The priests forced to choose between family and God

Heart and Soul: My Father the Priest tells their stories on BBC World Service.

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“If any priest comes to me and says that they have fathered a child, I say that the natural law comes before the priestly law, and that they need to go and look after this child and the mother.” A young woman called Sarah quoted Pope Francis in a powerful documentary about the secret children of Catholic priests (Heart and Soul: My Father the Priest, BBC World Service, 5 November, 9.30am). She then added that had her own father – then a deacon – been given such advice he might have “felt more compassion”.

Instead, he was encouraged by his immediate seniors to move on, heedless, to ordination. Thirtysomething Sarah’s voice was notably raw (she could have been a teenager) as she pored over her map of locations where she’s been in communication with other such children: “South Korea, Papua New Guinea, South America, all over Europe, Kazaksthan…” My father, like Sarah’s, was training to be a Catholic priest when he met my mother, a forthright student nurse. 

Years ago, in a book, I wrote – rather glibly, and in a way that probably hurt them both – “The defining struggle of my father’s life had been between the catholic priesthood and my mother. Sex had fought with God, as an equal, until they could both see each other’s point of view. The children were the winners.” Yet I do believe this. My (many) siblings and I have indeed been the winners. The ministerial orders lost an exceptionally kind and good man in my father, who instead married and became a child psychologist, whilst remaining a committed but relatively progressive catholic.

I ask him now where he stands, and he tells me: “There is no reason why any catholic could not be ordained and even carry on with another profession too, able to celebrate Mass for whichever community they might serve. Something the bishops appear to be avoiding. I am sure if Pope Francis was asked, he would agree to allow.”

His persuasive email made me sad, echoing a vital element of Sarah’s longing, which set the programme’s frequently searing tone: that the Pope, however cogent and sympathetic, is tantalisingly beyond reach. An idol, who must almost by definition let everybody down, as idols are wont to do. All this life that the rest of us persist in getting involved with! Tch! 

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 09 November 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory sinking ship