There is a story about Pope St John XXIII when he was Patriarch of Venice that, as the Italians say, if it’s not true, it ought to be.
At a formal dinner in the patriarchal palace, Cardinal Angelo Roncalli was being hectored by a guest for his continuing solicitude for a fallen priest. He gave a dramatic reply. Holding up a crystal wine goblet, he asked the guest, “Whose is this?”
“It is yours, Eminence.”
Roncalli then threw the precious glass down, shattering it into many pieces. “And whose is it now?” the patriarch asked.
“Still yours,” replied the guest.
Would the answer be the same today? Or would there be a hurry to sweep up the debris, dumping it into the nearest bin as quickly as possible?
That (apocryphal?) story came to mind in reading the latest document from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith about priestly sexual abuse cases. The vademecum, published in July, provides an overview of all the relevant legislation and best practices for handling allegations. It got a widely positive reception.
This caught my eye: “From the time of the notitia de delicto, the accused has the right to present a petition to be dispensed from all the obligations connected with the clerical state, including celibacy, and, concurrently, from any religious vows. The Ordinary or Hierarch must clearly inform him of this right” (#157).
Thus, among the very first things a bishop must do upon receiving an allegation of a crime (notitia de delicto), is to advise the priest that he can ask for laicisation. If the priest decides to go voluntarily, that doesn’t by itself end the process, which the vademecum says should continue to establish justice for the victim. An efficient laicisation does though get rid of the priest; no longer the diocese’s responsibility, no longer the diocese’s problem. The broken glass is disposable, and encouraged to ask for disposal.
The vademecum confirms the vast change in ecclesial culture wrought by the scandals, from secrecy to openness, from opacity to transparency, from ignoring victims to believing them, from indifference toward compassion, from cover-up to justice, and – it must be conceded in some cases – from the presumption of innocence to a presumption of guilt.
Advising the accused at an early stage about the option of laicisation represents another big cultural shift, one with theological implications. The Roncalli anecdote that a broken priest is still a priest, still the bishop’s son and brother, still the concern of the diocese, is rooted in the sacramental theology of ordination, which leaves an indelible mark on the soul, a “sacramental character”. A priest is a priest forever, in heaven to his greater glory, in hell to his greater condemnation. It is common to hear sung at ordinations a setting of Tu es Sacerdos in aeternum – You are Priest forever.
The Church has not changed that teaching. But the culture of the priesthood is changing in practice. There is an urge to hustle the wayward priest out the door. Many bishops have told me – some proudly, some regretfully – that allegations are often handled now with an eye to getting the priest quickly through to laicisation, voluntarily or otherwise. Little attention is given to saving the priesthood and priestly life of the man, even if public ministry is no longer possible.
This is partly due to a more functional understanding of the priesthood, that a priest is important for what he does, rather than who he is. And if he can no longer function as a priest, then better to get him out of the priesthood altogether, rather than have him live a reserved priestly life in a monastery or religious house.
If the functional is a low view of the priesthood, there is higher view that is also at work here. The older culture was rooted in the sacramental character of ordination; today there is greater emphasis on the “iconic” role of the priest. A priest is meant not only to act in persona Christi, but to be an icon of Jesus Christ. People ought to see Jesus in the priest, or to see through the priest to Jesus. A priest guilty of serious misconduct has lost the capacity to be such an icon, and therefore his priesthood has been damaged, perhaps fatally. Both low and high views militate in favour of getting the fallen priest quickly to laicisation.
That shift toward laicisation is not only in the context of sexual abuse, but can be seen for other kinds of misconduct or even priests who are difficult personalities, difficult to place. A priest forever is still Catholic teaching; it is diminishing as Catholic practice.
Fr Raymond J de Souza is a priest of the Archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario, and founding editor of convivium.ca