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Some thoughts on Cdl. Bergoglio’s comments on clerical celibacy and chastity

March 21, 2013

Dcn. Greg Kandra links to an interview that then-Cdl. Bergoglio gave last year on celibacy. Assuming the general accuracy of the translation, some interesting points are raised therein.

Cdl. Bergoglio: If a priest comes and tells me that he got a woman pregnant, I listen. I try to help him have peace and little by little I try to help him realize that the natural law takes priority over his priesthood. So, he has to leave the ministry and should take care of that child, even if he chooses not to marry that woman. For just as that child has the right to have a mother, he has a right to the face of a father. I commit myself to arranging all the paperwork for him in Rome, but he has to leave everything. Now, if a priest tells me he got excited and that he had a fall, I help him to get on track again.

First, I like Bergoglio’s observation—which I think applies to all scenarios of conception outside of marriage—that marriage is not always the “right thing” to do. Marriage among Christians is a sacrament for the future, not a fix-it for the past. But I am not sure what Bergoglio means when he says that ‘natural law takes priority over priesthood’. Natural law and priesthood are not in conflict to begin with so I don’t know how supposed ‘conflicts’ between the two could be reconciled by resort to ‘priorities’.

Reception of holy Order requires the surrender of the natural right to marry, but that’s not to posit a ‘conflict’ between Order and natural rights, but rather, to occasion a choice between two goods. Life is full of such choices, some of them very hard. Now perhaps Bergoglio only meant that a man’s getting a woman pregnant implies certain obligations under natural law. I agree, but that does not show a conflict between natural law and the sacrament of Order, let alone would it demonstrate ‘priorities’ between them.

Consider. A married man has obligations to his wife and children. If he gets another woman pregnant he has certain natural law obligations to the other woman and child. But would those obligations “have priority” over his marriage? Are the obligations of a married man suddenly cancelled by his violation of one of those obligations? If not, why should we assume that, if a priest impregnates a woman, the woman and child “have priority” over his priesthood? Are the obligations of a priest suddenly cancelled by his violation of one of those obligations?

All Christians are called to chastity. The specific form that chastity takes among Roman clergy is perfect and perpetual continence (c. 277) which normally is lived out in the celibate state. But, while the cleric Bergoglio has in mind sinned against the chastity to which he is bound, whether the woman actually gets pregnant is incidental to the cleric’s transgression. This is important: pregnancy is not the offense, illicit intercourse is. Now, perhaps the best response to a priest’s gravely sinful action would be his voluntary departure from the clerical state, perhaps it would even be his expulsion from the clerical state, but perhaps it would be neither. Similarly, perhaps the best response to a cleric’s paternity would be departure from the clerical state, but perhaps not, too.* Each case, I’m saying, needs to be thought through on its own, addressing the consequences of unchaste actions and (if necessary) the consequences of fatherhood, but without assuming conflicts that don’t exist or deferring to priorities that don’t apply.

* I caution against the idea that a woman’s pregnancy is grounds for cleric’s dismissal from ministry; such seems perilously close to criminalizing the pregnancy itself. Nor should we pay lip service to that distinction, yet impose expulsion always and only when pregnancy results, and reconcile offenders always and only when no pregnancy results. Again, pregnancy is not an offense, illicit intercourse is. +++

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