The Legion of Christ religious order, still reeling from 2009 revelations that its late founder was a pedophile who fathered three children, was hit Tuesday by another scandal after its most well-known priest admitted he had fathered a child several years ago.
The Rev. Thomas Williams, a moral theologian and prominent American author, lecturer and television personality, said in a statement he was "deeply sorry for this grave transgression" against his vows of celibacy. He said he would be taking a year off to reflect on what he had done and his commitment to the priesthood.
Williams' admission was issued after The Associated Press last week presented the Legion with the allegation against Williams, which was lodged by a Spanish association of Legion victims.
When I posted this story on Facebook the other day, a friend of mine whom I know to be a faithful priest made the comment, "You have my permission to beat the living shit out of me if I ever pull something like this." I assured him that I would, and would do so because I love him as my friend and fellow Catholic.
Of course, I can imagine that somewhere another priest might be reading this and thinking, you don't know what it's like . . . You're right, I don't. I can only imagine - no, I know based upon my conversations with priests - that the toughest part of the job is not the celibacy so much as it is the loneliness.
The sexual urge can be overcome. Exercise. Prayer. And yes, priests will fail like the rest of us with masturbation. I can say it can be overcome because there was a time when I was single and devout, and could not engage in intimate relations according to Church teachings. And as a married woman, I am mandated to remain chaste to my marriage vows. Being married does not mean that I am immune to sexual urges towards other men; it means I choose not to act upon them. And do not place so much importance on sex. There are people who are not having sex for various reasons, but we do not immediately harbor suspicions of, say, socially unattractive people. At least not as quickly as society seems to do for priests.
But back to loneliness and the need to find some external source providing a person worth. Because that is what it is all about, isn't it? We can all reach around and pat ourselves on the back, but it feels so much better when someone else is doing it. Maybe a priest does not stop to think that the grass is not always greener on the other side: there are plenty of lonely people in relationships where they come home to their partner only to find that not only is the significant other not asking them how their day went, they don't care.
And what of hubris? One person commented on Facebook that this seems to be common with "celebrity priests." Well, I think it may get more publicity with celebrity priests, whereas the Fr. Joe Schmo in the parish of Our Lady of Anonymity who may be "skirting the rules " (or "pants-ing" them, depending on his orientation) just does not come up on the gossip radar. Well, he does - priests do not realize how much their parishioners know and speculate - but not to the point where it makes the newspapers. Unless it's a slow news day, since bringing to light the failings of the Catholic Church is second best to bloody tragedies for getting online hits.
But I cannot be cynical. Let me say this: as a Catholic, I find this heartbreaking. It allows despair to enter into our faith since who are we to fight sin in ourselves when the men who volunteered to put on the collar fail to do the same. Is it worth being Catholic when those tasked to help us to holiness treat themselves so shabbily? Never mind making Baby Jesus cry - it makes me weep, for fellow laity but most of all, for the priesthood. Both for the faithful priests - who have to live with the suspicion and mocking that the behavior of their brother priests bring to their vocation - and the unfaithful priests, who despite their failings are still consecrated to God and bring God's Grace through the Sacraments in persona Christi. That is an awesome enough task to do for the average priest, but for the one with "unclean hands" - to use a legal term of art - I can only imagine how much more effort is needed by the saints and angels in praying for his soul.
And that prayer comes from me. I recently put together a Photoshop project for a friend who wants to honor a young seminarian to be ordained in a short time. Recently, I heard this seminarian preach at a Mass and received an inner glow as to his earnest nature and the joy he was feeling as he approached his big day, so it was with this love for the priesthood that made this project a joy to do. It allowed me to reflect on a prayer for priests, coming from one of the great Saints of the Church, as I worked, making my handicraft also a prayer. It was cathartic for me, helping to remove cynicism and resentment from my heart regarding unfaithful priests. I can still be angry at someone like Fr. Williams above for what he did - and I hate it when these admissions only come out when they have been "caught" - but I can also honestly (1) pray for his redemption and (b) rejoice that he at least said that he will take time off "to reflect on what he had done and his commitment to the priesthood." Maybe it will mean he will return to his vocation. Maybe it will mean he seeks laicization and becomes a faithful member of the laity. In any way, I hope it means a return to God's Grace, since it is open to all. And, by the way, I hope he understands and steps up to his responsibility as an actual father for his child.
Another friend made this comment on Facebook:
At times such as this and in situations as what has happened with this priest, it is important to remember that the clergy are no less prone to the effects of concupiscence as any of the rest of us...unfortunately, there is no special "clergy pill" that will release the clergy from the inclinations of the flesh. However, as simplistic as it may sound, I think that if one were to dig deep enough, or be able to do so, they might find that members of the clergy who fall so publicly are often not otherwise engaged in a life with prayer at its center, without which we are all more prone to fall, but especially our priests and deacons.
This same friend is in permanent deacon formation himself and he and I have had a long conversation about the Divine Office and the mandate for priests and deacons to pray it. Daily. I wonder how many priests get too busy and skip that, and what percentage of those have problems - infidelity, sloth, alcoholism, pride, resentment, gluttony, etc. - with their own vocations. One of the gifts given to me by a priest came from a sermon one Sunday when he said something that resonated with me: I know God exists because I know prayer works. And so, I refuse to give up - if men of the cloth who fall have given up on prayer, I will pray for them.
All of them.