By ANDREA TORNIELLI
Editorial Director of Vatican News
The topic of “children of priests” has long been considered taboo, with the result that often, especially in the past, these children grew up without a known and acknowledged father. This topic, then, is distinct from the questions addressed in last week’s Meeting in the Vatican, which focused on the abuse committed against minors.
Recently, Irish psychotherapist Vincent Doyle, a son of a priest, was present in Rome. He is the founder of “Coping International”, an association for the defence of the rights of children fathered by Catholic priests throughout the world. Doyle wants to waive his anonymity and offer psychological help to “the many people born from a relationship between a woman and a priest” in various parts of the world. In recent interviews with diverse media, Doyle has spoken of a document of the Congregation for the Clergy, regarding the attitude to be taken in these cases. The existence of these internal documents — sometimes described, inaccurately, as “secret” — has been known since 2017, and the general criteria regarding protecting the children of priests was recently confirmed by Alessandro Gisotti, the Director ad interim of the Holy See Press Office. Vatican News spoke with Cardinal Beniamino Stella, the Prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy, which has the responsibility of dealing with cases of this sort.
Andrea Tornielli: What are the criteria that guide the decisions to be made in the case of priests with children?
Cardinal Stella: The Dicastery follows the longstanding practices from the time when Cardinal Claudio Hummes was prefect — about ten years — who first brought to the attention of the Holy Father (at the time, Benedict XVI) the cases of priests under the age of 40 with children, proposing that they obtain the dispensation [from clerical state] without waiting for the age of 40, as provided for in the norms [in force] at the time. Such a decision had, and has, as its principle objective, the safeguarding of the good of the child, that is, the right of the child to have at his side a father as well as a mother. Pope Francis, too, who had already expressed himself in this sense as Cardinal Archbishop of Buenos Aires, during a conversation with Rabbi Abraham Skorka, published in the book, “On Heaven and Earth”, spoke categorically: the priority focus on the part of the priest must be with regard to the children.
Q. What is meant by “priority focus”?
A. Certainly it does not refer only to the necessary economic support. What must accompany the growth of the child above all is the affection of the parents, an adequate education, in fact, all that pertains to an effective and responsible exercise of paternity, especially in the early years of life.
Q. Can you tell us what the document you spoke of consists of?
A. It concerns a text entitled “Nota relative alla prassi della Congregazione per il Clero a proposito dei chierici con prole” [Notes concerning the practice of the Congregation for the Clergy with regard to clerics with children], that gathers together and organises the practices in force for years at the Dicastery. As was already explained, it concerns a working instrument to be referred to when presented with a situation of this kind; a “technical” text for the collaborators of the Dicastery, from which they may take guidance. It was only for this reason that it was not published. So it happens that Mr Doyle was able to review it two years ago. This text was routinely presented, with commentary from the Congregation to the Episcopal Conferences and to individual Bishops who dealt with the question and asked how to proceed.
Q. Can you explain how the Dicastery which you head currently deals with these cases?
A. The presence of children in the dossiers related to priestly dispensations was treated, de facto, as a practically “automatic” reason for an expedited presentation of the case to the Holy Father, with the intention of obtaining the concession of the dispensation. It sought then to enable that the dispensation from the obligations of the clerical state should be obtained in the shortest time possible — a couple of months — so that the priest might be able to be close by the side of the mother in following the child. A situation of this kind is considered “irreversible” and requires the priest to abandon the clerical state even if he considers himself fit for ministry. An approximate calculation of the requests for dispensations shows that about 80 percent of these involve the presence of children, although often conceived after the ministry has already been abandoned.
Q. Are these rules applied always and everywhere? Do they apply even in cases in which the priest with a child does not want to ask for a dispensation from the ministry?
A. Sometimes it happens that Bishops or Religious Superiors present the situation of priests who do not intend to ask for a dispensation, even when there are children, especially when the affective relationship with their mother has ended. In such cases there are, unfortunately, Bishops and Superiors who think that, after having provided economically for the children, or after having transferred the priest, the cleric could continue to exercise the ministry. The uncertainty in this matter, then, comes from the resistance of the priests to request a dispensation, from the absence of an affective relationship with the woman; and, at times, from the desire of some Ordinaries to offer to the penitent and repentant priest a new ministerial opportunity. When, according to the evaluation of the responsible Bishop or Superior, the situation demands that the priest should be made to accept the responsibilities deriving from paternity, but does not want to request a dispensation, the case is presented to the Congregation for the dismissal from the clerical state. Obviously, a child is always a gift from God, no matter how he or she was conceived. The loss of the clerical state is imposed because parental responsibility creates a series of permanent obligations that in the legislation of the Latin Church does not provide for the exercise of the priestly ministry.
Q. Is this rule general and always valid, or is each case dealt with in a different manner?
A. Obviously, each case is examined on its merits and its own particular circumstances. The exceptions are actually very rare. For example, in the case of a new-born, the child of a priest, who in a particular situation enters into a family already consolidated, in which another parent assumes in his/her regard the role of the father. Or when it comes to an older priest, with children who are already “grown-up”, 20-30 years old. Priests who had in their youth an unfortunate affective occurrence, and who then provided for the children with economic, moral, and spiritual accompaniment; and who now exercise their ministry with zeal and commitment, after having overcome their previous affective fragility. In these situations, the Dicastery does not oblige the Bishop to invite the priests to request a dispensation. This, it seems to me, concerns cases in which the Dicastery counsels a more flexible discernment within the rigorous practice and guidelines of the Congregation.
Q. How would you respond to those who maintain that the presence of children of priests is an argument for the introduction of optional celibacy for priests in the Latin church?
A. The fact that some priests have experienced relationships and have brought children into the world does not affect the theme of priestly celibacy, which represents a precious gift for the Latin Church, the ever-present value of which has been expressed by the recent Popes, from St Paul VI to Pope Francis. Similarly, cases of abandonment of the matrimonial union and from the children do not take away from the ever-present value of Christian marriage. What is important is that the priest, in dealing with the reality of the situation, should be able to understand his responsibilities with regard to the child: the child’s well-being and care of the child must be at the centre of the Church's attention, so that the child does not lack, not only the necessities of life, but especially the educative role and the affection of a father.