Not long ago I was away from home. When night came, I went to the lobby of my hotel looking for a place to eat. There, I ran into a man who had been a priest years ago in my diocese but had left the active priesthood to marry. I invited him to dinner.
We brought each other up to date on how our lives had unfolded since we last met. Then, he began to talk about his decision to leave the priesthood. Very simply, he stopped serving as a priest because he had met a woman, had fallen in love and they decided to be married.
He said that he spent eight years in the seminary prior to ordination. He also said that during those years, he had taken priestly celibacy simply as a given. Little was said about it, and certainly little impelled him to think about it personally.
Then, he was ordained a deacon. Like all deacons intending to be priests, he promised — solemnly and explicitly — never to marry. He thus came under the Roman rite’s rule that deacons aspiring for the priesthood, priests and bishops live up to these promises. (Married permanent deacons pledge at their ordinations not to remarry if their wives should die. Former Episcopal priests, if married, promise never to remarry.)
He said that he sincerely made that promise. As a priest, however, he met new circumstances, like living alone. He met women, including the woman whom he would marry. He began to wonder about his promise. He wondered what celibacy meant for him. Probably very realistically, he came to realize that he had not been prepared for celibacy, and that it was not for him.
At last, convinced that he would not be happy, believing that he would not save his soul, if he continued in the priesthood that had become an intolerable burden, because of celibacy, he petitioned the pope to be able to marry. The request was granted. He married the woman whom he loved — in the Church. He and his wife reared their children as Catholics. He and his wife are faithful members of the Church.
(Promises not to marry by priests are not the same as marriage vows. The permanence of marriage was established by Christ. No Church authority, not even a pope, can eradicate marriage vows. The rule of celibacy is a Church discipline. The Church can amend it, in select cases, as it does, or for all priests, although a blanket change would be very, very unlikely.)
This former priest’s experience with seminary instruction concerning celibacy is told again, and again, and again, and again by men who studied in seminaries before the process of seminary education was reformed after the Second Vatican Council. Granted, anyone familiar with seminary formation knows that the road to reform was rough and had many detours.
Now, I am bold enough to say, but I say it, I think, solidly based in reality, seminaries much more effectively guide seminarians these days to a very deep and frank look at what celibacy will mean for them personally. Bluntly, can they be celibate for life? Do they truly want to be celibate for life? Seminary authorities want no one else saying that celibacy was never explained. Modern programs of course look at the profound theology that prompts the Church’s discipline about celibacy, but they also insist that seminarians probe into their hearts. Psychology is part of it. Straight talk is part of it. Facing facts is part of it. Considering all angles is part of it.
The Church will be stronger. Future priests will be celibate not just because they made a promise, but because, fully informed and freely, they wanted to promise God that they would never marry, in order to give everything to him.
Msgr. Owen F. Campion is OSV’s associate publisher.