I was always taught to respect the clergy. Give them the benefit of the doubt. Should criticism be necessary, let it be as gentle as possible. But what do we do when the clergy harm each other? Cardinal Kevin Farrell’s recent comments about priests lacking credibility for preparing couples for marriage amounts to an attack on every priest in Christendom. He makes an unnecessary criticism, in a harsh manner. Worst, his comments bring disrespect to the priestly office itself. A bit of thought, plus a brief look into the Cardinal’s background, may help explain his comments, wrongheaded though they are.
Cardinal Farrell’s Claims
Let’s review the Cardinal’s comments:
During an interview … Cardinal Kevin Farrell, prefect of the Vatican’s Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life, said that ‘priests are not the best people to train others for marriage.’
They have no credibility; they have never lived the experience; they may know moral theology, dogmatic theology in theory, but to go from there to putting it into practice every day … they don’t have the experience.
Sweeping statement. No benefit of the doubt. Harsh. One cannot doubt the Cardinal’s meaning, because he made similar comments last September.
If he is trying to say that laity should be involved with marriage prep, I can get behind that. (I educate the public about Church teaching.) Farrell could easily have invited more lay involvement without taking a swing at his fellow priests. He could have simply said, “We’re overworked. Help!!” No one would have batted an eye.
Cardinal Farrell seems to be joining the non-Catholic critics of the celibate clergy. But these critics focus on the wrong thing. The scandal is not unmarried celibate clergy. After all, many of Jesus’ apostles were celibate. Today’s biggest scandal is the lack of clerical celibacy.
Which brings me to a curious detail in Farrell’s background, as reported by the Catholic News Agency:
In 2002, he became an auxiliary bishop of Washington, serving as moderator of the curia and vicar general, a chief advisory role, to Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, with whom Farrell lived in a renovated parish building in Washington’s Kalorama neighborhood.
McCarrick is having his “MeToo” moment. Major media outlets have revealed decades of McCarrick’s sexual harassment of seminary students. Some have gone so far as to say that “everybody knew” about McCarrick’s conduct.
The Cardinal’s Doubt
Perhaps this explains Farrell’s doubt about his brother priests’ competence to prepare couples for marriage. Maybe some priests Farrell knows really do “have no credibility” for preparing couples for marriage, including some formed under Bishop McCarrick. We could say that some of them were “deformed” or “malformed.”
For example, Priest A’s story was reported in two separate sources. He was the object of McCarrick’s attentions. He went on to have sexual acting-out problems himself, and eventually left the priesthood. Being formed under someone like McCarrick could leave scars that affect a man’s priesthood.
Who is Qualified?
Not all priests have disgraced themselves. Nor have all priests had their formation twisted by their superiors. For every story of scandal we read about, there are many more stories of holiness and grace that never make the headlines.
In any case, truly celibate clergy have tremendous credibility. They have a lot to offer young couples preparing for marriage: their experience of a lifetime of self-giving, self-sacrificing love. Young couples need this preparation for marriage, every bit as much as communication skills and budgeting tips. Cardinal Farrell’s comments swept all priests into the same basket. His comments most harm the truly celibate, self-sacrificing priests.
I have no doubt which side I support in this clash between a cardinal making unfounded claims and the rest of the clergy. All I can say is, “Speak for yourself, Cardinal Farrell.”