UPDATED: Please visit the 26th Parallel blog which also had a post on this issue. In addition, Robert provided some very useful links to sites which address the issue of Priestly celibacy.
If the answer to the title post is no one’s, chances are you may be reveling in the news about a local Catholic priest who may have violated his vows. Soon, people who care not and wish ill of my Catholic Church, will be given a platform to pontificate on the issue of celibacy in the priesthood. Like a liberal Congressional delegation’s trip to Cuba, no original thought need apply, just dust off the old scripts [‘I was struck by the friendliness of the Cuban people,’ is the perennial favorite of the obsequious hordes] and watch the attacks begin.
For me, this is a good opportunity to highlight another Catholic priest I read about recently. My interest in Pierre Teilhard de Chardin is purely from the perspective of his struggles within the faith, not his wayward theologies. No disrespect intended to Fr Cutie, but the comparison is solely based on the fact that a priest’s celibacy has been called into question. The circumstances of Teilhard’s life story would make it difficult to compare anyone to him. Novelist Morris West based the character David Telemond in The Shoes of the Fisherman on Teilhard. A brief outline of his life:
1881–1955, French paleontologist and philosopher. He entered (1899) the Jesuit order, was ordained (1911), and received a doctorate in paleontology from the Sorbonne (1922). He lectured (1920–23) at the Institut Catholique in Paris. After visiting China (1923–24), he resumed teaching at the Institut, but in 1926 he was forced by his superiors to abandon teaching and return to China because of his controversial attempts to reconcile the traditional view of original sin with his concept of evolution. Shortly after his return to China, Teilhard was named adviser to the National Geological Survey, and in that capacity he collaborated on research that resulted in the discovery (1929) of Peking man. While in China (1926–46) he also completed the manuscript of The Phenomenon of Man (published posthumously, 1955), in which he outlined his concept of cosmic evolution and his conviction that belief in evolution does not entail a rejection of Christianity.
Evolution he saw to be a process involving all matter, not just biological material, the cosmos undergoing successively more complex changes that would lead ultimately to “Omega Point,” which has been variously interpreted as the integration of all personal consciousness and as the second coming of Christ.
I had come to know about Teilhard from Tom Wolfe. He had mentioned him in a now classic magazine article called, ‘Sorry, But Your Soul Just Died.’ The article was about the development of neuroscience. He later wrote of him again in one of the essays of his book [I wouldn’t make THIS up], Hooking Up. Here is part of what Wolfe wrote about Teilhard in the book’s essay, ‘Digibabble, Fairy Dust, and the Human Anthill’:
As a young man he experienced three passionate callings: the priesthood, science, and Paris. He was the sort of worldly priest European hostesses at the turn of the century would die for: tall, dark and handsome, and aristocratic on top of that…. Every other woman in le monde swore she would be the one to separate this glamorous Jesuit from his vows.
Teilhard had glamour to burn. At the age of thirty-two he had been the French star of the most sensational archaeological find of all time, the Piltdown man, the so-called missing link in the evolution of ape to man [two years before his death, it was revealed to have been a hoax]. A year later, when World War I broke out Teilhard refused the chance to serve as chaplain in favor of going to the front as a stretcher bearer rescuing the wounded in the midst of combat. Meanwhile, in the lulls between battles he had begun writing the treatise with which he hoped to unify all of science and all of religion.
“With the evolution of Man,” he wrote, ” a new law of nature has come into force–that of convergence.” Biological evolution had created step one, “expansive convergence.” In the 20th century, by means of technology, God was creating “compressive convergence.” Homo sapiens were being united by a “stupendous thinking machine” that would cover the earth like “a thinking skin.” Before almost all of the technology we know today was either invented or refined, Teilhard foresaw what is known now as the Internet.
Teilhard has also argued that biological evolution [Darwin’s theory] had been nothing more that God’s first step in an infinity grander design. However, a priest was not allowed to put anything into print without his superiors’ approval. Given his then heretical views on evolution, Teilhard was never allowed to publish any of his works [six books in total]. He accepted the restrictions because he could not envision leaving the Church.
Lucille Swan could. Lovely Mrs. Swan was in her late thirties and arrived in Peking in 1929 on the China leg of a world tour aimed at diluting the bitterness of her recent breakup. She couldn’t get over him. He was the right age, 48, a celebrated scientist, a war hero, and the most gorgeous white man in Peking. The crowning touch of glamour was his brave doomed relationship with his own church. She had him over to the house daily for ‘tea.’ When she was away, he wrote her letters of great tenderness. “Remember, whatever sweetness I force myself not to give you, I do in order to be worthy of you.”
Whether Teilhard ever failed his oath of celibacy could obviously be questioned, what can not be questioned was his desire to serve God as a priest, with all the sacrifices, frustrations and obedience that entailed. His service to God through the Catholic Church is all the more impressive because it was so obviously a struggle on many levels. Why do we think it’s not supposed to be?
So the next time you hear the obligatory jokes about other priests and their struggles, a better use of your time might be to say a silent prayer for a priest who struggled like Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. Or who knows, perhaps someone still in the struggle. Because if Teilhard had left the Church, or if a Fr Cutie does now, the real loss is all the good they could have done as priests going undone.
My thoughts on the subject are driven by a desire not to be measured by my own sins, even ones of the flesh. To have the prospects of a lifetime of service as a priest be negated by the failure to never have violated their celibate vows seems like a trade-off only a Screwtape would encourage. So whose struggle are you getting involved with? Or would you rather tell me the one about the priest ….