12Jul Compulsory celibacy is inhumane, but a married clergy won’t solve all problems either

To this middle-aged woman, current discussions of the value of celibacy in the Catholic church are somewhat narrow. It may be that my reading has not been sufficiently wide but the debate, as I have encountered it, appears led by priests, populated by priests and focussed on priests. I have yet to read anything by religious sisters on the value or otherwise of celibacy to their vocation as the ship of faith sails into the 21st century. Given the emphasis that is often placed on new understandings of human sexuality and how this can or should impact on institutional structures of the Catholic church, it seems odd that such arguments appear limited to the value of such insights for only one gender.

The discussions which I have read on priestly celibacy are on the one hand historical and on the other futuristic. The historical arguments seem irrefutable; Christian celibacy has been admired and idealised within the Church since the fourth century but it was not the only or even necessarily the numerically dominant arrangement for the first millennium of Church history. In the insular church of Ireland and Britain of the first millennium AD, it is often difficult to identify whether churchmen were primarily monastic or diocesan for many appear to have lived in community and yet to have had pastoral responsibilities. Sources from this period which are written from an ideological perspective tend to emphasise the value of celibacy, particularly for those espousing monastic or eremitical values; it is in the descriptive accounts of church personnel involved in ministry among the laity that celibacy appears to be least emphasised. With regard to female religious, there are a number of accounts of sisters who become pregnant but such tales almost invariably emphasise the role of authority figures who are depicted as arranging matters for the mother (most commonly as a continued member of the religious community). Historians of the Irish church have tended to talk in general terms of patterns of “laicisation” which may or may not have been due to the influence of Viking invasion and settlement; the human reality behind the choices of people such as the eleventh-century leader of Armagh, whose children apparently inter-married with local royalty, is rarely mentioned.

In terms of the future, the most commonly encountered context for the debate is the suggestion that a married clergy may help in resolving the current vocational crisis in Catholic priesthood. This is certainly the view which is so cogently argued in Brendan Hoban’s recent book, Who will break the bread for us? The suggestion appears to be that there is a large group of women who are ready and willing, if not yet able, to marry priests, bring up their children and to support their husbands in their vocation. Their existence would help alleviate the numbers who have left the priesthood in order to get married, particularly in recent years.

As our family and career structures continue to evolve, I wonder if this is realistic. Society increasingly expects that both adults in a couple should aspire to earning a wage and pay-rates, as well as the cost of living, is largely based on such assumptions. It is perfectly possible for a single adult to keep themselves but it is becoming increasingly difficult to consider bringing up a family on the average single wage. Moreover, the education of females, possibly to an unreasonable extent, is geared to fostering their involvement as equals in the workplace. The Hoban model suggests that (at least in the medium term) priesthood will continue to be an all-male profession and that current levels of pastoral involvement by priests, (which appears to outsiders to frequently involve overwork) as well as their willingness to respond with kindness and personal availability to their parishioners, will continue.

It may be overly cynical but I am not convinced that many women would be willing to take on such a proposition should it become an option. It seems to depend, in large measure, on their embracing of a life that would seem, on the face of it, to involve them with all the normal responsibilities of married life but in which their putative partner’s life would, if current norms continue, be marked by erratic scheduling, a heavy degree of emotional strain, enormous areas cut off by confidentiality and a high probability of low wages. It is true that all couples face the possibilities of such experiences no matter what professions are involved and many emerge from them with increased love and strengthened partnerships. Rather than assuming that an ability to marry will inevitably result in greatly increased numbers of priests, however, it might be worth considering in more detail the statistics (if they exist) on current marriage and ordination rates amongst those Christian denominations where a married clergy is permissible. I wonder if the suggestions which are currently being debated are, in essence, nostalgic ones, looking back to the marriages in which many priests were brought up as children?

To me, compulsory priestly celibacy seems to have evolved into an inhumane imposition by a human church on a small cohort of generous and gentle men who are prepared to live their lives in service to others and to God. It seems particularly harsh that it is applied to those who can spend so much time listening and supporting people in the middle of emotional upheaval and life-changing events and who yet are often asked to live alone. As a single person myself, I am conscious of my own realities of long evenings, of time spent in introspection, of the occasionally self-conscious manufacture of activity. I worry, however, that as Catholics we may pin our hopes for the widespread availability of the Eucharist in the future to the not-so-simple creation of a married priesthood. It may be that this ignores complex roots to our current vocational crisis and the need for all Catholics, both lay and religious, to take responsibility for working out solutions together.

Cathy Swift, Limerick

8 Responses

  1. Chris McDonnell

    Of course there will be difficulties if we accept a married clergy, no one has argued otherwise. Any significant change brings with it peculiar problems. We now have in the UK the current experience of the Ordinariate, not to mention those individual priests who came to Rome with their families prior to the recent arrangements. Already a two-teir structure exists and we have the opportunity to draw on the pastoral experience of married priests and their wives. There has been little trouble in accepting their ministry in our Parishes, for we are only too pleased that the Eucharist is being shared through their presence.
    But the difficulties cannot be teased out and directions towards a solution found if the issue is not discussed as an option within the Western Church. There is no reason, in principle, why we must insist on celibacy. That choice should be down to the individual. Brendan Hoban’s challenging book deals with this issue, yet at no time does he suggest that it is a total solution to the rapid decline in serviving priests, both in Ireland and the UK. Good men have left (and are leaving) not out of loss of faith in their priesthood but because the circumstances of their lives have occasioned their falling in love with a woman. We should welcome them, not reject them and ask them to continue in their service to the church. For everyone’s sake, let’s sit down and talk it through before it is too late

    Chris McDonnell Secretary Movement for Married Clergy UK

  2. ger gleeson

    Chris, you have said it all. Thank you.

  3. Teresa Mee

    Why is priesthood a major concern?
    Where does it feature in the concerns of the historic Jesus; where in the dynamic New Testament communities, with the celebration of Eucharist at the heart of,and source of their dynamism?
    Just wondering.

  4. maureen saliba

    Celibate priests and married priests already exist side by side in the Catholic Church. If it was so necessary and important, why allow anyone to marry and remain a priest? We welcome married Anglican priests to the Catholic Church, that’s wonderful! And why not?!
    Now, go tell a Catholic priest, who is in love with a woman, he cannot marry, as celibacy is so important to the priesthood! It makes no sense!! Money seems to be one of the major issues with having married priest. I grew up in the military; my parents had 8 kids, and we did not have money! But we made it.
    A priest should be able to choose how he desires to serve Christ and the Church: Celibate or Married. It’s that simple.
    Chris McDonnell said it perfectly,” lets talk about it before its too late.”

  5. Wanderer

    “It may be that this ignores complex roots to our current vocational crisis and the need for all Catholics, both lay and religious, to take responsibility for working out solutions together.”

    I am very much in favour of priests being free to marry – that celibacy be truly optional, a choice of those ready for it; most of whom I think might have some life experience – some reality to their being truly ‘elder’ in that sense too. Not taking from younger men, women celibates at all. It’s a great life when chosen for whatever reason in all freedom.

    One of the most beautiful of human experiences that can actually raise a soul to wanting to seek God, the very source of this love, to a higher degree – celibate or not.

    Teresa when you find out – let me know :-)

  6. cathy swift

    I agree with the comments above; myself, I find the notion that the authorities who created an Ordinariate with married priests, should at the same time be refusing to discuss the issue of compulsory celibacy for others to be impossible to square with my own understanding of logic and indeed fairness. I still think, however, that it is rather too easy for the laity in particular to focus in on compulsory celibacy as a key reform which will change everything. We have responsibilities, as non-religious but equal members in the church, to help and support those who have vocations and who have undertaken to spend their lives working on our behalf and for our church. An institutional permission to marry is unlikely to solve all feelings of isolation.

  7. mina

    Loved this article and hope the person in authority responds to the call by true reform at the grassroots level. Even though reforming the curia is equally important, we should not forget that we are not listening to people not because they do not speak out, it’s because they are not heard or are not allowed to speak. May the Lord Lead!!!

  8. Helen

    I fully agree with what Chris stated. And I also agree with Maureen’s statement, we welcome Anglican priests into the church with their wives and why not, but also, why should the church say that the priest that has been there from day one, should not be allowed to get married if he falls in love. I am speaking from experience, I fell in love with my best friend, a priest, and we did get married over a year ago. After all the years that he gave loyally to his church before, it is terrible how little support and friendship that he now gets from his priest brothers. He however, will always have my love and care.


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