In 1248, Archbishop Odo of Rigaud, in Normandy, made a tour of his diocese and recorded sexual and other irregularities in the lives of his clergy. The priest in Ruiville had fathered a child with the wife of a stonecarver and was said to have many other children as well. The priest in Gonnetot was misbehaving with two women, while the one in Wanestanville was living with the wife of a parishioner who had been at sea for eight years, "and she is pregnant."

The account continues. One smiles to read that "Ralph, priest of Essources, is gravely ill-famed of incontinence." It all seems Chaucerian: humorous and not quite real, no cause for shock some 800 years later. Yet Chaucer lived to regret the ribald way in which he had treated violations of priestly celibacy in his "Canterbury Tales." In his "Retractions" at the end of the tales, he sorrowed over having written of such "worldly vanities" and asked for true penitence "through the benign grace of him that is king of kings and priest over all priests." Chaucer is not the only Catholic to have been at once fascinated and appalled by clerical sexual lapses.

If comedy is merely tragedy disguised, a more somber reaction to priestly misdeeds inevitably accompanies the Chaucerian laughter. Teresa of Avila described a vision she had while attending a Mass said by a priest in mortal sin. Devils writhed about the altar, slithered over the priest, and leered in triumph. That was an extreme version of the reaction of many lay people today to priestly lapses: Although they are mindful of human frailty, they believe that something has gone gravely amiss. Perhaps it is long and uninterrupted faithfulness to clerical vows that should surprise us more than sins--for we are all sinners--but most Catholics at heart want their priests to be true to the vocation to which they have been called.

In his novel "The Power and the Glory," Graham Greene portrayed two priests who reacted differently to the horrors of the Mexican Revolution. The only way a priest could escape execution at the height of that country's anti-clericalist terror during the 1930s was by repudiating his priesthood. He could seal that repudiation by taking a wife. Padre José, fat, weak, heartrending, marries and then is taunted by the village children who gather around his house at night fall, mimicking the wife who calls out to him, "Come to bed, José. Come to bed." Defeated and mocked, smiling forgivingly at the taunts, José shuffles inside to perform what has become a duty indeed.

Characteristically, Greene does not oppose a paragon of priestly virtue to Padre José. Indeed, the nameless hero of his novel is a chronically drunk "whiskey priest" who has lived with a woman himself and fathered a child by her. But this unlikely hero, despite all his weaknesses and fears, refuses to recant his vows or to slip north across the border. He slogs on in his alcoholic fog doing the work for which he was ordained--and becoming a martyr in the process.

When I was a boy, E. Boyd Barrett's 1949 book, "Shepherds in the Mist," was a Catholic best-seller, telling of another kind of fallen priest: those who abandoned their vows not under threat of of persecution but voluntarily because of drink or women or both (loss of faith and a feeling that they had chosen the wrong vocation were other reasons, as they are today). Those ex-priests typically wandered in outer darkness where they were exploited by Protestant revivalists and evangelicals interested in horror stories about the Roman church. Barrett himself was a former Jesuit who married and had a family but eventually, as a widower, came back to Catholicism. Not to the active priesthood, but to a life of penance such as Chaucer wished for himself when he foreswore worldly vanities in his "Retractions." This was the typical treatment for priests who defected and repented. A strong stigma attached to breaking clerical vows that were supposed to be permanent.

After the Second Vatican Council, the circumstances surrounding priestly laicization changed drastically overnight. It became common for dissatisfied priests during the 1960s and 1970s to apply to Rome for permission to return to secular life--permission that was suddenly easy to get. The formal criteria for obtaining it did not change, but there was a new emphasis on psychological factors, such as seminary peer pressure to take priestly vows when not ready. A man who was once a Catholic priest could now be quickly returned to the lay state, marry, and live like anyone else--with little "penitential" stigma.

Many of the newly laicized priests felt an urge to explain to the public what they had done. Some professed to have been almost surprised by the centuries-old requirement of celibacy, as if it had been sprung on them on the morning of ordination. Others groused about the low quality of their seminary educations. Others, like James Shannon, auxiliary bishop of St. Paul, Minnesota, before he left the priesthood in 1968, defended his subsequent marriage as an act of solidarity with the laity to whom the church denied the use of artificial contraceptives. Still others opined that their newly active sex lives were a sign of maturity--as though priestly and religious chastity was a matter of arrested adolescence. And of course many just wanted to get married and leave the theorizing to someone else. Surely it is no accident that the great exodus from the priesthood coincided with the Sexual Revolution. The celibate man or woman was suddenly doubly counter-cultural: at home with neither the married mainstream nor the free-loving hippies.

The priesthood is forever theologically, so, formally laicized or not, a man who leaves to marry is a married priest--although a priest who is not permitted to function as such. Under Pope Paul VI, Rome granted laicization almost for the asking. Paul was said to think that after the dissastisfied priests had left, things would settle down. But, as with divorce, the easy availability of laicization increased the instances of it. Pope John Paul II slammed the door on the procedure when he took office in 1978, and it is perhaps as difficult to get laicized now as it was in E. Boyd Barrett's day. That is to say, all but impossible.

I have made notes for a novel in which a laicized priest is called to his father's deathbed. The dying man refuses to receive the last rites from anyone but his son. The son has lost his faith and even if he did not, he wonders: Is this a sufficient emergency? (If you are seated beside a laicized priest when your plane is going down, he can give you absolution.) The elements of drama are there. A father trying to blackmail his son into resuming his priestly function. The son, no longer believing that what his father wants is meaningful, nonetheless pulled back into the ambience of grace and sin and life everlasting.

Perhaps it is best to ponder such matters in fiction. In the half-imaginary world of the novel, a man who applied for laicization with the shallow motivation of partaking of the Sexual Revolution might find marriage no more adhesive than the priesthood. He might flit from flower to flower. The call back to his father's deathbed might be his salvation. You can take the man out of the priesthood, but you can't take the priesthood out of the man. That is what the church has always taught, and it always leaves open a door of repentance for priests who, like the rest of us, are human and sin.

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