Catholic Doctrine: Priestly Dignity

March 07, 2019

In an interview on February 27, 2019 with Andrea Tornielli, the editorial director of the Dicastery for Communications, Cardinal Beniamino Stella, prefect of the Congregration for the Clergy, explained the rules applied by his Dicastery for priests of the Latin rite in the case of biological paternity.

He revealed the existence of a Note inspired by Cardinal Claudio Hummes, who was his predecessor under Benedict XVI, between 2006 and 2010. 

It appears that for the past ten years, the case of priests who have children is dealt with by granting them a dispensation from the priestly obligations without further ado. Cardinal Stella justified this practice with a quote from Pope Francis when he was still the Cardinal-Archbishop of Buenos Aires. If a priest has a child, he explained, “slowly, I begin to explain to him that natural right to life comes before his rights as a priest. He therefore has a duty to leave the ministry and take care of his child, even if he decides not to marry the woman” (Jorge Bergoglio, On Heaven and Earth). 

This justification is profoundly inadequate, as is the practice it justifies. The reason is that the man, by divine grace, has entered into an order that infinitely surpasses natural law. That which is inferior cannot, therefore, precede that which is superior, and force it to give way. Thus, the priest, by positive divine law, has obligations to God and the Church. Obligations that, according to the tradition of the Latin Church, are incompatible with any family life whatsoever. This delicate issue requires an explanation.

God created man “in His image and likeness” (Gen. 1:26). The Church interprets image as the spiritual nature of man. God is a Spirit, and man resembles Him insofar as he is also a spirit. The likeness is supernatural grace. Man, in Adam, was granted a participation in the divine and nature and a friendship with God. The Creator wished to call man to share in His own life and destined him to enjoy it for all eternity. This resemblance, that was lost through original sin, was restored to man by Jesus Christ.

Natural Order and Supernatural Order

From the moment of his creation, man was placed in the natural order as part of the sensitive world because of his body. But he was also placed in a supernatural order, through which he is directly attached to the life of the Trinity, the intimate life of God. Belonging to two orders, he is subject to two laws: the natural law or right because of his human nature and the supernatural law or right through grace.

Now, while these two rights must coexist harmoniously and cannot contradict each other, it remains true that the latter has preeminence over the former: the supernatural is grafted onto nature, but infinitely surpasses it. That is why the Church, a supernatural society, has superiority over civil societies, natural societies. These societies disappear over time, and none will remain after the end of the world; but the Church has the promises of eternal life.

This truth that applies to societies also applies to individuals. The duties that come from supernatural law surpass those that come from natural law. Thus, for example, the natural law encourages us to save ourselves, but we must sacrifice our life to defend the Faith. A striking illustration can be found in the story of Abraham: God asked him to sacrifice his own son. By obeying God perfectly, he became the father of all believers. But as we know, God was pleased with the patriarch’s submission and did not require the bloody sacrifice of his son.

The Greatness of the Priest

The priest participates in the priesthood of our Great High Priest, Jesus Christ, through an indelible mark—the character—imprinted in his soul by his priestly ordination, and through the grace associated with this character. That is the source of all his greatness. We can adapt and apply to him St. Leo’s words to all Christians: “Recognize, o priest, your dignity… Remember the priesthood and the grace in which you participate” (cf. St. Leo the Great, Sermon 21): You are a priest with Christ in aeternum, forever.

The priest, before receiving the priesthood, promised—in the Latin Church—to remain celibate. This celibacy is therefore particularly connected to the priestly dignity. The priest is such because he is configured to Christ the High Priest in a very special way. That is why the Church, before the current crisis, only very rarely consented to reduce a priest to the lay state, in the case of a particularly grave fault.

The history of the Church shows us the application of this principle in difficult time periods: the priest, despite his miseries, remains in the priesthood with all the help that the solicitude of his Holy Mother the Church can offer him. Abandoning this wisdom diminishes in the minds of the faithful, as well as of the priests, the eminent dignity of the priesthood. It facilitates and perpetuates these failures and desertions.