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Responsibilities of Clerical Dads


The Church and Illegitimate Children

Q: Recently I have been thinking about the fate and position of the illegitimate child.

I have been researching Church history and the history of bastardy and have come to realize that the Church rules put men at risk for illicit sexual involvement both through its laws of celibacy and its laws against contraception.

History shows that from the beginning of Church laws supposedly celibate men were occasionally fathering children. The Church claims to care about children so much that it stands firmly against abortion in any and all cases.

My one question is: What does canon law require of the clergymen as their responsibility to the children they have fathered? I would guess there was never any discussion or effort by Church leaders to end the terrible labeling and stigma against a child thus conceived. The overall history of my Church is incredibly foul and disconcerting.

A: Let me observe in the beginning that some married men and women beget children outside their marriage. Some supposedly celibate or unmarried people conceive children, too. With that said, let me suggest:

1) Legitimacy has been important in non-Christian as well as Christian nations and societies. In some countries of the Mideast, illicit sex is still severely punished.

2) Reflect on the parable of the wheat field in which weeds were sown. The field represents the Church. Good and bad, saints and sinners, wise and foolish all grow together. The Church is not made up of perfect people. If it were, we would have no reason to pray for the living or dead. God acts even through imperfect people—sinners.

St. Peter was aware of his sinfulness. And even after the Resurrection St. Paul reproached Peter for not acting forthrightly with the Jewish Christians and gentile Christians in regard to the Jewish law. It should not scandalize us if later popes and bishops were not always perfect and shared the failures and prejudices of their times.

3) In past ages legitimacy was important in civil law as well as Church law. Illegitimacy was important not only because of the scandal given by parenting out of wedlock, but also because it mattered to the state.

The power to rule depended on legitimate descent. So did legal inheritance and other matters. Property and authority were passed on only to sons and daughters begotten in marriage. Legitimacy provided for order in society.

4) Sex outside of marriage and “illegitimacy” continue to tear families and marriages apart. They are the source of grave social problems. The current debate over our national welfare system and other social problems is evidence of that.

5) I found no specific canonical demands on a cleric toward a child he fathered outside marriage. Most penalties are for committing the sexual acts themselves. The cleric who fathers a child, however, has all the responsibilities toward the child that any father has. By natural and moral law he must provide for the child.

6) It remains sadly true that the sins of parents are often visited on their children.

What Should I Do About My Son’s Wedding?

Q: My son is about to marry a Jewish girl. In the beginning, they planned to have both a priest and a rabbi at the services. His fiancee and family have made all their arrangements, but my son has done nothing about the priest and it appears that it will be a totally Jewish ceremony.

His fiancee has told me that in a Jewish wedding the mothers, grandmothers and great-grandmothers are part of the ceremony and all march down the aisle after the bridesmaids—wearing special dresses just as the bridesmaids do.

How does the Church view this? It’s all I think about. I even wake up in the middle of the night trying to find my role in this upcoming wedding.

A: For good and valid reasons a bishop, through his chancery offices, can dispense from the required Catholic form of the marriage of a Catholic and Jew. In that case, the rabbi officiates at the ceremony and asks all the questions and receives the consent of both parties to the marriage. With a dispensation from the form, such a marriage is valid and is recognized by the Church as a true marriage.

If such a dispensation has been obtained, Catholic parents and grandparents may in good conscience not only attend the ceremony but also march in a wedding precession, as you describe it. This custom certainly includes the parents in the joy of the wedding.

You should realize that many Jewish people as well as Catholics have strong feelings against mixed marriages—perhaps even stronger feelings. Many rabbis will not officiate at the marriage of a Jew to someone other than a Jew. If your prospective daughter-in-law finds a rabbi who will officiate at her marriage to your son, that rabbi might not agree to having a priest share in the service. That may be why you are not hearing any talk about a priest being present.

If that is the case, I suggest you encourage your son to obtain the necessary dispensation from the Catholic form if he intends to continue in the practice of his faith and religion.

Be supportive of your son.

Why Are Divorced/Remarried Catholics Different From Other Sinners?

Q: Why are divorced Catholics treated differently from other sinners? Convicted murderers, rapists and other criminals, along with priests who leave the priesthood, can receive the sacraments yet divorced and remarried people cannot.

A: In the case of a convicted murderer, the action or the sin committed is over and done with. It can be repented with the intention of never committing that sin again. He (she) can be reconciled to God and receive holy Communion.

A former priest or religious cannot receive holy Communion until he or she has received the necessary dispensation from the Church and been reconciled.

If someone has been validly married, obtained a civil divorce and then remarried outside the Church, that person has chosen to act contrary to the command of Christ and the Church. As long as this situation persists, repentance and reconciliation are impossible because the Church has no power to dispense people from the marital obligations of fidelity, unity and permanence.

Perhaps the first marriage was invalid and a way can be found for reconciliation and a return to the sacraments. Contact a priest.

More About Masturbation

Q: I am writing regarding the question the 10 widows asked about masturbation (November 1994). That was quite a lengthy answer, but is it or isn’t it wrong? It seems people decide that for themselves. I don’t see why it would be wrong.

A: According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, an act of masturbation in itself is serious matter for sin. Any mortal sin requires two other elements. They are sufficient freedom (willfulness and consent) and knowledge or awareness. I keep saying it is not always easy to judge how much freedom and consent—or awareness—are present in an act.

How much sense of sin does this sinner have? Has anger or passion of another sort blotted out reason or swept the person away? How much obsession or compulsion has been present in an act of masturbation, how much ability to resist?

Sometimes a confessor will have much difficulty evaluating those things. Sometimes the individual himself or herself will be asking whether he or she fully intended such an act, acted with full freedom.

Theologians and psychologists may differ about how compulsive an action may have been. In such cases a person should confess the act and circumstances and put them in God’s hands and to God’s mercy. But if the rest of a person’s life is holy and prayerful, I would presume guilt is diminished because of compulsiveness and the strong force of habit or obsession.

But a person may not simply proceed to self-stimulation, saying it is compulsive. As with any sin, he or she needs to struggle and attempt to resist the temptation.

Finally, the teaching authority of the Church in the 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church says masturbation is an “intrinsically and gravely disordered action.” The Catechism states, “‘The deliberate use of the sexual faculty for whatever reason outside of marriage is essentially contrary to its purpose.’ For here sexual pleasure is sought outside of ‘the sexual relationship which is demanded by the moral order and in which the total meaning of mutual self-giving and human procreation in the context of true love is achieved’” (#2352).

Using one’s sexual powers outside of intercourse within marriage is disordered. It is self-love rather than love for a spouse and the fruit of married love.

By now I think I have said all that I can, as clearly as I can on this subject. I cannot give anyone special permission or overrule the pope or teach contrary to him and the statements of the Church. With this, I end the discussion.



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