by Mary Scanlan
I shuffled into my home office with solemnity and in silence, coffee in hand and ready to start my morning ritual before the day’s noises began. It was a relatively mild November morning in 2014. The sun was struggling to rise, as was I. After a brief meditation I opened my computer to the New York Times, my daily introduction to the world. I usually enjoy skimming the paper first, trying to capture the headlines that would most interest me, and then reading selected articles while I sip my coffee and continue waking up.
I gratefully gazed out my office window at the majestic pine trees across the street, greeted the birds at the feeder in front of the window, and glanced at the online paper. One headline immediately jumped out at me. It read: “In Love With a Priest: Support Groups Spread.” My heart started beating ferociously, and I was brutally catapulted back more than forty years to 1967.
The first sentence was so very hard to read: “They had not planned on falling in love, but they did.” Then, the story got even more difficult for me: “They did not want to become the objects of malicious gossip, but they are. They had not imagined living a life of furtive affections and secret rendezvous, but that is what happened since the woman and the priest defied a Roman Catholic Church taboo and became romantically involved. ‘Some people see me as a devil, something dirty,’ said the woman…”
I rolled my office chair backward, away from the computer screen, and took a deep breath, thinking, Wait, wait. This article was written in 2014! For a moment I was lost in time. I had been through this experience almost fifty years earlier, exactly this experience. And suddenly I was shockingly reminded that the pain and sorrow of the 1960s, made worse by the failed promise of Vatican II, still exists in a Catholic world of religious organizational arrogance.
There has been no official review of the obligation of celibacy for forty years, according to the article. And, for me, the injustices on the human scale are made even worse by the promises of world justice proclaimed by the present Pope. The slight difference in papal messages over five decades is so deceitful. Condemnation of married clergy in 1967 has given way to a hint of future possibility of change. Probably, the modern Catholic bishop, when told one of his leading priests was going to leave the priesthood because he could no longer represent the organization, would not say, “Is there a girl? Is she pregnant? We can take care of that, you know.” Perhaps his priestly colleagues would not condemn him as crazy and a pariah and “just going through a phase.” Perhaps the modern families of a priest and the woman he loves do not denounce and shun the woman as a Jezebel and the worse sinner of the couple.
All these thoughts raced through my distraught mind as I read the New York Times article by Elisabetta Povoledo. The peace of the morning was shattered. Memories of trying to maintain the professional relationship I had with the man I was working with, who happened to be a priest, filled my head. I had been hired by this man to edit his doctoral thesis. I was extraordinarily conscious of the need to be appropriate with him, as he was with me. We had carefully defined parameters for our working conditions. However, as my husband told me later, he fell in love with me the day he met me. I did not admit to the same feeling, since I was scrupulous about keeping my distance from an unavailable man.
But it happened. I fell in love with a man who was a priest; I did not fall in love with priesthood. Ultimately he revealed what I had been suspecting: that he had been thinking about leaving his priesthood for the previous two years. I knew his thoughts about the Church of the 1960s were progressive and out of step with official proclamations. But it was the ’60s, and radical thinking abounded throughout our world.
Once we acknowledged our love for each other, we began the arduous and uncharted path to build a life together. My husband was the one of the first priests in the Brooklyn Diocese to ask for, and ultimately receive, an official leave of absence from the priesthood. Before him, a few priests had simply walked away from the Church. He wanted to leave with his head held high and had the naive hope that he would be understood. We soon discovered that being understood was not going to happen, even though his letter requesting a leave clearly explained his questioning. Heart-wrenching days where both of us were accused of being mentally ill, or I of being a temptress, were probably similar to those alluded to in the 2014 article. Ultimately I was shunned by my parents until we took all the steps necessary to be dispensed by the Vatican and repeated our vows in a Catholic marriage ceremony.
We left our New York City hometown and were fortunate to find professional work in our new home. There were no support groups at that time. Happily, worldwide support groups now exist. According to Ms. Povoledo’s article, there are current estimates of “25,000 men in the United States who have left the priesthood to marry and about 150,000 worldwide.” What a waste of talent and energy for an organization that is most certainly suffering the kind of personnel problem that would be addressed as an emergency by a forward-thinking corporation. My husband made that case to our local bishop in 1978, ten years after we were married, and together they began a support group that lasted for a few years. It fell apart as the group divided into two—those who wanted to be married priests and those who didn’t.
For almost fifty years I have known men and women, priests, nuns, and brothers who left their official roles in the Roman Catholic Church for a variety of reasons. For so many, the decision to change paths has been one of suffering and confusion, anger, fear, self-doubt, dismissal, and derision at the Church. Some have chosen to try to remain part of the Church by serving in parishes. Others have stomped away in total condemnation. Still others stay on the fringe, studying history and theology to find meaning. Some I have known have reached personal reconciliation. But, whether they admit it or not, all are tarred with the stigma of being an ex-something, and having to deal with that stigma in one way or another. Hopefully today’s support groups are addressing those deep personal issues, as well as the need, should they choose to leave the organization, to find jobs.
It is my hope that, in my lifetime, there will be Vatican justice for those women and men, the “church-crossed lovers” referred to in the New York Times. Until there is acceptance of these people, I cannot accept the popular belief that the Roman Catholic Church is true to its open door pronouncements. Strong and responsible leadership listens closely and leads the way to bring effective change and peace of heart to all, especially listening to those closest to the core.
By the end of the day, I was grateful that Elisabetta Povoledo upset my morning. Her article led me to an even deeper peace about the path my husband and I took for the many mornings, afternoons, and evenings of a life together.
Category: Memoir, Nonfiction