Children of Priests and Canon Law

What does Church teaching dictate?

(photo: Unsplash)

Much as he wants the Church to acknowledge the situation of priests who have fathered children, Vincent Doyle isn’t sure whether he would like to see a canon-law provision that directly addresses it.

The son of a priest and founder of Coping International, Doyle said that because canon law says nothing about “children of the ordained,” fathering a child is not a canonical crime, thus allowing each case to be treated individually. Were the law to be changed so that it is more specific, however, Doyle said he would not want it to put children of priests in a difficult position or speak of them in terms of “sin” or apologetically.

According to the late Father Robert Kaslyn, associate professor and former dean of canon law at The Catholic University of America, some aspects of the existing law can be applied to situations in which priests father children. Among these is Canon 384, which calls for diocesan bishops to “take care that [priests] correctly fulfill the obligations proper to their state.”

In an interview given to the Register before his death March 13, Father Kaslyn said this law would apply in the sense that a priest would have a moral obligation to a child he fathered, and so the bishop must make sure that obligation is fulfilled.

Father Kaslyn said canon-law provisions concerning celibacy and cohabitation could apply to such situations as well, even providing penalties for violations, but he said the purpose of imposing penalties would be to bring about a recognition that sin or a crime or failure has occurred.

“To the extent an individual is incapable of recognizing that,” he said, “then maybe the law needs to come down more heavily to convince him of the error of his ways.” On the other hand, he said, if someone is aware he has erred and done damage and wants to do his best to help those he has harmed, the law need not be applied as heavily.

In cases in which a priest has fathered a child, Father Kaslyn said the woman must be heard and her perspective understood. “The law won’t matter, penalties won’t matter and the moral situation won’t be addressed unless she feels someone hears what she says,” he said. “She needs to be heard, hopefully believed and helped to heal as much as the priest.”

Asked whether he thinks canon law as it stands is adequate for dealing with such situations, Father Kaslyn said, “If canon law ends up being more specific to try to cover everything, it’s going to be unmanageable or, at most, is going to miss things. Should there be a canon dealing with this situation? Perhaps, but what we need to know is to what extent have the current norms been implemented and used.”

Father Gerald Murray, a canon lawyer and pastor of the Church of the Holy Family in New York, said he believes greater specificity in the law would assist bishops and religious superiors in acting justly and in a consistent manner when confronted by situations involving children of priests.

Given a specific law does not exist, he said, “It would be good for the Holy See to recognize this problem by promulgating canonical norms requiring a standard set of actions to be taken by bishops and religious superiors once they become aware that a priest has fathered a child. Private guidance that may already be in existence should be made public and should acquire the force of law.”