One man’s long and lonely crusade against Vatican opposition to married priests

RITE AND REASON: ONE NIGHT in 1952, a German boy of 19, in the throes of a youthful romance, became overwhelmed with the certainty that God wanted him as a priest. In the following days he felt he could not pray “Thy will be done” if he refused the call.

And yet during those same days he found himself weeping uncontrollably, “shadowed with darkness because, for the sake of the priestly vocation, I had to accept the renunciation of marriage”.

Heinz-Jurgen Vogels stayed with his vocation all the way to ordination, for the call had taken place “with such inner force that it carried me over the threshold of priesthood, yet only to drop me burnt out immediately after that.”

The couple of years that followed Vogels’s 1959 ordination were years of unrelieved depression, inability to function in his priesthood, leading him eventually to the brink of suicide.

“Only years later was I able to recognise that my subconscious, at the ordination, had concluded: ‘Now, finally, the door to marriages has closed; now there is no longer any rescue for my desire to have feelings for the other half of humankind, which is, however, part of my nature.’”

The crisis came in his little Cologne room overlooking the Rhine: “The abandonment in the colourless grey room was felt so greatly that I stopped again and again at the washstand, and took the razor blade to cut open the arteries in my wrist. Only with extreme effort could I return it to the glass plate. The window, the Rhine, the rail tracks, everything attracted me almost irresistibly.”

Vogels was sent to a rest home for a while and then resumed duty, living with an understanding old parish priest in a village in the Eifel mountains.

“It was a time of long conversations in the evenings, seated in comfortable armchairs. Yet it should take another five years before the fog was dispelled.”

It happened after a pilgrimage to Kevelaer: “It may sound strange that during my prayer I found rising in my soul the dear wish: ‘Oh would I be allowed to use sexuality!’”

And then came the revelation in a verse from St Paul’s first epistle to the Corinthians: “Have we perhaps not the right to take a wife along with us, like the other apostles . . ?” (1 Cor 9:5) – the word “mulier” being open to interpretation as “wife” as well as “woman”.

That linked up with the sudden realisation that there were already married priests in the Catholic Church – all the Eastern Catholic churches in union with Rome had their married priests, and even here in the West, Protestant pastors could become Catholic priests and then live openly with their wives and families.

The rest of Vogels’s life has been a one-man crusade to convince the authorities in Rome to abolish compulsory celibacy. This story is told in his extraordinary book, Alone Against the Vatican , now available in English.

Unfortunately the publishers have chosen a less striking title, Catholics and their Right to Married Priests , with the subtitle, Struggles with the Vatican . It’s readily available in paperback from Amazon and is also on Kindle eBooks.

Those struggles make for a fascinating story. The first declaration of his views in a sermon led to such a rumpus that he was diagnosed with “endogenous mania”, church authorities holding that anyone with such views had to be round the bend. But Vogels stayed sane, dangerously so, grew as a theologian and disputant and gradually his crusade developed.

Inevitably came marriage to Renata, plus a challenge to Vatican authorities to declare his marriage invalid, which they declined to do.

All these years later, Vogels is still fighting his case, alone against the Vatican. The kernel of his argument is that the gift of priesthood and the gift of celibacy are separate, and only rarely are bestowed on one person.

Hence the horrors that we see around us here in Ireland, when attempts at staying celibate fail. Vogels even has the support of Vatican II, which declared that celibacy “is not required by the very nature of priesthood”.

This fascinating book is just Vogels’s latest salvo. But what comes out most clearly is the steadfastness, devotion, support, indeed heroism, of Renata. She, indeed, is the best of all arguments for what a helpmate could be for a priest.

Prestonwood saga shows clergy abuse database is overdue


Most major faith groups in the United States have denominational processes for assessing reports about clergy sex abuse. The Southern Baptist Convention does not. Instead, the SBC has chosen to denominationally do nothing. That choice makes the world a more dangerous place, especially for children.

The danger was revealed most recently in news about a former minister of Prestonwood Baptist Church in Dallas. The minister, John Langworthy, admitted to his Mississippi congregation that, while at prior churches, he “had sexual indiscretions with younger males.”

When this “disturbing revelation” made headlines, Prestonwood’s executive pastor, Mike Buster, acknowledged that, in 1989, Prestonwood had received an allegation that Langworthy “acted inappropriately with a teenage student.” But Buster claimed Prestonwood officials had acted “firmly and forthrightly” because Langworthy “was dismissed immediately.”

Coming from a top official at one of the SBC’s largest churches, Buster’s statement should cause parents serious concern. Confronted with allegations of clergy sex abuse, Prestonwood got an accused minister off its own turf, but the minister was left free to church-hop to other congregations.

This quiet dismissal served to unleash Langworthy into the larger body of Baptist churches and to place other kids at risk. And to this day, Prestonwood officials seem to think they handled things appropriately.

The ways in which Prestonwood failed will appear obvious to many, but the problem is really much bigger. Within the Southern Baptist Convention, many other churches, big and small, have made the same dreadful mistakes in dealing with reports of clergy sex abuse. When church after church makes the same mistakes, there is something wrong with the system.

A systemic problem requires a systemic solution. That’s why, in 2006, I worked with the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests in urging Southern Baptist officials to establish an office through which clergy abuse reports could be assessed by trained professionals, and to keep records on ministers determined to be credibly accused.

There was nothing radical in this request. Other major faith groups are already doing more in that their denominational assessments can result in defrocking. But we didn’t ask for that. We simply asked for a denominational system of objective assessments and record-keeping — i.e., a database.

Recently, Southern Baptist pastor Wade Burleson renewed the call for a denominational database. I pray that people will listen.

Consider the difference such a system could have made in the Langworthy case. Amy Smith was a young staff intern during Langworthy’s tenure at Prestonwood. She knew there had been abuse allegations. In early summer of 2010, Smith started contacting everyone she could think of to try to assure that Mississippi kids would be protected.

She contacted Prestonwood officials, hoping they would work to remediate their earlier mistake and warn Mississippi parents about Langworthy’s past. But Smith didn’t get any help from Prestonwood, and so she persevered on her own for over a year until, finally, Langworthy resigned his ministerial position.

That’s over a year in which more kids were left at risk. If there had been a denominational office to which Smith could have provided her information, kids could have been better protected much sooner.

That office could have assessed the allegations, reported on its assessment to the Mississippi congregation and kept a record if the allegations were found credible. And if a church chose to keep a convicted, admitted or credibly accused minister, the SBC could conceivably choose to disfellowship.

If Southern Baptists provided such an office, and if it were truly a safe and welcoming place, there would be many more clergy molestation survivors who, in adulthood, would bring forward their reports. This could greatly diminish the incidence of clergy sex abuse, because one of the best ways to prevent abuse in the future is to institutionally listen to those who are trying to tell about abuse in the past. But Southern Baptists have no system for even hearing clergy abuse survivors.

“Go to the police,” you say? Of course. But typically, by the time an abuse survivor grows up and is capable of bringing forward a report, it is too late for criminal prosecution. Tell churches to do background checks? Sure. But over 90 percent of active child molesters have never been criminally convicted and so they won’t have criminal records.

Other safeguards are needed, and most other faith groups have realized that by now.

Einstein said “the world is a dangerous place, not because of those who do evil, but because of those who look on and do nothing.” For too long, Southern Baptists have done nothing to effectively address clergy sex abuse. A denominational database of convicted, admitted and credibly accused clergy is overdue.

Pope In Spain: Good Catholics Use Condoms


No, Pope Benedict didn’t really say that, but there are really interesting developments coming out of this trip for World Youth Day. Thanks to Bridget Mary’s blog for alerting us to these developments.

The poster below was to have appeared on billboards and buses across Spain, until municipal authorities, bowing under pressure from the Cardinal of Madrid, rescinded the permission.

Maybe it’s just me, but there is something amusing about the way Catholics for Choice have taken Benedict’s quite timid and tentative statement last year (If condoms are not “a real or moral solution … in this or that case, they can be nonetheless, in the intention of reducing the risk of infection, a first step in a movement toward a different way, a more human way, of living sexuality.”) and run with it all the way to the goal post. Maybe this is the way change always comes to the church, timidly at first, with many reversals, fits and starts. Of course, as you can see from the press release below, Catholics for Choice’s ingenious plan to place their slogan – Good Catholics Use Condoms – on billboards and buses throughout Spain during the Pope’s visit, first met with approval, then censorship, thanks to the intervention of Cardinal Antonio Ruoco of Madrid.
International Youth Coalition Seconds Archbishop’s Affirmation of Freedom of Expression
The World Youth Day 4 All coalition welcomed the remarks from Archbishop Braulio Rodriguez of Toledo, Spain, who pointed out that the Catholic World Youth Day celebration is taking place in a country where freedom of expression is protected.

“Spain’s openness to freedom of expression is something Catholics for Choice took for granted when we arranged, months in advance, for the display of our Condoms4Life ads in Madrid’s transit system to coincide with World Youth Day,” said Marissa Valeri, a lead organizer of the coalition. “We were surprised, then, when the message ‘Good Catholics Use Condoms’ was deemed too offensive for Madrilenos. In reality, the best interests of the public was not the issue. Instead, it was a move made by ultraconservatives to stifle the many diverse voices of Catholics at World Youth Day, which should be a place where, as Archbishop Rodriguez affirmed, ‘we can all say what we want to say.’

The municipal authorities did a disservice to all visitors and to all Spaniards by stepping between the life-giving message that condoms save lives, on the one hand, and the individual’s right to make up his or her mind about that message, on the other.”

Condoms are apparently not the only topic that is too hot to handle in Madrid this August. Patrons at the Madrid public library have allegedly complained they were unable to access Web sites providing information on protests being organized against World Youth Day.

One of the hallmarks of the Catholic tradition is unity in diversity. Like the World Youth Day 4 All coalition, the event itself is made up of participants from all over the world, people who may speak different languages and come from different cultures, but who find kinship on the level of faith. The church hierarchy obviously feels that Spain’s respect for freedom of expression gives them room to express their viewpoint—Archbishop Rodriguez even decries those who think that certain points of view are “more right than others.” Spain’s civic freedoms should be able to include the voices of the Catholic people—including those who support the use of condoms—as well as the perspectives of non-Catholics. Otherwise, the “world” part of World Youth Day goes missing, and those from a tiny, easily ruffled minority within the Catholic hierarchy and the Spanish authorities are the only ones celebrating.

Luckily, diversity is not so easily squelched—the Condoms4Life message has been making headlines all week (see the blog, and pilgrims have encountered stickers and projections on walls around the city.

The Church of England has double standards when it comes to gay bishops

The latest evidence of prejudice against homosexual people in the Church of England has come from the leaked Colin Slee memo and advice that Archbishop Rowan Williams sought in order to get around the Equality Act (2010). This counsel was to ensure that a gay man, ie Jeffrey John, was not appointed as bishop of Southwark. A cunning checklist was devised, consisting of five questions:

• whether the candidate had always complied with the Church’s teachings on same-sex sexual activity;
• whether he was in a civil partnership;
• whether he was in a continuing civil partnership with a person with whom he had had an earlier same-sex relationship;
• whether he had expressed repentance for any previous same-sex sexual activity; and
• whether (and to what extent) the appointment of the candidate would cause division and disunity within the diocese in question, the Church of England and the wider Anglican Communion.
By my reckoning, Jeffrey John fails on five out of five. One could be forgiven for thinking that this is a list deliberately designed to exclude him.

Recently, Chris Sugden and Colin Coward debated the issue of gay bishops on Radio 4’s Sunday programme. Sugden seemed determined to conflate homosexuality with promiscuity and adultery. However, Jeffrey John is a man in a faithful relationship with his life partner. Normally the church would commend this sort of long-term and committed relationship – but the rules change when the two people in question are the same gender.

I wonder whether the checklist above is remotely just? If these questions are put to homosexual candidates, then I would hope that heterosexual candidates were asked equivalent questions:

• whether the candidate had always complied with the Church’s teachings on sexual activity being solely within matrimony;

• whether he had expressed repentance for any previous premarital sexual activity.

Of course, these questions seem inappropriate, invasive and irrelevant. The sex life of my bishop is of zero interest to me, as long as it attests to the values of love and faithfulness that we expound in the church. Moreover, I agree with the comments from the Archbishop of York backing William and Kate’s premarital sexual activity when he said that many modern couples want to “test the milk before they buy the cow”.

Please, let us make some attempt to be even-handed and avoid such blatant hypocrisy.

Priest’s New Book Fires Back at Church’s Intolerance

Few organizations are as militantly anti-homosexual as the Catholic Church. According to the Colorado Independent, in June 2011 the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops “…was ramping up a campaign against same-sex marriage.” These tirades only enhance the message in new book Passionate Holiness: Marginalized Christian Devotions for Distinctive People (published by Trafford Publishing) by Father Dennis O’Neill. Now updated in this second edition, Passionate Holiness offers gay, lesbian and transgender Christians examples from Catholicism’s past.

O’Neill’s exploration of the Byzantine-era construction of three churches in Constantinople dedicated to martyrs who might have been bisexual or gay. Rich with history and extrapolation, Passionate Holiness will provide comfort and provide insight to its readers.

Well-reviewed by other priests, sociologists and novelists, Passionate Holiness offers a ray of tolerance in the increasingly-polarized world of the Church versus homosexuality. Writing in The Advocate, critic Anne Stockwell notes, “Here’s something the antigay modern Roman Catholic Church would like to forget: In the early years of Christianity, homosexual saints were worshipped, too.”

About the Author
Dennis O’Neill was born in Chicago, Illinois, in 1947. He received his education in the seminary system of the Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago and was ordained a priest in 1973. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in English literature from Loyola University in 1969 and a master’s of divinity from St. Mary of the Lake Seminary, Mundelein, Illinois, in 1973. In 1974, he received an S.T.B and an S.T.L. from St. Mary of the Lake Seminary. Since ordination, he has served in four parishes in Chicago and is currently pastor of St. Martha Parish in Morton Grove, Illinois.
O’Neill is the author of Lazarus Interlude: A Story of God’s Love in a Moment of Ministry (Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria Press, 1982), and has written either the introductions or the text for several books published by British Celtic Artist, Courtney Davis.