In Des Prêtres Épousent Leur Humanité: 24 témoignages de prêtres mariés (L'Harmattan, March 2007), author Philippe Brand has collected the testimonies of 24 married priests about their journeys. Fr. Brand, a married Catholic priest himself, was ordained in 1966. He served in Annemasse and Thonon — two communities in Haute-Savoie, France — from 1966 until 1972 when he left the priesthood to get married. He has two children and is now retired.
Fr. Brand granted an interview to Jérome Anciberro at Témoignage Chrétien magazine and we have translated it into English.
According to your book, there's a typical journey for a married priest, isn't there?
I stuck to one generation, mine, which has retired forever. The experiences lived by the twenty-six [sic] laicized priests whom I interviewed are different, of course. But most were very touched, even before the Second Vatican Council, by this idea that one could no longer proclaim the Gospel to people without being near them. One had to share their lives as fully as possible, in the community, in the workplace, in the way of life. One of my witnesses was particularly challenged by his unionized colleagues who told him that his commitment was less risky because he didn't have a wife or children. It seemed to us that by wanting to be a man apart [from the world] the priest remained on the margins. From the 1970s onward, things changed. The hierarchy has especially been sensitive to the risks of this presence in the world.
Mainly that of losing focus by melting into the currents of thought that have gotten away from the Church or are perceived to be hostile to it, for example communism...
Isn't that what did happen occasionally?
I don't think so. Faithfulness to the original priestly vocation remained intact for the vast majority of those who testified in my book. It is the Gospel that pushed and pushes us to become involved in the world. Most of us have remained very socially, and even politically, active. We detached ourselves from the Church that dictates behavior, but we certainly did not detach from the spirit of the Gospel.
Is the issue of celibacy the determining factor in the choice to leave the priesthood?
Not always, obviously. But of course there are priests who left because they met a woman with whom they wanted to live or because they could no longer bear to be alone. Others never really believed in celibacy in any case and some even became priests while telling themselves that the post-Conciliar Church would allow them to marry. But relatively few lived life as a couple while serving as priests, even though that existed and continues to, as the example of Léon Laclau shows.
Are there numbers that allow us to measure these phenomena?
We are no longer seeing the massive departures that we saw from 1960 to 1970, but it is very difficult to get relevant numbers. The Church's statistics only take into account laicization, an imprecise legal category for this subject, since most married priests have not sought laicization. Officially, it comes down to individual issues. There is not a collective view of the problem. In the end, this has been fairly comfortable for the institution.
Aren't there organizations of married priests?
Yes, but they often remain local. The only organization that has greater coverage is the Association pour une retraite convenable (APRC) which has a specific goal — the retirement security of former religious personnel, including priests. Because the Church, in spite of a few recent legal victories, has still not accepted the principle that its religious personnel have a right to pensions pro-rated according to the number of years worked, regardless of future of the person involved...There are also groups for the [female] companions of priests such as the Plein Jour association.
What do you think about the Catholic Magisterium's justification for mandatory celibacy for priests?
It's an issue to which the institution gives way too much importance. Some priests come to consider celibacy to be a sort of performance. Then it becomes serious...Perhaps it's a remnant from the Counter-Reformation of the 17th century. One had to differentiate from the Protestants. There are plenty of absurd things in the Catholic Church that can be explained like that...