The declaration from Father Jonathan Morris came as a blow. His decision to leave the priesthood hurts his brother priests as well as his parishioners, but it is one that has, at the same time, he tells us, brought him joy.
Morris’ circle of influence is wider than most, given his prominence as a frequent guest on Fox News and his books.
It is a most unusual case. Morris has not been accused of misconduct. He has not been thrown under the bus to solve a problem for his superiors. He has not fallen in love with a woman whom he desires to marry. He has not fathered a child or lived a double life. He has not fallen at all. He simply wants out. And he says now that he should never have gotten in.
In a statement on Facebook, Morris revealed that, after a time of sabbatical, he has petitioned the Holy Father to return him to the lay state and dispense him from the promise of celibacy. While he “loved and thrived” in priestly ministry, he has long struggled with his “vocation and with the commitments that the Catholic priesthood demands, especially not being able to marry and have a family.”
In a subsequent television interview, he revealed that while a seminarian he had had a short, intimate relationship with a woman, and he told his superiors then that he wanted to leave formation. Instead, Father Morris, then a Legionary of Christ, was sent to Mexico to meet with the order’s founder, Father Marcial Maciel. The master fraudster, prodigious in his own criminality and corrupt to his very core, saw nothing wrong in Jonathan being tempted to live a double life. He told Jonathan to stay and advanced his priestly ordination by two years.
So Jonathan became Father Morris in an environment of brutal malformation, and, despite all that, he lived an (apparently) happy and fruitful priesthood. We crossed paths in Rome as seminarians, and our media work brought us together on other occasions.
When he left the Legion to join the Archdiocese of New York, I would look him up when he was stationed at Old St. Patrick’s in Lower Manhattan. It has been a few years, though, since we last had any significant contact. So the news came like a bolt out of the blue to me, as it did to many others.
I will not hide my disappointment, but the Church does make provision for such cases, and it seems as if Morris has done everything the proper way. I cannot think of my disappointment as anything but the fitting response, and Morris concedes the same. Indeed, he expected just that: “My fear of disappointing people’s expectations of me has always held me back from taking this step.”
Yes, I can sympathize with that. I have not experienced anything of what Morris has. But I think I would rather die an unhappy priest than let down my family, my students, my parishioners, the Church, in search of a happiness — perhaps elusive — elsewhere. Morris likely thought the same for many years. And he did try to get out before he got in, only to be manipulated by one of the most wicked men in the history of the Church.
And yet, and yet … God can and does write straight with crooked lines, and he wrote some beautiful lines with Father Morris as his pen.
Circumstances of life often lead people where they would not have chosen to go, and they must make the best of it, serve God as best they can, and become holy as they are able. Not a few married couples are in that situation, maybe contracting a marriage for unwise reasons. Or what of those unmarried couples who have a pregnancy that disrupts all of their plans for the future? Analogous things happen to priests, too.
What, then, are we to think? It is unusual to comment publicly on another’s vocational discernment, but Morris decided — understandably, given his public profile — to give a public account of his decision. What he wrote was sincere and, in a way, moving. He has hinted that his future work will continue that public role. That public accounting invites engagement.
So is Morris correct to say that he is “following God’s will for my life now”? We cannot know, of course, but I am uneasy about the claim. I have no reason to doubt that Morris has concluded that leaving the priesthood is God’s will for him, but I think, listening with respect, it should make us uneasy.
It was 40 years ago this coming October that St. John Paul II addressed U.S. priests in Philadelphia. In 1979, a decade was ending that had seen mass defections from the priesthood — thousands who left the priestly life, for reasons both serious and cavalier. And so the Holy Father was blunt:
“Priesthood is forever — tu es sacerdos in aeternum — we do not return the gift once given. It cannot be that God who gave the impulse to say ‘Yes’ now wishes to hear ‘No.’”
Searing words for any priest who has left the ministry to hear. Perhaps in the present case, God never wished to hear “Yes” in the first place. Perhaps. At the same time, a “Yes” was given, one that was sincere and generous and bore fruit. The history of priestly vocations includes those where the man in question experiences — even as a burden — the words of the Lord Jesus: “You did not choose me; I chose you.”
In 1979, John Paul had been giving serious attention to those leaving the priesthood. In his first “Holy Thursday Letter to Priests,” published six months before that address in Philadelphia, he dwelt at length on the question.
Regarding priestly celibacy — the apparent decisive issue for Morris — John Paul called it a “test and responsibility”:
“[The priest] decides upon a life of celibacy only after he has reached a firm conviction that Christ is giving him this gift for the good of the Church and the service of others. Only then does he commit himself to observe celibacy for his entire life. It is obvious that such a decision obliges not only by virtue of a law laid down by the Church but also by virtue of personal responsibility. It is a matter here of keeping one’s word to Christ and the Church. Keeping one’s word is, at one and the same time, a duty and a proof of the priest’s inner maturity; it is the expression of his personal dignity. It is shown in all its clarity when this keeping one’s promise to Christ, made through a conscious and free commitment to celibacy for the whole of one’s life, encounters difficulties, is put to the test, or is exposed to temptation — all things that do not spare the priest, any more than they spare any other Christian.”
We need to consider that in light of Morris’ public statements. There was a gift received and a promise made. That the gift is being returned, and the promise dispensed from, is to be mourned. It is to be regretted, even if this is the path that must be followed. I certainly was not the only one who thought how unimaginable it would be for Morris to write as he did, to appear on television as he did, if he were already what he hopes to be, a married man and father. Marriages do dissolve, and the Church provides a process for dealing with that messiness, too. But would a married man ever declare it to be God’s will that he leave his wife in a marriage that, not without difficulties, is enduring, fruitful and serving the children?
Why do we easily mourn the disintegration of a marriage but do not so easily mourn the end of a priestly life?
In that 1979 letter, John Paul argued that laying aside the priestly vocation denies married couples an example and model to which they are entitled. The supernatural vocation offers support to the natural vocation, both of which are difficult to live, but possible with God’s grace:
“Perhaps, not without good reason, one should add at this point that the commitment to married fidelity, which derives from the sacrament of matrimony, creates similar obligations in its own sphere; this married commitment sometimes becomes a source of similar trials and experiences for husbands and wives, who also have a way of proving the value of their love in these ‘trials by fire.’ Love, in fact, in all its dimensions, is not only a call but also a duty. Finally, we should add that our brothers and sisters joined by the marriage bond have the right to expect from us, priests and pastors, good example and the witness of fidelity to one’s vocation until death, a fidelity to the vocation that we choose through the sacrament of orders just as they choose it through the sacrament of matrimony.”
Jonathan Morris no doubt read that and likely concluded that he did not really choose the priestly vocation, but it was imposed upon him by the manipulation of his superiors and his fear of disappointing others. Living under a twin burden of manipulation and fear can be onerous, even crushing. The joy of which Morris now speaks is in part due to that burden being, at least for now, lifted.
But there are burdens, often undeserved, that accompany every path in life. The priesthood is no exception, and the burdens of our life are not without blessings. Many have written, upon hearing the news, that they wish the soon-to-be Mr. Morris well. Of course, who doesn’t? But I wish he had stayed.
Father Raymond J. de Souza is the editor in chief of Convivium magazine.