There's been quite an amount of coverage of the case of an Irish priest who announced at Mass this weekend that he's leaving ministry because of "loving, beautiful and life-giving relationship" with a woman. Needless to say, the spin that the media are putting on it is aimed at abolishing clerical celibacy. The Irish Independent headlines its account with Church cheers as priest admits that he's in love. This is - I think - the only media account which speaks about cheering. I can believe a popular priest receiving a round of applause in recognition of his work following a decision to leave the ministy, but the thought of a congregation cheering him in such circumstances strikes me as grotesque and implausible.
Now, the priest in question has been lauded for his honesty. After all, he told his congregation that because celibacy was "integral to the priesthood" he could no longer remain a priest. Fair enough. Stepping down was a more honourable action than leading the kind of double-life which has brought shame and disgrace to the ministry.
However, this doesn't change the fact that this priest is having a relationship with a married mother of two. And so, whilst he did the right thing in resigning the ministry, the truly honourable thing would have been to admit peccavi - I have sinned - rather than talking about a "loving, beautiful and life-giving relationship". Now, my heart goes out to this man. He's fallen into an adulterous relationship, a situation of serious sin. Sin being what it is, he may well be able to justify this situation to himself. Romantic love can cloud the thinking part of our brains. He may well believe that this is something postive and good in his life. Our prayers should be with him. He deserves our pity.
Less deserving of our pity, however, are those who are trying to make him some kind of poster-boy argument in favour of abolishing priestly celibacy. He is no such thing. He's an unfortunate man who proved unfaithful to the promise he took at ordination, and who failed to respect the marriage vows of his new partner. Such sin isn't an argument in favour of anything. The fact that men and women commit adultery isn't an argument in favour of making marriage a more 'open' and less permanent relationship. Would we cheer and applaud a married clergyman who was unfaithful to his wife?
This is a sad, sad, situation. But this is a time for the Church to speak clearly about the meaning of marriage and celibacy. Fidelity to marriage vows and promises of celibacy have an especial value these days. Normally, I think that situations like Fr McKenna's should be passed over with a discreet and charitable silence. Self-righteousness is ugly and none of us are without our own sins. However, when his case is being used disingenuously to undermine the value of priestly celibacy, I think that it's only right to say bluntly what is really happening.