Last Word: A Brush of the Butterfly’s Wing

Celebrating Leaving the Priesthood

Do former priests celebrate their ordinations? Probably not.

I was ordained in 1966. As a Jesuit, I studied at Woodstock College outside Baltimore. The excellent faculty included John Courtney Murray, the expert at Vatican II who had previously been silenced for his views on religious liberty. I had gotten my PhD in economics before starting my theology studies, so I had an economics research job in Washington, D.C.

A Jesuit friend of mine, Jim Wintz, was at St. Aloysius Church in D.C. Saint Al’s was an odd parish; those who attended Mass were largely white from the suburbs while those living within the parish boundaries were overwhelmingly African-American. A much older Jesuit, Fr. Horace McKenna, was also at Saint Al’s. The civil rights movement and Jesuit Superior General Pedro Arrupe’s plea for those in the order to work with the poor inspired the pastor to rent a house in the neighborhood. In June 1967 I moved in.

The cardinal archbishop of Washington, Patrick O’Boyle, cared about the poor of his diocese, whatever their color or religion, so about thirty of his priests worked with the poor. We four Jesuits—the pastor, Jim Wintz, Horace McKenna, and I—belonged to an association founded by those diocesan priests. The average age was probably under forty, but Horace, who had helped the poor more than the rest of us combined, was about seventy.

On an August evening in 1968, our association of priests discussed Humanae vitae. A group of university-based moral theologians, led by Catholic University’s Fr. Charles Curran, had gone on record arguing that Catholics could follow their consciences with regard to the use of contraception. That was a view many of us had been taught in the seminary—Vatican II had been strong on personal conscience. Some members of our association wrote a letter to the same effect and proposed sending it to the Washington Post. We took a vote on that, but the vote was a tie. As it turned out, Horace had not voted because he was asleep. We woke him, a new vote was taken, and the idea then passed thanks to his vote. We did not recognize that brush of the butterfly’s wing. The letter was duly published in the newspaper with our forty-four names.

Cardinal O’Boyle was not pleased, and he withdrew his permission for us signers to preach and hear confessions. He then tried to persuade each of us individually to recant. When I met with him, I was in suit and tie having come directly from my government job. He was interested in my work on public policy, but I sensed that his concern about a few wayward Jesuits was limited. He desperately wanted to get his own young diocesan priests back in the fold. He had his theologians lecture all of us—to no avail. (Later a young bishop, Joseph Bernardin, was also assigned to bring our group around—again to no avail.)

Our association soon took up the question of defining membership. We decided that leaving the priesthood would not negate one’s membership or voting rights, admittedly an odd stance for an association of priests. At some point we voted to let any individual who wished to reconcile with Cardinal O’Boyle to do so. Horace McKenna was the only one I knew who did. No one begrudged him that.

I don’t remember when other members began to leave the priesthood. In May of 1969, I reluctantly left the Jesuits. In the subsequent years I have been an ordinary married layperson, moderately active at St. Mary’s Student Parish in Ann Arbor, at least as interested in the University of Michigan’s changing the church as I am in the church influencing the university.

Why on earth celebrate my “golden jubilee”? Of course our protest failed in many respects, and none of us expected to leave the active priesthood that August evening. Patty O’Boyle’s heart was broken by the loss of the priests he cared about the most. Pope Paul “won” in the sense that he got rid of rebellious priests, but he, too, seems to have never gotten over the reaction to his encyclical. The view we young priests expressed won out in a very important respect that only slowly became evident—best characterized by Andrew Greeley when he pointed out that the most important consequence of Humanae vitae was the rejection, led by the lower clergy and the laity, of once firmly established church teaching. The proper name of that revolution is the primacy of personal conscience.

That principle is the silent underpinning of Pope Francis’s telling priests to be “pastoral” with LGBT people and with divorced Catholics who remarry. So I celebrate my having been a priest. Maybe what I am really celebrating is a pope who cares about the poor like Horace McKenna did, celebrating a pope who understands troubled Catholics like Jesus Christ understood the woman taken in adultery. “Who will cast the first stone?” Amen. 

Published in the December 2, 2016 issue: 

William C. Birdsall is associate professor emeritus of Social Work at the University of Michigan.

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