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ORLÉANS, France (ChurchMilitant.com) - French Catholics have reopened a debate on priestly celibacy after a popular cathedral rector resigned to marry his lover.
After nearly 25 years of priesthood, the rector of Holy Cross Cathedral, Fr. Christophe Chatillon, shocked his flock by announcing that he was quitting the priesthood rather than choosing to live in a clandestine relationship.
"After having taken the time for discernment, and not wanting to lock myself into a double life, I freely choose to leave the ministry," Chatillon wrote to cathedral members on Jan. 28. Chatillon has been rector of Holy Cross Cathedral since 2010.
"For a very long time, the joys of the mission and of fraternal life allowed me to compensate for the frustrations linked to the priestly ministry, and more particularly to celibacy: today this is no longer the case," the rector noted.
"During the ordeals I have been through in recent years, I have found the comfort of a friend who listened to me and supported me. Today I cannot envisage the future without her," the priest, who was ordained in 1999 when he was 29, explained.
Holy Cross Cathedral in the diocese of Orléans was first built in the 13th century on the site of older churches dating back to the 4th century. The cathedral, which hosted the coronations of several French kings, is a monument to the city's heroine, St. Joan of Arc.
Joan of Arc visited the cathedral frequently and prayed in the sanctuary on April 29, 1429, when the city was besieged by English forces. A chapel in the apse is dedicated to the saint, and her life story is told in 10 of the cathedral's stained glass windows.
"This news comes as a shock to many of us," Jacques Blaquart, bishop of Orléans, told a press conference on Feb. 4. "The departure of this priest, which no one could have foreseen, obviously arouses a lot of emotion."
When asked if he could consider optional celibacy for priests in the Latin rite, Blaquart said he was "not in favor of marriage for priests" but was not fundamentally opposed to the idea of a debate "as to the possibility of ordaining men who are already married."
"Christophe Chatillon did not want to remain in hypocrisy," the bishop said in an interview with La Croix last week. "Chatillon displayed his qualities at the very heart of the diocese, at the cathedral."
"It's true that the shock is hard for the faithful. I met with a few hundred of them this weekend so that we could react and reflect together," Blaquart added.
"The burden is heavy, it's true," the bishop acknowledged. "Christophe told me that he was also struck by the suicide of two priests in the diocese, in 2008 and more recently in 2018."
The rector's resignation has reignited a debate over priestly celibacy in the Latin rite led by Plein Jour — an association that offers support through "listening" and "accompaniment" for priests and their paramours while guaranteeing "absolute discretion."
Founded by ex-parish priest Bernard Chalmel and his wife Marie-Laurence Brunet, Chalmel's former catechist, the organization campaigns for the abolition of mandatory clerical celibacy in the Latin rite.
"I can say that almost one out of two priests have affairs, love affairs, but it must remain hidden. Stop the hypocrisy," remarks Chalmel.
The couple, who organize support meetings for priests and their lovers, has written several letters to French bishops with testimonies of clergy who have cohabited with mistresses for decades.
"The first objection I heard from a bishop about the abolition of the rule of obligatory celibacy for priests is this: 'I already have a hard time paying the salary of single priests. How do you expect me to raise enough funding to support a family?'" Brunet writes.
"Removing the rule of obligatory celibacy does not mean that all priests will marry and have children. The number of salary increases would therefore be limited. We could plan a family supplement for those with children," she responds.
"Priests have a very substantial benefit in kind: they are housed free of charge in the presbyteries. In general, these are large houses, where a family could easily be accommodated," Brunet adds.
But Bp. Blaquart insists that while Chatillon is leaving the ministry "for the love of a woman," it is important to specify that priests have given our lives "for love of Christ."
"The priest gives himself as a total gift, and that makes me happy, myself, to have given my life to Christ," Blaquart emphasizes.
In his groundbreaking book Celibacy in Crisis: A Secret World Revisited, former Benedictine monk and Catholic priest Richard Sipe, an expert on the sex abuse crisis, concluded that only "2% of vowed clergy can be said to have achieved celibacy."
At least "5% of priests are involved with problematic sexual behaviors — transvestitism, exhibitionism, pornography or compulsive masturbation," Sipe wrote.
Around "40% of priests do practice celibacy, but their practice is not established enough to mark it as either consolidated or achieved. And indeed, these priests are open to sexual reversals and experimentation as well as progress," he noted.
While 8% of priests had "consolidated celibate practice beyond the point of expectable reversal in spite of some past failures," 30% were involved in heterosexual relationships, and 15% were engaged in homosexual relationships, experimentation or behaviors, Church Militant reported.
Professor Jean-Louis Schlegel, a sociologist of religions, believes "the order of magnitude that often comes up is one out of three priests, or even two out of three priests, have a physical or romantic relationship with a woman or a man."