Third Irish Roman Catholic priest commits suicide

by “Archbishop Cranmer”

Note: I’m not familiar with this case, but assume it involves more allegations of kiddy-fiddling. The only point I would make is this:

The recovery of our civilisation, if it is to happen, will require confident and reasonably clean religious leaders. I don’t have in mind bawling American style televangelists, demanding wars in the Middle East and sobbing their hearts out because some girl in the underclass may have had an abortion. I also don’t mean the cultural Marxists who have taken over the Anglican and mainstream Catholic churches. I mean the kind of leaders who argued for or against the later Stuarts in England, or who faced down the French and Russian Revolutionaries. It isn’t necessary that we should attend any church, or that we should believe in the core doctrines of Christianity. But it is important that these doctrines should be clearly preached in full churches by men of good character and of learning. Priests who can’t keep their hands off children or other men’s wives, or whose bishops are unable or unwilling to deal with them, are not to be pitied. Our secular leaders have abandoned the outer defences of our civilisation. No priest who is likely to fail in the last stand at the inner defences should be tolerated.

This being the case, outing men like Cardinal O’Brian is a step in the right direction. SIG

Third Irish Roman Catholic priest commits suicideFr+Matt+Wallace+funeral.jpg

“The death by suicide of Belfast-based Fr Matt Wallace has stunned many people. He is the third Irish priest to take his own life in the last 18 months. People are understandably shocked by the particular circumstances of each tragedy. But when the dust settles around the death of Fr Wallace, and his brother-priests and parishioners begin to pick up the pieces, it’s vital that some good can be brought out of this tragedy. There is a danger that when the shock dies down, we all get back to business as usual and there is no discussion about the wider questions.”

So writes Michael Kelly, editor of The Irish Catholic, in a profoundly moving and sensitive piece entitled ‘We need to talk about priests‘. Please read it. In fact, read it before reading this post any further, or what follows in matters of theology or ecclesiology will be devoid of emotional, psychological and sociological context.

This is not the suicide of one priest in 10 years, which would be statistically irrelevant. It is not even the suicide of two or three priests globally over three or four years, which may find more correlation. We are talking here about the suicide of three priests in Ireland alone over a period of just 18 months, which researchers may hypothesise suggests correlation if not a causal relationship.

According to Émile Durkheim (Suicide, 1897), Protestants are more inclined to commit suicide than Roman Catholics. A more recent study corroborates Durkheim’s findings:

“The way we came to work on this issue in the first place,” Becker explained, “is we read about Durkheim’s thesis where he made the point that Protestants more often have an individualistic religion than Catholics and Catholics more often rely upon the congregation as a group so that in times of trouble, Protestants are more on their own than Catholics.”

In addition to this hypothesis, Becker and Woessman also suggest that the different suicide rates may be due to different emphases in Catholic and Protestant understandings of grace. Catholics will more often emphasize the rewards that come with good works or the punishment that comes with sin. Protestants, on the other hand, will more often note that God’s grace cannot be earned through good deeds. As a result, it may be that Catholic teachings on suicide are stricter and those teachings become internalized among Catholics.

A third hypothesis has to do with Catholic confession, or the act of regularly confessing sins to a Catholic priest. Protestants do not recognize this sacrament. Since suicide is the only sin that could never be confessed to a priest, a Catholic who finds confession important to avoiding Hell may be less inclined to commit suicide.

The theology of grace is perhaps of greatest relevance. Roman Catholic teaching on suicide is clear. As set out in John Paul II’s Evangelium Vitae (#66):

Suicide is always as morally objectionable as murder. The Church’s tradition has always rejected it as a gravely evil choice. Even though a certain psychological, cultural and social conditioning may induce a person to carry out an action which so radically contradicts the innate inclination to life, thus lessening or removing subjective responsibility, suicide, when viewed objectively, is a gravely immoral act. In fact, it involves the rejection of love of self and the renunciation of the obligation of justice and charity towards one’s neighbour, towards the communities to which one belongs, and towards society as a whole. In its deepest reality, suicide represents a rejection of God’s absolute sovereignty over life and death, as proclaimed in the prayer of the ancient sage of Israel: “You have power over life and death; you lead men down to the gates of Hades and back again” (Wis 16:13; cf. Tob 13:2).

His Grace took this to mean that suicide is a mortal sin. If it be not only ‘as morally objectionable as murder’, but ‘always’ so, it is difficult see understand how it might be forgiven before the Throne of Judgement.

But Louise Mensch (via Twitter) set His Grace right on the matter. These priests who commit suicide may not possess an informed intellect (ie know that suicide is wrong); and they may not have given full consent of the will (ie intended to commit the action). If they killed themselves out of fear or psychological imbalance or emotional stress, there cannot be full consent since these impede the exercise of the will and mitigate responsibility. The Catechism states: ‘Grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardship, suffering, or torture can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide’ (#2282). Louise Mensch is right in this: although suicide is a ‘gravely immoral act’, it is not necessarily a mortal sin. Thanks to Mrs Mensch, His Grace is enlightened.

But in these three suicides over 18 months there is something which ought to alarm the Roman Catholic Church at the very highest level. If we were talking about the third suicide in 18 months of the oppressed sweatshop slave in India or China, there would be rather more noise from the anti-capitalist media. We would hear an awful lot from the BBC and the Guardian about how Apple or Microsoft or Nike treat their workers ‘inhumanely, like machines‘. But there’s not a lot of concern about Irish Roman Catholic priests. Are they worth less than iPad manufactures in Shenzhen and Chengdu? Is the Roman Catholic Church less culpable than Apple?

All suicide is tragedy. We who daily find the will to go on living cannot begin to grasp the depths of despair, hopelessness and loneliness which must be felt by those who resort to the ultimate rejection of God’s absolute sovereignty over life and death. But does it not bear a little consideration that this desperate loneliness might be slightly eased by permitting those priests who wish to marry to do so? No doubt Church of England vicars occasionally commit suicide, but is not a life-long partnership of mutual companionship, love and support more likely to guard against intolerable sexual, emotional, psychological and social burdens? As God said: “It is not good for man to be alone.” He did not exempt the priesthood. If this were an Apple or Microsoft condition of employment, there would be outrage. It is merely man-made tradition, first mandated at the First Lateran Council of 1123. So, yes, ‘We need to talk about priests’. But let us not do so apart from institutional systems, outdated dogma and overbearing hierarchy.

9 responses to “Third Irish Roman Catholic priest commits suicide

  1. I’m not quite sure where this celibacy thing actually came in. In medieval and pre-medieval England – and therefore I presume Ireland, Scotland, the other Celtic “fringes”, Brittany, Cornwall and so on, I am reliably informed that Catholic (that was what there was) priests in villages and settlements had “wives” (thus described) and later “housekeepers” who were mostly female. Nobody it seems ever took exception to this.

    In pre-renaissance-Italy, it was not totally unknown for the Papacy to be handed down from father to son.

    Is Catholic-Priestly-celibacy (of whatever sort) something that Jesus actually prescribed (I can’t remember Him saying anyhting about that, but I could stand corrected)? Or is it that we in the modern West have become conditioned to believe what Medieval monkish orders said about what they (may have) pretended to do and practise?

  2. David, it was some point in the mediaeval period, apparently to prevent the accrued wealth of successful priests being inherited by offspring. Too lazy to look up the year.

  3. Anyhow, I’m mightily baffled by Sean’s apparent contention in his introduction that the religious values which have ruined our society are going to somehow save it. The radical, fanatical, statist reform movements historically arose out of revival christianity, as well documented, in the pre-Victorian Era. The result has been a massively expanding state devoted to saving us all from sin.

    So I am wondering how even more of that is going to achieve a reversal.

    Also, if we’re not actually required to believe in the Angry God, I’m not sure how these churches are going to be “full”? Is Christianity just for the servants?

  4. Celibacy is deeply ingrained in the Church and the writings of the Apostle Paul are of particular relevance as well as those of the Church Fathers on this subject. There have always been celibate clergy. However, for the first century and more after Christ there were also married clergy. The first Pope, St Peter, was married, as were a number of his successors. 1 Timothy 3:2-4 refers specifically to bishops marrying.

    In Orthodoxy a man who wishes to marry must do so before he is ordained priest. However, bishops are typically chosen from celibate men who have been monks. The Church of the East permits married men to serve as bishops.

    In the Roman Catholic Church today, there are over 200 married men serving as priests, but they have generally been received into the Anglican Ordinariates and are former Anglican or other Protestant clergy. New priests in the Ordinariates are required to be celibate. There has only been one case I am aware of of a married Catholic bishop in the last fifty years.

    Catholic clergy look not merely to the sayings of Jesus but to the model provided by His life. Jesus did not marry nor is He known to have had any form of sexual relationship. Since in Catholic theology the priesthood is the personification of Christ (while not being a substitute for Him) it is, I think, readily understandable that celibacy remains extremely important within the understanding of the priestly office.

    Clerical celibacy is a rule in the Church; it is not dogma. As such it is capable of being changed and exceptions can be made when the Church judges that this is appropriate.

  5. Jesus did not marry nor is He known to have had any form of sexual relationship.

    Except maybe Mary Magdalene.

  6. John Kersey, you seen confused. You keep claiming celibacy is part of the Catholic faith, and yet you mention the Bible verses that specifically state the opposite. St. Paul said:

    1This is a true saying, if a man desire the office of a bishop, he desireth a good work.
    2 A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, vigilant, sober, of good behaviour, given to hospitality, apt to teach;
    3 Not given to wine, no striker, not greedy of filthy lucre; but patient, not a brawler, not covetous;
    4 One that ruleth well his own house, having his children in subjection with all gravity;
    5 (For if a man know not how to rule his own house, how shall he take care of the church of God?)

  7. I can assure you that I am not confused, nor do I believe that what I wrote was either confused or ambiguous.

    It would be entirely wrong to deny celibacy its particular and elevated status within Catholic history. St Paul, whom you cite, provides one of the leading sources in support of celibacy in 1 Corinthians 7:7-8 and 32-35. There were celibates from the earliest years of the Church. Celibacy and the monastic state in particular were united from the start. It cannot in my view be denied that the Church considers celibacy to be a higher state than marriage.

    What I am saying is that alongside monks and those who were voluntarily celibate, the Church has also accepted the ordained ministry of married men. Obviously it did so within those parts of the Church that now constitute Orthodoxy until the time of the Great Schism; Orthodoxy now is very largely exactly what it was then. But within the Western church, there was also an acceptance of married men in the ordained state, including bishops.

    That acceptance was set against a background of vigorous controversy concerning the issue. By the fourth and fifth centuries there were strong arguments being voiced in favour of continence and St Jerome even suggests that those married men who entered the priestly state would then become celibate, so that “even though they may have wives, cease to be husbands”. A council in 386 attempted to enforce this principle.

    Likewise, St Epiphanius of Salamis (d. 403) expounds the practice of the Church in those years, “Holy Church respects the dignity of the priesthood to such a point that she does not admit to the diaconate, the priesthood, or the episcopate, no nor even to the subdiaconate, anyone still living in marriage and begetting children. She accepts only him who if married gives up his wife or has lost her by death, especially in those places where the ecclesiastical canons are strictly attended to” (Haer., lix, 4). But Epiphanius goes on to explain that there are places where priests and deacons continue to have children, and says that the Church has disapproved of this practice.

    It is much later, after the division of the Church into East and West, that the West then adopts celibacy as a general rule for clergy at the First Lateran Council in 1123, by prohibiting marriage for subdeacons and any in the higher orders.

    This issue should be considered alongside that of the special status accorded by the Church to virginity, not only in the context of Mariology but also more widely. St Thomas Aquinas teaches that virginity (as victory over the flesh) is one of three “aureolae” – particular rewards that bring about a special resemblance to Christ. The ceremony of the consecration of a (female) virgin is one of the ancient ceremonies of the Church, and is similar to that of ordination. Consecrated virgins wore a special habit; after the eighth century, when the enclosure of monastics became common, it ceased to be common, but examples are still known from later centuries.

  8. Ian B – yes, I think we have all come across those theories. But however interesting they may be, they have not formed any part of the officially sanctioned teaching of the Church, within which the priests we are discussing have been ordained and within whose bounds they have understood the reasons for priestly celibacy.