Once upon a time, they might’ve been boiled in oil, drawn and quartered, hung by the neck and, if their luck held out, swiftly guillotined. In these enlightened times, however, the 19 dissident Quebec priests who so brazenly defied the Vatican’s opposition to gay marriage and gay priests with a 1,000-word open letter in La Presse last week might get off with a reprimand.
Or worse. They could be totally ignored.
Last November, in a major policy announcement, the Vatican barred men with "deep-seated homosexual tendencies" from entering the priesthood. Last week’s letter, titled "Trop, c’est trop" and signed by priests from the dioceses of Montreal, Joliette, Longueuil, Gaspé and Gatineau, openly challenges that policy.
"Does the church have the last word on the mysteries of political, social, family and sexual life?" asked the signatories. "In these matters, the official teaching of the church has shown itself more than once to be wrong."
While acknowledging that these issues are definitely creating friction among the faithful, church spokesperson Bishop Louis Dicaire downplayed the rebels’ epistle.
"It’s not an earthquake," he said.
Nor, he added, will it change the church’s position on homosexuals.
"They’re exercising their right to public expression," he added, "although one could question whether it’s the best way to advance the debate."
Religious scholars point out that Quebec’s Catholic clergy haven’t been this publicly opposed to church doctrine since the 1968 Papal encyclical Humanae Vitae, which decreed that contraception was the devil’s work.
"I wouldn’t call this unprecedented," said Christophe Potworowski, the Kennedy-Smith Chair of Catholic Studies at McGill University, "but I’d be at a loss to come up with a precedent."
"It points to a serious crisis in the Quebec church and the lack of communion between priests in pastoral positions and their bishops."
The issue is expected to top the agenda when Catholic bishops congregate in Quebec later this week.