Recently this column mentioned the extensive personal and psychological preparation candidates for the priesthood must satisfactorily complete before ordination. It is nailed in Church policy.
The overall philosophy for this careful process came from Blessed Pope John Paul II. Most certainly, the clergy sex abuse scandal played a role. (To repeat, however, science has not yet progressed enough to predict pedophilia in a given case long in advance.)
Another issue also surely was a factor. John Paul II was a priest, of the Second Vatican Council generation, and along with priests everywhere, in a way unknown to Catholics who are not priests or religious, the departure of so many from priestly ministry and religious life was a profoundly wrenching experience. It was a very, very turbulent experience for priests and religious who resigned, but it was a time of so much dismay and confusion among all priests and religious, indeed among those who did not resign. The pope had felt this.
Church leadership did not look nonchalantly upon all this, obviously, because the leadership was itself in the priestly or religious life.
The question, then, was how to avoid similar situations in the future? Since on many occasions, the central question was being alone in life and, very importantly, sexuality, modern preparation programs give much attention, in many ways, year after year, to this consideration. A veteran pastor of a large, bustling parish remarked that at least 30 percent of his time is spent, and always has been spent, in helping people cope with unhappy marriages. He has heard everything. When he was ordained, some preparation was required for church weddings, but not much considering the norms binding in most American dioceses today.
Still, this pastor asked, however, if enough is being done. He says that he hears of a divorce almost every week in his large parish. Somehow, something is not enough in the American understanding of marriage. Something is wrong — very wrong.
The Church can only do so much. No one, in Catholic theology, has a right to being ordained to the diaconate, priesthood or the episcopacy. It is a gift of the Church, given at the Church’s free will. No one has an innate right to be received into any religious community.
Each person, however, has the right to be married, again in Church teaching, assuming no obstacle, such as an existing marriage or a rule of nature, such as gender, is in the way. No one has the right to two spouses at the same time. No one has the right to be married to a person of the same gender and so on.
Therefore, the Church can, and actually is required to, protect the institution of marriage, and it has the pastoral responsibility of assisting members as they enter into marriage, but it cannot forbid marriage to anyone, assuming the essential demands are in order.
As a result, the Church can be very insistent about candidates for Holy Orders or religious vows. It somewhat is in another arena when it comes to marriage. Catholics themselves — spouses, potential spouses, parents, relatives and even friends — have a serious responsibility. Interference rarely is the best approach, but all Catholics simply must realize that the culture presently driving much of American life has very distorted and harmful views about marriage and about human relationships.
American marriage, and American Catholic marriage, are in crisis. Something desperately needs to change. The Church cannot do it all. It can help, but Catholics must think long and hard about what has to be if it truly is fulfilling. It is up to them.
Msgr. Owen F. Campion is OSV’s associate publisher.