The video of an aged French priest slapping a fractious child during his baptism was shocking. Even more distressing was the reaction of the parents who, quite literally, had to prise their toddler out of the priest’s arms. Small wonder the footage went viral.
As a Catholic priest I felt appalled by what I was watching, but the incident prompted other emotions too. Firstly, I felt a measure of sympathy for Fr Jacques Lacroix, doggedly ministering on in advanced age.
That the priest was in active ministry at the age of 89 is, I have no doubt, the effect of the desperate shortage of priests in Europe; and that the shortage of priests in Europe is, I also have no doubt, the effect of the imposed rule of celibacy in the western Latin Church.
And this is precisely what mandatory celibacy is: a rule which, like all rules – and unlike doctrine – is open to change. Priests of the Eastern Rite Catholic churches have been allowed to marry for centuries; Anglicans who have converted and become Catholic priests may also remain married.
One cannot imagine a priest who is also a grandfather or great-grandfather slapping a child in such a way, or anyone who has even minimal experience of young children, for that matter. Nieces and nephews are not quite the same thing!
It is neither good nor just to extrapolate: there are surely many priests in their late eighties who would never slap a frightened, crying child during its baptism. This why Jesus told us not to judge – because moral judgements are almost always made in general, not in particular. As the incident of the woman caught in adultery made clear, Jesus made his own judgements – which were always just.
During my own childhood, I was often slapped across the back of the legs and on the side of the head by the nuns who were my teachers, by my primary and secondary school teachers and, above all, by my parents – but never by the parish priest.
I am quite sure that my behaviour warranted it and it certainly never did me any harm. However, social mores have changed and this kind of response is no longer acceptable, especially from a priest. The order of the day is therefore self-reflection on the part of the Church.
Fr David Clemens is a Catholic priest of the Diocese of Brentwood and an analytical psychologist. He is currently finishing a book that offers a psychological perspective on priesthood