosexual priest in New England,” he said. “Then it came time for women’s ordination. … It may have been okay for other people, but it was just too much for me.”The article reports Fr. Cornelius retired as an Episcopal priest in 2010 and “jumped at the chance after Pope Benedict issued a directive last year aimed at filling the depleted Catholic ranks with converted Episcopalian priests.”

It closes with the news that Cornelius will serve a “flock of other former Episcopalians at the Fellowship of Saint Alban” outside Rochester and speaks briefly of his faith journey. Let’s pick the low hanging fruit first and work towards the conceptual failures in this story. The chronology offered in the quote by Cornelius is incorrect.

Women priests were authorized in 1976 by the Episcopal Church (though a group had been illicitly ordained earlier). Non-closeted, non-celibate gay/lesbian clergy were first ordained in 1979 in New York city and by the early ’90s a number of dioceses were ordaining gay clergy. And the first “gay” Episcopal bishop, the Rt. Rev. V. Gene Robinson, was consecrated in New Hampshire in 2003. The chronology offered by Fr Cornelius is incorrect. And the suggestion that the Catholic Church is free from the controversies surrounding gay or women clergy is not so straight forward.

And no, John Cornelius will not be the first married RC priest in New York.

That honor belongs to Fr. Scott Caton of the Diocese of Rochester who was ordained under the 1980 Pastoral Provision. Fr. Cornelius may be the first priest ordained in New York state for the Ordinariate of the Chair of St Peter.

What is the difference between the pastoral provision and the ordinariate? The first has been around since 1980 and permits certain Protestant clergy who are married to be re-ordained as Catholic clergy. The second was created in 2011 as a home for Anglican communities (clergy and laity) who wish to seek full corporate unity with the Catholic church while retaining some Anglican liturgical forms and their own ecclesial structures.  The article does not do justice to these distinctions.

And, is it fair to say the re-ordination of ex-Episcopalians and Lutherans is a tool to fill the “depleted” ranks of the Catholic clergy?

And, is it fair  to say that by “giving up their sex life” Fr. Cornelius and his wife have “agreed to the whole celibacy thing”? Can abstinence from sexual relations with a spouse be considered celibacy — as understood by the Catholic Church? Is a “sex-free life” the definition of sacerdotal celibacy? Or is there a bit more to it than that?

The New Advent dictionary begins its definition of celibacy by writing:

Celibacy is the renunciation of marriage implicitly or explicitly made, for the more perfect observance of chastity, by all those who receive the Sacrament of Orders in any of the higher grades.

Are Fr. Cornelius and his wife practicing celibacy, abstinence or chastity? No questions are asked by the article about clerical celibacy, nor are comments or observations made by knowledgeable sources — a bishop, theologian, church spokesman, et al. Is this the norm for re-ordained Episcopal clergy? Is this renunciation of the marital state a spiritual discipline, a physical separation — what is going on here?

I don’t know. Do you?


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  • Melissa

    Why did you put scare quotes around “gay” when referring to the Rt. Rev. Gene Robinson?

    • geoconger


      • In 1920 maybe …

    • Meg

      Just seconding this thought. “Gay” shouldn’t have scare quotes any more than “religious freedom”.

  • This story is one of the most inept I’ve ever seen. You would think that, if the priest and his wife are renouncing sex, the reporter would have asked an canonist why they are doing so when other married clergy who joined the church have not been asked to do so. The entire story is a failure.
    On a mostly unrelated note, beware of using the New Advent Dictionary for information about the Catholic Church. It was compiled in 1917, which is why it was available to be digitized for free. But it contains no information after that time so there are none of the changes that preceded or followed Vatican II. Use at your peril.

  • Julia

    The 1911 Catechism at New Advent is good for history. You are right about it not including anything since then, particularly the changes wrought by Vatican II and the Popes succeeding Paul VI.
    The most glaring problem is the issue of “celebacy”. Today everybody thinks it is equivalent to abstinence or chastity – it isn’t.
    I’m glad you pointed out the business with filling up “depleted ranks” – that’s an assumption about motives that truly grates. Almost as bad as claiming it was “sheep stealing” when the ordinariate was actually a response to repeated requests to be allowed to keep long-standing Anglican traditions like music and liturgy that don’t clash with Catholic theology.

  • Julia

    Sorry – it’s a Catholic encyclopedia, not a catechism at:
    But it is very good for history before the 20th century.

  • Thinkling

    As has been pointed out, “celibacy” is not the appropriate word here. A married man vowing to remain unmarried is problematic to say the least.

    The right word is “continence”. Obscure though, and further challenged by the fact that the word has a more popular modern medical meaning.

    • Newark

      still, it is curious that- if I remember the item correctly- the couple has three grown children…they are not “young”.

  • northcoast

    The WGRZ video notes that celibacy is not a requirement for married clergy to be ordained in the Ordinariate of the Chair of St Peter, and another Buffalo station documents the story without mentioning celibacy:;;

  • Andrew

    The first NY Ordinariate priest is Belen Gonzalez y Perez, that well known Anglican:

    See also this post, linking to Dr. Peters, canon lawyer:

  • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

    If they had consulted a canonist, as Ann so rightly suggested, say a canonist like Edward Peters, they would have gotten an earful: It probably would have gone over their heads, but it would have been good information. And it could have led them on an entirely new and unexpected path about a controversy over whether or not married deacons and their wives are required to be continent (i.e. abstain from sexual relations). Amazing what can happen when you do your job.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    The video was comically entertaining, but I can’t figure out what it has to do with the issues raised in the excellent posting critique of a pretty bad media offering.

    • BeckyC

      Hmm. The “mommy for pope” tee on the baby?

  • I agree that the video was unrelated to this post. (Though it made me laugh to imagine they thought they were doing something meaningful…to someone….) I guess, I am wondering…how Dcn. Cornelius will do as a priest in the Catholic Church, where such declarations in public are generally cringed at in the chancery. In other words, Catholic priests generally are not so forthcoming about their personal lives. Sigh. For me it was all TMI. Yeah, I guess inquiring minds want to know, but at the same time, I think it’s none of their beeswax. And should remain so.

  • Take whatever complains you may have about the careless superficiality of modern printed media and its online versions, multiply them by whatever federal budgetary-sized number you’d care to imagine, and you have only begun to appreciate the care and depth that local television news reports lack.