Selling a calling for a mess of pottage


A federal byelection is not usually cause for bewilderment in Catholic circles, but last week that was exactly the situation in the Montreal suburban riding of Repentigny.

It was not the first time, though, that Father Raymond Gravel has caused bewilderment in the Catholic world.

Father Gravel, a priest of the Diocese of Joliette, was acclaimed as the Bloc Québécois candidate in the Nov. 27 byelection. He is a priest of a rather curious sort, having publicly taken positions contrary to the teachings of the Catholic Church on the sanctity of human life and the nature of marriage. It is the public position of Fr. Gravel that what the Church teaches definitively as true is actually false. One would expect this might provoke the need for a certain reflection and tranquillity, the better to resolve what should be a crisis of conscience over remaining a public representative of the Catholic Church. Fr. Gravel chose instead to run for Parliament.

Here he runs afoul of canon law, for the Church’s law, revised on this matter in 1983, makes it clear that priests cannot hold public office. The reason is clear; priests are to be instruments of unity in service of the truth of the Gospel. Political office by its nature requires making choices on political options on which the Gospel requires no particular position — e.g., the sovereignty of Quebec. Those choices must not be confused with the Gospel itself, and priests in public office confuse just such issues.

Moreover, there are issues in which the Gospel mandate does require a clear choice to be made, not on partisan grounds, but on fundamental matters beyond politics that touch the dignity of the human person and the natural law. Such issues, as they relate to human rights, the sanctity of life and the fundamental role of the family, should not be confused with partisan political positions. That’s why it is advisable for priests not only to eschew public office, but even to avoid anything that might affiliate them with a particular political party. It leaves them free to speak without a partisan agenda.

So when media reports last week quoted Fr. Gravel as saying that he had the permission of the Bishop of Joliette, Gilles Lussier, to run for office, there was serious headshaking going on. Why would such an exemption be made in the case — either by the Vatican, as it was reported in some places, or by the local bishop? And why would Fr. Gravel, who has sown such confusion on Church doctrine in the past, be allowed to do so from the House of Commons?

A revision of the Biblical phrase about Esau’s foolishness comes to mind: selling one’s vocation for a mess of pottage.

It turns out that the media reports were wrong, and Fr. Gravel has no permission to do what he is doing. To the contrary, he has been relieved of his priestly duties — a very serious sanction against any priest. Bishop Lussier clarified as much this week on the Diocese of Joliette Web site.

“No ‘green light’ has been given by the Vatican,” Bishop Lussier wrote in French. “The legislation of the Church is clear: All priests must abstain from any active engagement in [partisan] politics. … In the present case, there is no situation in our country that would justify an exemption from the prevailing rule [in this matter]….

“In making the choice to take an active part in partisan politics, Fr. Gravel retains his clerical state, but is relieved of the exercise of his priestly ministry,” Lussier wrote, acknowledging Catholic theology that a man always remains a priest after ordination, even if disciplinary actions forbid him from exercising his priesthood. “Fr. Gravel may not exercise any activity as a priest during his involvement in politics.”

How this came to be reported as “permission” is a matter for Fr. Gravel to explain. To the contrary, the consequence of his decision is that he has forfeited his priestly ministry. A revision of the Biblical phrase about Esau’s foolishness comes to mind: selling one’s vocation for a mess of pottage.

Fr. Gravel, who will likely be elected on Nov. 27, has already done great damage to the witness of the Catholic Church in public life. As a Member of Parliament with the claimed approval of the Church, the damage would have been much greater. Bishop Lussier’s quick action has protected the Church from that confusion, and, like all ecclesiastical penalties, has prompted, one hopes, Fr. Gravel to reconsider whether he wishes to continue on the course he has set for himself.


Father Raymond J. de Souza, "Selling a calling for a mess of pottage." National Post, (Canada) November 4, 2006.

Reprinted with permission of the National Post and Fr. de Souza.


Father Raymond J. de Souza is chaplain to Newman House, the Roman Catholic mission at Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario. Father de Souza's web site is here. Father de Souza is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.

Copyright © 2006 National Post

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