Father Carter Griffin is a priest of the Archdiocese of Washington. Since 2011 he has been engaged in the selection and formation of seminarians at Saint John Paul II Seminary in Washington, DC. Father Griffin is a graduate of Princeton University and a former line officer in the United States Navy. His upcoming book, Why Celibacy?: Reclaiming the Fatherhood of the Priest, will be published by Emmaus Road next month.
About a week ago, the monastery that runs Georgetown Visitation Preparatory School, a prestigious high school in Washington, D.C., sent an email to alumnae that is certain to confuse and demoralize many faithful Catholics. The superior of the Georgetown Visitation Monastery, Sister Mary Berchmans, announced that the monastery leadership has decided to publish news of their alumnae’s same-sex unions alongside other updates from alumnae.
By its implicit approval of these unions, this decision alone would certainly raise eyebrows. Her reason for doing so, however, is even more disconcerting. She admitted that the Church has clear teaching on same-sex “marriage.” But citing its “contradiction” to “the Gospel commandment of love,” the Visitation Sisters have opted to set that clear teaching aside. Without perhaps intending it, they have promoted a formula that can be used (and has been used) to set aside any Church teaching that is difficult to embrace.
The school’s director of communication, in an article published Monday in the Washington Post, calls the reaction “overwhelmingly and heartwarmingly positive.” Undoubtedly the Georgetown Visitation Sisters will be hailed by many as courageous and compassionate in making this decision. In today’s moral climate, however, this decision is anything but courageous or compassionate. It is far more comfortable to acquiesce in the wisdom of the age than to courageously rebel against it. And it is not compassionate to approve, even implicitly, sexual behavior that imperils the immortal souls of so many of our brothers and sisters.
As every parent knows, love sometimes hurts. Christian teachings on marriage and sexuality, so clearly taught by the Church from her earliest days, are challenging – even painful – to so many today. By almost any metric, popular support for same-sex unions and for progressive views on gender and sexuality is growing in all religious groups. But sanctimonious allusions to love untethered to the truth of human flourishing, unmoored from virtue and holiness, do not help souls but rather lull them into a dangerous state of complacency – especially when such claims are advanced by those with greater responsibility, such as venerable religious sisters. “It is best not to marry the ‘spirit of the age,’” the adage goes, “because you might end up a widower.” After the soothing accolades have died away, we will all still face Jesus. He paid a high price for our souls, and it is not wise to be among those who “cause one of these little ones to sin.”
Nevertheless, it is hard to fault the sisters entirely. We priests bear much of the burden of blame. We are called to be good fathers in the order of grace, true spiritual fathers who are willing to say difficult things for the sake of those we love and serve, to tell the truth when it is unwelcome, knowing that true love sometimes hurts. Many priests, out of fear, have failed to teach the Gospel in its fullness, particularly about sensitive matters of human sexuality and marriage. Called by Jesus to give life with the wholesome truths of the Gospel, some have withheld those truths through a kind of spiritual “contraception.” Moreover, the relentless series of sexual scandals among the clergy have diminished our credibility and prompted many of the faithful – and many, like our sisters, called to serve the faithful – to explain away the saving message of the Gospel.
The time to start rebuilding that credibility has arrived. In recent decades many seminaries, inspired by the reforms of St. John Paul II, have been overhauled. The vast majority of young priests, and the young men entering the seminary today, are committed to being the kind of spiritual fathers we need. They are emerging from a world that is increasingly weary of the false promises of the sexual revolution. In my experience, they are intentional about being faithful spiritual fathers and wish to provide the people of God with the full nourishment of the Gospel. They know, often from personal experience, that true love sometimes hurts. But it is the only love worthy of the name.