Fathers who father
Some readers might have immediately recognized the play on words about many Filipino families having a Father, the capital letter F referring to a Catholic ordained priest who becomes a father.
Catholic priests who father children are probably the worst-kept secrets in the Philippines, to the point where it becomes a topic for jokes. People with Caucasian features, for example, are teased: “Is there a fraile (friar) somewhere among your ancestors?” A friend of mine responded, “Excuse me, not an ordinary friar but a bishop.”
There are many reasons why there seems to be an almost tolerant attitude toward Fathers who father. One is that it seems to have been, and maybe still is, a common phenomenon. A second reason is machismo — people shrug their shoulders and say “Lalaki sila” (priests are men), with a similar live-and-let-live attitude toward men who father children outside of a marriage. A third reason, somewhat tied to machismo, is the idea that a priest who fathers, or a nonpriest who fathers outside of marriage, are acceptable as long as they take financial responsibility for the children.
Remember when Joseph Estrada ran for president and the Catholic Church launched a campaign against him because of his mistresses? The campaign didn’t seem to work, and may even have gained him votes. I actually heard people defending him on the grounds that he does not neglect any of his wives or children.
How open is open?
Back in the 1970s, when I was working with the Catholic Church’s social action programs, I attended two baptisms of children fathered by priests, complete with several sets of godparents, and with simple but well-attended receptions afterward.
Through the years, I continued to get stories of priests, parish priests even, who have families, complete with housing outside of their parish residence.
The tolerance can be startling. Once, I even encountered the story of a parish priest who was openly in a live-in relationship with another man, a policeman at that. But that is moving beyond our topic of priest-fathers.
This is not to say there aren’t problems with priests having children. I thought I’d write about this issue because The New York Times recently had an article, “The Vatican’s Secret Rules for Priests Who Have Children,” which confirmed the existence of general guidelines for clerics who break celibacy vows and father children. The New York Times confirmed the existence of these guidelines with a Vatican spokesperson, Alessandro Gisotti, who said this was an “internal document.”
The rules refer to “children of the ordained,” and I found that curious, because, for years, I’ve also heard Catholic lay people claiming that such children are considered “ecclesiastical responsibilities,” meaning the Catholic Church provides financial support for these children.
It turns out that the Vatican guidelines have the “protection of the child” as their fundamental principle, and therefore “request” clerics who father to leave the priesthood and to “assume his responsibilities as a parent by devoting himself exclusively to the child.”
We do know, locally, that there are priests who ask permission from the Vatican to leave the priesthood, marry and raise their children. The waiting period can be quite long, and some priests just go full time with their families, and, as I mentioned earlier, have no problems with ostracism or stigma.
The New York Times ran the story close to a meeting of bishops scheduled to start on Thursday and convened by Pope Francis, to discuss the sexual abuse scandals within the Catholic Church. The summit will discuss issues of celibacy as well.
The issue of clerics who father will come out in the context of children who are not recognized or supported by their priest-fathers. The issue of greatest concern are the children who are conceived from the rape or sexual abuse of women by priests. A global support group, Coping International, has been formed by children whose priest-fathers refused to acknowledge or support them.
The Catholic Church in Ireland, racked with sexual abuse accusations, has guidelines that do not require priest-fathers to leave, but calls on them, as a new father, to “face up to his responsibilities — personal, legal, moral and financial.”
The local stories I shared are all anecdotal, of course, and there’s no way to do an actual census of the numbers of Catholic priests with children. But it might be time for one of the public opinion companies—Social Weather Stations or Pulse Asia—to include in their surveys a question on Filipino attitudes toward the required celibacy for Catholic priests.
For those doing a graduate degree in the social sciences, this topic, including priests who do marry and raise children, will be an important contribution toward understanding religion and public life in the Philippines.
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