The phenomenon of a priest fathering a child has historical roots, as the surname ‘Mac an tSagairt’ attests.
It has been centuries since it was anything like a common phenomenon and today in Ireland there is a tendency to view it as an exclusively historical matter.
Yet there are signs that coverage of the issue is likely to grow over the coming months and years.
In May, a British tabloid ran a front page story of a woman fathered by a priest.
Now in her late 30s, Hannah Robinson first met her dad in her early teens and has never had anything like a full relationship with him. He didn’t want a relationship with her because of the difficulty it would create for his priestly vocation, and also for the shame it would cause his friends and (other) family members.
Hannah’s story may be unusual but it is certainly not a one-off. Though concrete figures are understandably elusive, it is thought by those with knowledge of the area that there are thousands of people worldwide who have a priest as their father.
This seems plausible, especially considering that there are currently around 400,000 priests alive in the world today.
The phenomenon led to the establishment of COPING (Children of Priests International) in 2014, an organisation dedicated to facilitating the needs of persons whose father is a priest, including by way of the provision of counselling.
The organisation’s founder is Irish and is himself the son of a priest. It has received hundreds of requests for help since its founding from all over the world.
(Obviously the organisation is aimed towards children of those priests who have taken a vow of celibacy – it is not a support group for children of Eastern Rite priests, priests who are often validly married!)
Priests fathering children evokes a variety of emotions and involves a complex series of moral and religious issues.
It is tempting for Catholics to subconsciously ignore the matter – after all, it tends to be reported in a sensationalist, tabloid fashion, and comment on it is often mixed in with criticism of the celibacy rule and of the Church generally.
Yet the celibacy rule stands or falls on the strength of its theological rationale – a concern to respect the rule (or a rush to criticise it) should not blind us to the needs and rights of children conceived via its breaking.
When discussion over priests’ children is used as a pretext for lampooning the celibacy rule it distracts attention away from what is the core ethical principle at the heart of the matter: that every child has a human right to know and be cared for by their natural parents.
This right is itself based on the duty every parent has towards the wellbeing of their biological children (only in exceptional cases can a parent justly discharge this duty via an intermediary, i.e. by placing the child for adoption). It doesn’t matter whether the child was born into a regular or irregular union, or whether they were planned or not.
A parent’s duties necessarily involve making themselves known to their child, supporting them financially, emotionally, intellectually and spiritually, and maintaining as good a relationship as is practicable with their child’s other parent.
All the above applies to priests who have conceived a child. As Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio – now Pope Francis – said in 2010, “if a priest comes to me and tells me that he has gotten a woman pregnant…I remind him that the natural law comes before his right as a priest…just as that child has a right to his mother, he has the right to the face of his father.”
Nowadays, it is likely that a clear majority of cases of priests conceiving a child occur in non-Western countries.
But regardless of whether a priest’s child happens to live, there remains a common set of obstacles to them knowing who their father is and having a real relationship with him.
Foremost among them is the disapproval felt by priests who father children. This disapproval pressurises many of them to flee from their parental responsibilities.
This is not to say that the disapproval doesn’t have any rational basis.
In fathering a child, a priest breaks his vow of celibacy, harms the good of marriage, and also leaves both the child and her mother in a socially vulnerable situation.
Nevertheless, it is important that both the priest and wider society understand that the stigma attaches to the error – no person as such should ever be stigmatised.
Stigmatising the persons involved in this situation ends up suppressing the development of the child (even into adulthood), and drastically impairs any relationship she might have with her father.
The stigma will also place serious and avoidable strain on the relationship between mother and child.
Support and compassion should extend to the father, as well as to the child and her mother.
In order to facilitate a good relationship between father and child the priest himself needs to make a genuinely courageous choice, occurring as it would against the grain of serious pressure from various networks, bourgeois opinion, and pride. It is not just in the child’s interests that the priest decides to relate himself to her.
His own identity and authenticity is at stake. The decision is easier made if the priest experiences God’s mercy from the lay faithful, his fellow priests and religious, and whatever ecclesiastical authority he comes into contact with.
Such mercy makes it easier for the priest to fulfil his duties, and makes it more likely that the child will experience the love of her father – even if only as an adult.