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