As the story of the elderly priest who had to choose between his girlfriend and the priesthood makes headlines far and near, and as he now plans to take the diocese to court over this, it may be interesting to take a look at the mistaken assumptions and broken promises of Father Jan Peijnenburg.
At his ordination, a priest makes certain promises. And since promises mean something, especially so before God, these are serious business. Here we find the five promises listed:
- Promise to discharge the office of priesthood in the presbyteral rank as worthy fellow workers with the Order of Bishops.
- Promise to exercise the ministry of the Word worthily and wisely, preaching the Gospel and teaching the Catholic faith.
- Promise to celebrate faithfully and reverently the mysteries of Christ handed down by the Church, especially the sacrifice of the Eucharist and the sacrament of Reconciliation, for the glory of God and the sanctification of the Christian people.
- Promise to implore God’s mercy upon the people entrusted to their care by observing the command to pray without ceasing.
- Promise to be united more closely every day to Christ the High Priest, who offered himself for us to the Father as a pure sacrifice and to consecrate themselves to God for the salvation of all.
Then, after these five, the bishop asks the priest, “Do you promise respect and obedience to me and my successors?” The positive response to this question, which is related to the first of the five promises above, means that he can be ordained. This promise of obedience is not a matter of superiority of the bishop (although his rank in the priesthood, having the fullness of Holy Orders, is above that of the priest, or presbyter), but forms a basis of practical unity in the local Church, a unity based on fraternity and familial love.
And here we immediately see the first error of Father Jan Peijnenburg. Instead of fostering a respectful and obedient relationship with his bishop, a relationship that will always allow room for respectful disagreement, he takes the bishop to court in order to force him to change his standpoint. All while knowing full well, one would hope, that his opinions on celibacy and priesthood are in disagreement with those of the Catholic Church.
And this takes us tot he second promises, or a part of it: the promise to teach the Catholic faith. A priest is also always a teacher, not least through his behaviour. At his ordination, Fr. Peijnenburg promised to teach the Catholic faith. He does not do so now, as he acts blatantly against what the Church teaches, even against the right of the Church to teach this.
The other promises, while equally important, have less to do with the question at hand, so I’ll leave them be, not least because I have no means of knowing if and how Fr. Peijnenburg keeps them.
Another problem, which has been confirmed by people with knowledge about canon and secular law, is Fr. Peijnenburg’s claim that the right to marry trumps the freedom of religion. No one in the Catholic Church is forced to be or remain a practicising Catholic. It is a free choice, and one’s faith is lived in full freedom. In fact, lack of freedom can be a serious obstacle! If, for example, someone is married without freely wanting to, the subsequent marriage can be declared null. That as an example. If Fr. Peijnenburg now claims that the Church can’t keep him from getting married or even having a romantic relationship, he is in the wrong. He himself, by saying ‘yes’ to his bishop and by his ordination, promised to be faithful to what the Church teaches. And that Church teaches that priests must live celibate. That is no new rule, and one that Fr. Peijnenburg was certainly aware of. He simply does not agree with it, and considers that reason enough to consider his promises regarding that empty.
A final mistake he makes is his idea of the consequences of his decision to flaunt his promises and the rules of the club he freely joined: Fr. Peijnenburg claims that his priesthood has been taken away. That is an untruth and an impossibility. Once given, a sacrament (such as Holy Orders) can’t be returned or taken back. What has happened in this case is that Fr. Peijnenburg’s priestly faculties have been removed; he is not allowed to do any pastoral work or administer the sacraments in the parish where he lives. Not that he has any inclination to follow that prohibition… Fr. Jan Peijnenburg will always be a priest because he as ordained as one. He is not allowed to work as one because he seemingly has no intention to be true to his promises as a Catholic priest in the Latin rite.
And that is the core of this nasty and unnecessary conflict. It’s not about the desirability of celibacy or the meanness of the diocese out to destroy the love between two people. It’s about obedience and broken promises.
 Brabants Dagblad