Last week, Fr. Jonathan Morris of Fox News fame announced that he has decided to leave the priesthood and is petitioning for laicization. In response to the very public announcement of his decision, I was immediately struck by how little so many respondents understood the nature of the priesthood. I was also disheartened to see so many Catholics throwing out popular cultural maxims such as “just follow your heart”, “you do you”, and the inevitable calls for an end to the vow of celibacy.
Our response to a priest leaving the priesthood should lie somewhere in the middle of the extremes of condemnation and “follow your heart.” Neither response does justice to such a complex issue.
Fr. Morris’ decision ultimately rests between him and God, but we also cannot pretend that the choice by a priest to leave the priesthood doesn’t have a deep impact on the faithful and on his brother priests who do stay true to their vows and who remain as the Church continues to be ravaged by scandal.
A priest leaving the priesthood causes pain, confusion, division, and scandal. The decision may be necessary, but we cannot equate a priest leaving the priesthood to someone simply changing jobs. The priesthood is intimately connected to communion, which means any decision made by a priest impacts others, many others, for good or for ill. In relation to the priesthood, the maxim “follow your heart” is nothing short of destructive and counter to the vows he took at ordination.
Dying to Self
When we are baptized into the Church, we become a new creation. Our old life of sin and death is washed away as we die with Christ and are regenerated in the waters of Baptism. We are then called to become a living sacrifice and to become like Christ in our daily lives. We also become members of the Mystical Body, which is one body united to Christ as the Head. We no longer live for ourselves. This takes on an even deeper meaning within the priesthood as these men, called by Christ, surrender their entire person to Him and His Church at ordination.
The Latin Rite’s requirement of a vow of celibacy for priests is a further call to self-emptying love and spiritual paternity. It is a radical form of dying to self in the image of Christ. By relinquishing a family of their own, Latin Rite priests give themselves completely over to Christ and the Church so that they can become spiritual fathers to Christ’s flock through a complete abandonment of self for the needs of God’s people. They give up a wife and children of their own so that God’s people may become their spiritual children and the Church their Bride in the image of Christ the Bridegroom. The vow of celibacy leads the priest to become an even greater reflection of Christ who abandons Himself completely to the will of the Father.
The celibacy requirement is not simply a “lofty ideal” or “an outdated practice”. It is a sacrifice made by these men that infuses immense grace into the Church through their constant emptying of self in conformity to Christ in service to us. They are witnesses to the higher spiritual goods and a reminder that one day marriage will end and we will all be united as one in heaven. Marriage is a great good, but it is not the ultimate good.
Our ultimate good is found in loving and serving God. Happiness can only be attained by living in communion with God and in accordance with His will. He is meant to be the very center of our lives. Our culture places an inordinate emphasis on romantic love and sex while largely rejecting God. In many ways, romantic love—which typically is reduced purely to sex—has become the only form of love and happiness.
Witnesses to the culture
Priests who faithfully live the vow of celibacy are a much needed witness in a culture that has abandoned God and is confused about the true nature of love. Their example and sacrifice shows the world what it means to give one’s life completely over to God, not simply out of obedience, but out of love. They open themselves up to the depths of agape (divine love) by giving themselves to God and His flock time-and-time-again. They show the world that there is something more to this life than the goods the world has to offer, even the great goods of marriage and sex. They remind us that this is not our true home and the love we long for can only be satisfied by God alone.
The highest love is the love of God. We forget this when we assume that a man (or a woman) can only be happy if he is able to marry. This does a great injustice to the countless Latin Rite priests (and religious) who live out their vow of celibacy day-in-and-day-out. Even with all of the immense struggles that come with it, they choose to give themselves completely over to Christ and His Church through upholding their vow of celibacy in a hedonistic age. This relinquishment of self and willingness to engage in the necessary battles to stay true to their calling as priests not only sanctifies them, but sanctifies the Church. As they are conformed to Christ through their sacrifice, they become greater examples of holiness and conduits of God’s love and mercy in a way that can only be achieved through the witness of a celibate life.
The great love of spiritual fatherhood
Much of the debate around the celibacy requirement centers around a mistaken belief that romantic love is the highest or only form of love. Yes, the vow of celibacy means many priests will battle loneliness at different times throughout their priestly ministry, but this in no way means that they will be without love. Romantic love is not the only kind of love that exists between human beings. One of the most devastating results of our culture’s obsession with sex is that other forms of human love—including friendship—have been greatly damaged. The Christian tradition has always held up friendship as one of the great joys of this life. God provides priests with human love through their brother priests, flock, friendships, and their families.
Another form of love is that of spiritual fathers and spiritual mothers, which opens up the individual to greater love of others through communion in Christ. Spiritual paternity and spiritual maternity lead the individual to move beyond the confines of their own family towards others in love in a manner that reflects their masculinity or femininity at the deepest levels of reality. It is a foretaste of the spiritual love that we will experience in heaven. While this form of love differs from biological fatherhood or motherhood, it is a manner of love that is filled with immense joys and sorrows as the individual seeks to love others with the heart of Christ and of Our Heavenly Mother.
The priesthood is a form of spiritual paternity through which the priest allows himself to be opened up in love for God’s people as their spiritual father and brother. By emptying himself completely in the Sacrament of Holy Orders, he is then filled up with the Divine Love which leads to an ever deepening love for Christ’s flock.
Through this spiritual paternity, the priest learns to love with the love of the Most Holy Trinity. As he grows in greater love of Christ, the priest’s love for others widens and comes to encapsulate all of humanity as God leads him more deeply into the mystery of His love and mercy. This means that the priest’s love is no longer limited by blood relations, but rather, open to all people. It is a truly expansive and deep form of love.
Often our human understanding is too limited. Marriage is one of God’s great gifts to men and women, but it is in no way the only expression of love that exists, nor is it necessarily the most expansive. In fact, there is a very real danger that those of us called to marriage will cave in on ourselves and our families and fail to turn in love towards others outside of our families. We are all called to love one another, not just our families.
Eastern Rite priests and those who have come from Protestant denominations who are married also give their lives to Christ and His Church, but the witness of those priests who have freely chosen to submit to the vow of celibacy in an age that tells them romantic love and sex are the greatest goods, is to witness to the radicality of the Gospel message with their very lives. It is to choose to love with the heart of Christ to the point of living a vow very few people seem to understand, even Catholics. They freely choose out of love to engage in the difficult battles required of them against the flesh, the devil, and the world in order to remain celibate.
Rather than looking at the priesthood through the eyes of the world, we must see them as Christ and Our Lady see them. Their lives are not their own. They gave themselves away when they prostrated on the floor at their ordination Mass. They aren’t “following their hearts” or “just doing you”. Instead, they have chosen to give themselves fully to Christ for you and me, so that they can love the faithful with the tender heart of Our Lord’s Sacred Heart.
The vow of celibacy is not something we should look upon with derision or pity. Instead, we should see it as a gift through which priests can come to radiate the love of Christ out to the world through their example of self-emptying love. The witness of our good and holy priests who fight the good fight in order to remain true to their vows is desperately needed in an age of scandal and in a culture that has lost its way. Pray for our priests and bishops.