Saturday, 23 February 2013

A married priesthood?

As the old Irishwoman said in disgust, seeing the Anglo-Catholic priest on the other side of the road; 'Calls himself a Father, and him with a wife and four children!'

Well, what a lot of fuss. I suppose I was naïve to have thought that the reign of Pope Benedict would, besides having set the barque of Peter on a more steady course, have done more to quiet those who would see it return to a more 'liberal' point of view.

We have seen two prominent Catholics recently express their support for a married priesthood in the Church—one not to be surprised at, Catherine Pepinster, the Editrix of the Tablet, but the other nothing less than a prince of the Church, Cardinal O'Brien.

We're not talking doctrine here: wishing for a married priesthood is not heresy. Indeed, some of the most orthodox of clergy, such as Fr John Hunwicke, have argued in its favour, at least for the Ordinariate. So I wonder why there has been such a reaction. Perhaps it is simply a collective groan of 'oh for heaven's sake; I thought we were beyond all that now!', not a million miles from my own thoughts.

I can't lose much sleep about Ms Pepinster's and the Cardinal's comments, unlike some others on the net. But I do not agree with these critics of celibacy, and thought that I would look at some of their arguments in favour and see what they amount to.

1. They say that it was the ancient practice to have a married clergy.
Let us be clear from the beginning that what people like Ms Pepinster and the Cardinal are asking for is not just a married clergy, but a co-habiting clergy. That sounds like stating the bleeding obvious, but it isn't, really. For the major part of the first millennium, priests might well have been married, but the custom was for them, once ordained, to sleep apart from their wives, while continuing to be responsible for them and their children. To cut a long story short, men would marry relatively young in those days—by 16 or so—have some children and then seek major orders, upon which they would separate from their wives. In the East this developed into a fully cohabiting clerical body, while in the West it developed into full celibacy. Marriage after orders has never been practised in the Church.

2. They say that St Peter was married.
Yes; at some stage he certainly had had a wife (because he had a mother-in-law), but there is no evidence that she still lived at the time of his calling. Another very early source (St Papias) tells us that the Apostle St Philip lived in his old age in Hierapolis (modern Pammukale) with his daughters—in this case, too, there is no evidence of a living wife.

3. They say that it will solve the vocations deficit.
I suppose that it is possible that a married priesthood might go some way towards helping this problem. But it isn't as easy as that; there are too many other difficulties to solve, not least the question of money. I heard tell recently of a (married) Anglican priest desiring to convert. He approached his local Catholic bishop and was warmly welcomed, but told that parish ministry would not be possible, because all the parishes that could support a married man were already taken by others. He will have to find a chaplaincy of some sort. Any married man would need an assurance of sufficient income to support his family (and just think how expensive children are these days!). Unless his wife was a serious earner, this would be a very difficult problem to solve unless the whole perception of giving were given a serious overhaul in our parishes—parting people from their cash is not fun.

Sometimes what is called the 'viri probati' argument is advanced; these are worthy men from the parishes ordained to administer the sacraments. I suppose these are what the Church of England would call non-stipendiary ministers. Here one runs up against the problem of training—something that would also apply to full-time married priests. Seminaries these days have great difficulty squashing all the courses they are required to teach into five or six years. But could the church support a married man and his family for all those five or six years? Okay, so we shorten the course, or make it part-time. Then we will get priests who are theologically unformed. I know of a 3-year course for the preparation of permanent deacons who, because of shortage of time, only study one Gospel. Yes, your eyes are not deceiving you; one Gospel only! And then people wonder why the homilies of some permanent deacons are not very good……! One might take the Greek system and ordain married men as, simply, sacrament dispensers; forbid them from hearing confessions or preaching. But does anyone think that this would be acceptable for long? The Church of England has begin ordaining non-stipendiary clergy on the basis of a two-year correspondence course; once ordained, many of these clergy may and do apply for stipendiary posts. It won't be long before they find out the problems of this one—the hard way.

4. Priests will more have more in common with their parishioners.
In an obvious way, of course that is true. But I'm not so sure that it is such a valuable point. After all there can be few who need sexual counselling these days, and I don't think that anyone would think of seeking that from a priest, either single or married. And as for family life; well, nearly all priests have been family members at some time or other. But it seems to me that what is needed these days is not more people having sex, but somebody who can stand aside from it and challenge the current world view that sex is the only non-negotiable right of all breathing beings; the most fundamental human right being to be free to have sex without responsibility. Celibacy challenges this, not least in the common assumption that priests must be getting it somewhere, surely, mustn't they?

No doubt there is more that could be said, (the argument from tradition, from the practice of our Lord, from the priest as Ikon of our Lord) and perhaps you might have some comments for the com box.


Lynda said...

Marriage after ordination has never been practised in the Church, therefore, a priest doesn't seek a wife, get married. See Fr Hunwicke's comment on Fr Blake's blog.

Anonymous said...

Not true.

To start, read Heinz-Jurgen Vogels' works, "Celibacy: gift or law?" and "Alone against the Vatican". He hits the arguments in favour of either a law of priestly celibacy or continence within marriage right out of the park, both of which are premised on the alleged impurity of sex, which contradicts infallible teaching (as represented, e.g. by St Thomas Aquinas). Furthermore, I remember although I cannot now provide the citation, a statement of St Hilary of Poitiers indicating that even after the receipt of holy orders, that it was permitted to beget children.

For pshychological reasons, there's been a lot of dishonesty in the Latin church about this question, for several hundreds of years.

+ Wolsey

Maureen said...

Many years ago, one of the priests at our parish had been a Trappist monk; I suppose he must have been asked to give some help for a tiime. He told the story of being asked to leave the monastery and go to work with the still-existing leper colony on one of the Far North Australian islands. I shall never forget the timbre of his voice - it gave me goosebumps - when he said it was the first time he had truly appreciated his vow of celibacy, because he was free to go; had he been a married man, the decision would have been so very much harder.
I must admit that since hearing him speak, I have often thought that it wouldn't be such a terrible idea to have married priests - there will always be the very holy, monastic men, who give their lives and their vocations to doing difficult and demanding things in the world; but I can see, too, that there would be a role for married Parish clergy.They too, would serve joyfully.
Not everyone is called to celibacy - and finances aside, should that preclude the taking of Holy Orders?
There is a married priest, with six children, at one of the local parishes here - he converted from his Anglican orders a few years ago, and was appointed to a very large parish which was well able to support his family.

Anonymous said...

My newish parish priest is a married ex-Anglican and I definitely think it's second best. The 'undivided heart' thing. He's a good and holy man but just not my father in Christ.

I think it must be jolly undermining for good and faithful seminarians and priests to have to listen to all this kind of stuff. We need your witness! I think the Church would just sink into the mud of the world if married priests became the norm.

Anonymous said...


Take care lest you substitute your own will for that of Christ. The priesthood/episcopate, as established by Him, was one of only optional celibacy. If clerical marriage is OK by Christ, who is any human being to gainsay it??

And - those married Eastern-rite priests might like to hear from you that they are not fathers in Christ to their flocks.

+ Wolsey

Patricius said...

While it is frequently asked if marriage would be good for the priesthood the question of whether in fact the priesthood would be good or not for marriages or for families is less often considered. How many families suffer from spouses who put careers first?

Tom Piatak said...

An excellent, balanced, and moderate post.

Et Expecto said...

I sometimes wonder whether the "shortage of priests" that we hear so much about, is as real as it first appears. I also wonder the relatively small element of it that is real is, in part, a self inflicted problem.

Firstly, take a look at the stastics for the Mass going Cathioic populations in 1965 and in 2010. Then have a look at the numbers of priests in 1965 and in 2010. Compare the ratio of priests to practicing catholics in 1965 and 2010. It will be observed that the ratio of priests to practicing Catholics has declined, but not hugely.

Then consider how many priests were imported from Ireland in the first half of the twentieth centuary and up to about 1970. I do not have statistics for this, but I could well believe that Irish priests accounted for around 25% of the total in 1965. After making an adjustment for imported Irish priests, I think that you will find that the ratio of priests to active Catholics today is not so different from the figure forty years ago.

Changes in society at large, may be responsible for some of this relatively small decline. However, there is another factor to look at. There will be many for whom the priesthood ceased to be an attractive proposition because of changes in the Church, and in particular the liturgy.

I know that we are getting into the area of hypothetical arguments, but I would hazard a guess that if the Church had been more sympathetic to those who found the liturgical and other changes hard to accept, there would be many more priests now. To put a figure on it for England and Wales, we could be talking of an average of 15 ordinations per year for 40 years. That is 600 priests possibly lost.

With 600 molre priests, I doubt whether there would be much talk of priest shortage.

GOR said...

The idea of celibacy will always be a ‘sign of contradiction’ for many people – more so today when sex is viewed as a sine qua non for everyone. Yes, it is a rule for the Latin Church – not an article of faith. While it is not for everyone and some priests fail at it, I don’t believe it should be abandoned.

When I applied for a dispensation over 40 years ago, it was not because I was opposed to celibacy. I had been a religious in vows before ordination, so celibacy was not imposing anything more than what I had already undertaken years earlier. My reason was that I felt I could not adhere to my vows for the rest of my life – that I had taken on more than I could achieve pace God’s words to St. Paul: “My grace is sufficient for thee”. One still has to cooperate with grace…

I did not want to be a married priest, but I wanted the option to get married. Not that I had already found someone and wanted to ‘legalize’ it (I wouldn’t meet my future wife until some years after the dispensation was granted). I wanted to be able to look for someone to spend the rest of my life with. I thank God for allowing this and the mercy of the Church in granting it.

I have the greatest regard and appreciation for the multitude of priests who remain faithful to celibacy and its powerful witness in the Church. I also have profound admiration for the priests – like Fr. Hunwicke, Fr. Longenecker and the priests of the Orthodox Church – who have managed to successfully combine the priesthood and marital life.

Both are blessings for the Church, neither to be disparaged.

Anonymous said...

Those who like to use the fact that the Orthodox allow married men to become priests as a stick to beat against the celibate RC priesthood tend to forget that there are celibate Orthodox priests as well. Those that are, are expected to live with brother priests and are never alone and these do not include the hieromonks.

Boniface said...

Just for the record, Peter was apparently married right up till the time of his crucifixion. There is an account (can't remember where) that his wife was put to death at the same time as he, and that as she was dragged away, Peter yelled, "Remember Christ!" to her.

gemoftheocean said...

Boniface -- the account of Peter's wife is mentioned in Eusebius (3:30 History of the Church) wherein he quotes the story as related by Clement of Alexandria in Clement's Stromata (7.11) "They say, accordingly, that the blessed Peter, on seeing his wife led to death, rejoiced on account of her call and conveyance home, and called very encouragingly and comfortingly, addressing her by name, Remember the Lord. Such was the marriage of the blessed and their perfect disposition towards those dearest to them."