Many people believe that the Catholic Church is asks too much of her priests. Requiring a man to be celibate is no longer a reasonable expectation, they say. But they overlook an important fact: marriage isn’t popular either. Last year, 40% of babies in the US were born to unmarried women. We know anecdotally that more people are living together before marriage and waiting longer to get married. Half of marriages end in divorce. The problem is not celibacy; the problem is the lifetime commitment. People who make a commitment to marriage have a hard time sticking with it. People who make a commitment to priesthood have a hard time sticking with it. So why not change the lifetime commitment part? Priesthood could just as easily be a temporary job, right? A man could give 10 or 20 years. You get great job security, company-provided housing, and lots of free food from little old ladies. After a few years saying Mass and filling in for the shortage, a man could leave priesthood and life a normal life, much like military service. Why not?
God is Faithful
Being a priest is more than just celebrating Masses and hearing Confessions. It is a Sacrament. This means that the Priest himself reveals something about God. He is a sign of God’s presence and reveals something about God’s nature. So what does the lifetime commitment reveal about God? God is faithful. The Scriptures constantly remind the people of Israel that God has made a lifetime commitment to his people and will not abandon them even when they are unfaithful. Here is one example: Can a mother forget her infant, be without tenderness for the child of her womb? Even should she forget, I will never forget you. (Isaiah 49:15)
The Priest must be Faithful
People love their priests very much because they know they can always call them. Night or day, good or bad, beautiful moments or trying ones – the priest is there for them. And he will be until he dies. A priest is a symbol to the people of God’s faithfulness. The lifetime commitment reminds people that God is always there for his people. The people of God deserve nothing less.
What if a priest is not faithful?
The Church has no power to “un-ordain” a man. Once someone has become a priest, we believe that he is irrevocably changed by the power of God. But it does happen that a man might enter into priesthood for the wrong reasons, or discover once he is a priest that he is completely unsuited for the job. In this case, it is possible to obtain special permission to no longer act as a priest. In other words, we believe that he remains forever a priest, but he no longer has the duties and obligations of a priest. So now we come to the issue in the letter. The author speaks of men who have made a lifetime commitment to celibacy and were ordained priests, then discovered that they were unable or unwilling to carry through on their promise. They “leave the priesthood”, meaning they no longer act as priests, and can even obtain permission to be married. Should such a man then be allowed to exercise his role as a priest?
My answer would be “No.” Will God’s power still act through such a man? Yes. Would the sacraments be valid (with the proper permissions)? Yes. But is the man a symbol to the people of God’s faithfulness? No. The witness of his life speaks louder than his homilies ever will.