Thursday, June 21, 2018

Corrupt bishops: why it is a problem: Part 1

The shocking news about Cardinal McCarrick prompts me to repost this, from September 2014. The subsequent posts on the series can be seen here and here.


It is hard to think of a precedent in England and Wales for what has happened to Bishop Kieran Conry, though there are plenty from other countries. The downfall of Cardinal O'Brien over the border in Scotland is an obvious one, a closer parallel, however, is afforded by the career of late Bishop of Argyll and the Isles (in north west Scotland), 'Roddy' Wright. I discussed this on this blog because Mgr Basil Loftus had declared that Bishop Wright had merely wanted to get married to the woman he loved. How sweet. Loftus neglected to mention that the wretched Wright had been having affairs with two women, one of them married, simultaneously, and eloped (this was back in 1996) with the one by whom he had not had a child; other affairs had apparently preceded this.

I have no wish to engage in prurient judgmentalism about Bishop Conry, but precisely because this is a new thing for us in England and Wales it is important to consider what we should learn from it.

What Basil Loftus would like us to conclude - and Catherine Pepinster, editor of the Tablet, was quick to make this point on Twitter - is that it is further evidence that mandatory clerical celibacy should be ended. This reaction has become such an ingrained reflex among liberals that they haven't stopped to think about the circumstances of this case. What sort of 'marriage' would have suited Bishop Conry or Bishop Wright? Some sort of free-wheeling polyamorous ménage, one assumes, open to women who are inconveniently married to other men, men who aren't necessarily very happy about sharing the marital bed with their bishop.

No, one must recognise this for what it is. Liberals can talk chirpily about priests merely 'falling in love', and how the problem could be solved by letting them marry, but there is a huge problem here of the priest's spiritual authority, a problem exacerbated when the cleric is a bishop. I've no idea what happened with Bishop Conry, but the stereotyped story, which has happened often enough, is of a woman who comes to a priest with a problem about her marriage, and if the priest is 'down with the kids' and lacks the formality and boundaries vital for the job, they end up in bed together. The priest may be a calculating serial adulterer or he may be naive, but this isn't a normal relationship of equals, or even a 'normal' adulterous affair, because the priest's spiritual authority has the effect of making the women think that, at least in its opening stages, what is happening must be ok, and anyway she is both in awe of him, and aware that he can make things difficult for her if resists. The priest's prestige and authority makes the situation intrinsically problematic, even abusive.

In the recent past, when sanity had not yet departed the education system in despair, it was thought a matter of serious professional misconduct for a teacher or even university tutor to have an affair with a pupil or student, because the teacher's prestige, in the student's eyes, and power over the student, makes the whole thing unfair. This is true to a far greater extent with priests, and even more so with bishops.

Does this mean that it would be hugely problematic simply to end 'clerical celibacy'? Yes it does. How do the Orthodox deal with the problem? They don't: their priests and bishops are not allowed to marry. How can this reality be conveyed through the liberals' thick skulls? Let me say it again: the Orthodox churches do not permit priests and bishops to marry. On the eve of their diaconate seminarians conventionally find a wife, before ordination; if she dies, they may not remarry. Only celibates - generally speaking that means monks - are consecrated bishops. Priests flirting and courting and getting married among the Orthodox? No, no, no.

Please note that when serious people talk about changing the discipline of celibacy in the Latin Church, they are talking about the possibility of adopting the Orthodox approach, and that is what the concessions to convert Anglican clerics amounts to. No serious person imagines that the Church could just allow priests to marry. And married bishops? Forget it. And will priests be allowed to have a series of adulterous affairs one day? Er...

How do the Anglicans manage it? As best they can. One can at least observe that their theology of the ordained ministry does not place create quite such a disproportion of power in the cleric vis-a-vis the object of his, or her, attentions; that courtship and marriage during training or very early in a clerical career is somewhat less problematic, than later; and that clerical courtships have always provided our separated brethren with a rich vein of humour. Who can forget Trollope's superb fictional widow Mrs Bold boxing the ear of the insufferable bishop's chaplain, Mr Slope, in response to his proposal of marriage? The tremulous advances of Dr. Chasuble towards Miss Prism in Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest? Or Sydney Smith's observation:

How can a bishop marry? How can he flirt? The most he can say is, 'I will see you in the vestry after service.'

When it comes to priests bound by a vow of celibacy, dealing with (often married) women in a very vulnerable emotional state, seduction, however, is no laughing matter. It is not a peccadillo we should shrug off indulgently. It is a very serious moral evil, with an ever-widening circle of victims. By all means let us pray for Bishop Conry. The revelation of his crimes should make us more vigilant, not less, about the way priests behave.

It is time we put the boot on the other foot. When this kind of thing happens, we must learn to say, not that the rules should be relaxed somehow, but that the touchy-feely, hugging-and-kissing, face-to-face confession, open-necked shirt approach to the priesthood is collapsing under its own contradictions. A more traditional conception of the priesthood is actually the only one which is going to stop behaviour in which women are hurt, children are hurt, husbands are hurt, parishes are hurt, and priests are ultimately destroyed.

2011 05 21_9735
Ordinations in the Traditional rite for the FSSP in Denton, Nabraska, USA
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  1. A small point - eastern Orthodox seminarians must marry, if at all, before diaconate ordination.

  2. Well said, Dr Shaw. Being very familiar with Church finances and giving, I can say with some confidence that if the Church in this country started ordaining married men to the priesthood as a general rule, it would be bankrupt overnight. The only reason that we can cope with the ministry of married deacons is that deacons are non-stipendiary unless they work in an employed post for the Church.

    In purely practical terms, the idea is a non-starter without even considering the spiritual, sacramental and prophetic value of a celibate priesthood. We should all give thanks to God for the great majority of our priests who live out their celibate vocation faithfully. They give us great strength, grace and witness. When celibacy is understood and lived properly, it edifies and magnifies the exalted vocation to Holy Matrimony - it in no way detracts from it.

  3. Long before 1996, the question of +Roddy Wright's daily whereabouts [and conduct?] was a matter of speculation, even by a parish priest as far South as you could get in Scotland, actually on the Border.Therefore, it must have been nationwide.

  4. Just to be fair for the Liberals, I think their argument is probably that being deprived of marriage and hence the inability to satisfy a natural inclination, priests tend to go for these sort of relationships to satisfy those natural inclinations. So they aren't saying that a priest should be allowed to have adulterous relationship but that if the priest had been married, such abuses would be less among the priesthood.

    That does seem more closer to asking for something like that of the Orthodox.

    But my personal opinion is that such abuses can be avoided by not giving the priestly sacrament to folks who are struggling a lot with concupiscence in the first place (so something like following the advise given by St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 7:8-9).

    Also, I think our priests fail because there is something really broken in our culture. We have no boundaries to interactions between men and women in general. Friendships are formed between men and women in the same way men will form friendships with fellow men. That leads to problems. I think our ancestors approached friendships with the opposite sex cautiously for this very reason. But since this is completely unheard of today (even among some traditional circles), you have problematic sexual relations even among the married. Seeing priests end up in something like this then is not that unusual.

    Then there is of course the issues with modesty in our culture and the obsession with sex. Both men and women are given the impression that if they have strong feelings toward another, they must satisfy them. So a woman who starts having feelings for a priest tries to pursue that reality and the priest can easily fall for it as well.

    I don't mean to excuse priests but I think the reality in these situations is that it is not as a result of a priest using his authority to make a woman consent to sleep with him. As the old saying goes, it takes two to tango. In most cases, I think we just see the fruits of our own culture that was allowed to foster and grow by priests and Bishops that largely remained silent without saying anything much against the growing decadence.

    1. You've answered your own question.

      If liberals think everything would be hunky dory with married priests, they need to take a look at the divorce rate.

      In that context, I think it is reasonable to look at clerics who get through multiple mistresses and wonder if they would be faithful within marriage. In fact, even more simply, we can ask whether people who don't take their vow of chastity seriously will be able to take an oath of fidelity seriously.

      As for where the fault lies, yes of course it takes two to tange but there is also such a thing as an advantage of one person over another; this is what I've tried to explain in the post.

    2. I think the problem is that we would be arguing 'after the fact'. A person could argue (and it sounds reasonable) that balancing for all other factors, a priest if he had been married would have been less tempted at attempting a casual fling in the first place. After all, if the priest had a wife, in the event that he felt some pangs of concupiscence, he has his wife. But a celibate priest will have to fight a more difficult fight to overcome those pangs.

      So from that perspective, it would not make sense to wonder whether a priest in polygamous relationships can be made to settle down in one marriage. Therefore, I think the Liberal point is perhaps reasonable to some extent in this particular case involving adults (though not in the case of pedophile priests).

      The Liberal claim does contain an unreasonable portion in that it begins with the implicit premise that celibacy is really unnecessary. So their untold portion of the argument is that they believe priests should just be allowed to marry rather than suffer over an unnecessary rule.

      The Catholic Church should counter argue (at least in my opinion) by showing why celibacy is necessary for the priesthood. If it is necessary, the solution cannot lie with the abolishing of celibacy but with other solutions like picking better candidates or changing the culture.

  5. Let's not forget our celibate religious. Why should their 'natural inclinations' be curbed, maybe we should allow coed monasteries.

  6. Surely if Bishop Conry had quietly resigned 'for personal reasons' this would have prevented the scandal. If he were penitent he could have moved to a monastery. My feeling is that he has only made this public announcement because the facts were due to be disclosed in the upcoming divorce proceedings being brought by the husband of one of his 'ladies'. That doesn't strike me as true penitence; rather "let me get my point in the arena before it comes out from elsewhere."

  7. I think it kinder and wiser to have celibate priesthood rather than having some poor priest widowed in his twenties and then not being able to marry again.

  8. This is not a case for mandatory celibacy. It is an argument for good selection procedures of committed candidates for the priesthood and good seminaries.

    We lost both of these in the flood of secularism and relativism that poured into the Church when St John XXIII foolishly called the Second Vatican Council and opened the doors on an unprepared and naive Hierarchy.

    But worse still, our enemies within the Church were far from naive, exactly as St Pius X had feared and predicted, and they exploited the situation by being in or gaining positions in the seminaries, the result being the dubious Hierarchy we have today.

    One other thing if I may, on looking at that photo, makes you really wonder does it not?

  9. One does wonder how many priests in years and centuries gone by had affairs, the power of the press was not what it was and so they went quietly undiscovered. Even Popes have fathered children although I believe that the last case was in 1585. But nobody is perfect.

    1. Barry,

      I had in mind the judgement of the female of the species!

  10. I remember back in the '50s (I know, I'm old!) young clergy in southern California going down to Tijuana on 'vacation'. This kind of problem is old as the hills. And hormones will out sometimes. In other situations entire religious communities have been decimated by AIDS. Whatcha gonna do?
    Frequent confession and a good spiritual director help a lot.

  11. Hmm. For some strange reason, the dress the unidentified lady is wearing has been altered. The blue that you see is not original. It has been applied after the fact of the picture being taken.

    I don't know what this adds to the discussion. However, it is very strange.

    1. It will be for the same reason as blurring her face; to prevent her being recognised (presumably her skirt has a distinctive pattern, or is perhaps part of a uniform).

      Although I think she was named in whichever tabloid exposed the affair, so both seem an unnecessary precaution, but still a politeness.