Father Ed's Blog

A Catholic priest reflects…

On a married priesthood

Because I am married the question of priestly celibacy crops up often. People ask what I think about mandatory celibacy for priests. I tend to duck the issue, partly out of deference to the church which granted me dispensation, partly because I see sense on both sides of the argument. But before I share a personal view let me clear up a few issues which often confuse the debate.

Usefulness is not determined by marital status

A favoured argument- one I find insulting- suggests single men devote themselves to parish life in a way no married man can. It sounds compelling for it evokes a romanticised image of the heroic priest only and ever about the care of his flock, but it crumbles under the scrutiny of actual lived experience.

Marriage  does not hamper the dedication of surgeons, soldiers and those in the emergency services so why do we assume it hampers the dedication of clergy? The reality is more complex and, in truth, there are good/bad (effective/useless) priests regardless of marital status. A singleton might well have more time on his hands but this doesn’t mean it is spent effectively. Indeed the married man might be in the parish more often, due to family ties, than the singleton jetting off at every opportunity to spend time with friends.

Neither marriage nor celibacy is a guarantor of happiness

Some suggest marriage would save priests from loneliness. Again this is compelling at face value but doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. Because the crushing loneliness of a failing marriage can be just as crippling as isolation. Equally a single life can be as fulfilled as a married one. The point being that happiness and misery are found in both estates. Let us then discount this foolish reasoning.

Neither marriage nor celibacy protects against scandal

Others suggest a married priesthood would have spared the abuse crisis. There is, I suspect, a shred of truth here but the argument is still deeply flawed; for married men are as capable of sin as single men, an adulterous cleric wreaks as much havoc as a fornicating singleton. And plenty of abusers are married.

Where then the shred of truth? It is located in the theme linking the majority of recent scandals; they were homosexual in nature. Now clearly there are many celibate and chaste gay men who are an absolute credit to the church, and plenty of married men who have been a disgrace. Be that as it may; we must ponder, and seriously, how the Catholic priesthood enabled a promiscuous gay subculture to grow within itself, often unchecked, which later led to so many grave sins and scandals? The problem seems to have taken hold in the wake of the sexual revolution and its terrible harvest is now being reaped in our day.

For the reality is that too many clergy of the last half century lived a lie; they presented as chaste men of prayer but secretly behaved in a manner to make a prostitute blush! How else to explain clergy caught up in cocaine fuelled orgies in the bathhouses of Rome? Or that most of the abuse crisis involved active gay men hitting on teenage boys? Too often blind eyes were turned, or else we discover that those who should have disciplined were themselves enslaved in the problem. If this issue doesn’t demand an official enquiry I do not know what does.

(An aside: we should note here, however depressing the abuse/scandal crisis can be,  it is a minority-  most priests at least try to be faithful. And there are rumours Pope Benedict was trying to sort this out but the powerful gay lobby got to him. Who knows?! What I do know is that the frequency of rumour is doing great harm to people’s faith, and my own too at times. It must be sorted, publicly and soon. Should we all write to the bishops demanding to know what is being done?)

A shred of truth then because, whilst there is also a sizeable active gay subculture within, say, the Anglican church, I don’t see its  hierarchy so linked to rumours of vice! Marriage seems to have made some difference in other denominations.

No cleric should be dating

It is important to state that a change in discipline would only admit those already married to the priesthood. The notion of dating clergy – just no!

Wives are not uniform accessories 

Some say clergy wives would bring great blessings to a parish. A view that the parishioners of St. Anselm’s would undoubtedly agree with given how wonderful my own wife is. But hold those horses. As an Anglican, where marriage was normative, I witnessed a dual reality. Where clergy were married to inspiring and devout people the ministry was often enhanced. But where they were married to people quite unsuited to vicarage life it could lead to total disaster. The gossip, the nag, the jealous spouse, the rude spouse- these can really damage parish life. So were the church ever to admit married men to the priesthood- it would need to scrutinise the spouses very carefully indeed.

Conclusion 

What becomes clear is that the issue is a messy one. How could it not be? Human lives are messy and and prone to greatness and error. So the truth is that single or married there is always risk involved for the church and potential of great joy.

Why then am I torn? Because on the one hand I believe a fulfilled, chaste and celibate priesthood serves as a radical example of holiness to a sex obsesses culture; and a precious charism would be lost if celibate priesthood was dispensed with.

Yet I also know my own ministry has not been hampered by my marital status, quite the reverse, and I believe the church might be missing out on some potential when it closes the door altogether to a married priesthood. Might the answer be to look to the wisdom of the East?

For the Orthodox accept both paths- celibate and married. The celibates are most cherished and sent to high office- only the celibate become bishop. Meanwhile the marrieds go into the community to serve families there. A sensible compromise to my mind. How very Anglican of me! You can take the boy out of the C of E….

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19 Comments

  1. Mary B

    Fr Ed.

    This is a thought provoking posting although I think there is far more to the “Gay issue” than you have explored. Also your comment that the rumours of vice linked to the Anglican episcopacy is not so high profile might possibly be because, nowadays, nothing would surprise…?

    However I do take your point that a married parish clergy is common in Orthodoxy and indeed in some of the non Latin rite churches in communion with Rome. There is undoubtedly however something about a celibate priest which sets him apart and which commentators as disparate as Fr. Andrew Greeley RIP and Bishop Robert Barron have commented upon.

    Two more thoughts.

    One is that, if the celibacy requirement were to be removed in the Latin Church I do also think a great witness to chastity in a sex obsessed culture would be lost, as well as the powerful sign of man giving all for his vocation.

    The second is one which a priest once gave to me as an example of the practical value of celibacy. An urgent call in the middle of the night to the sick bed of a dying person who has requested the sacraments having been away for many years. For the celibate this merely means he has to turn out of bed, get dressed and go and he may be a bit tired in the morning. He can be there in the journey time plus ten minutes. The same call to a married priest with a sick wife and young children?

    • Admin

      I had just such a call just when my wife’s waters broke for our first child. A devout lady whom I had spent much pastoral time with. My wife waved me off saying I must get to her for last rites. I got there, did everything I should, even driving her sister home, some 8 miles away. I then dashed back to maternity and, later, held my daughters hand as she was born. Not once in my priestly ministry have I said no to a pastoral emergency. My family have not suffered. It can be done.

      • That’s pretty good going and high octane Fr. Ed and well done! But it’s not exactly on the point. In the circumstances you instance you only had your wife to consider albeit a wife in labour. What if you had a wife with flu and small children and no one to come and help and then you got such a call? I do accept that you say you have never had to refuse pastorally but, in theory at least, it could happen. Which was the point the priest who said this to me many years ago was making.

        • Admin

          Good question. I telephone in laws who are nearby, or a suitable parishioner, who would come and care for wife and children. In other words do what many surgeons, ambulance drivers, on call doctors and others do when balancing home and work demands. Also please note that, quite often, local clergy ring me asking if I will go to hospital and hospice because I am on the doorstep. They are otherwise engaged and cannot make it. Yet single. Nobody can bilocate so you could as easily ask a single priest what he does when two emergencies happen at once.

  2. Edwin Barnes

    We had a (Russian) Orthodox Bishop visitng us at S Stephn’s House. Were there not married priests who had the gifts needed in the Episcopate? Yes, the bishop replied; and if such a one is to become a Bishop his wife goes into a Convent. I think the Anglican system, permitting married me to become Bishops, is a better solution (despite the occasional Mrs Proudie). St Paul’s advice to Timothy seems very relevant here: [ I Tim 5ff]:’A Bishop must be above reproach,married only once, temperate … he must manage his own household well.’ I am a ware that the first century BIshop is not exactly the same as one in the 21st; but neither is our situation exactly he same as that in Orthodoxy. I would also argue for priests to be allowed to marry AFTER ordination not just before it… That said thanks for your article, Ed. This all needs saying.

    • What if the wife possibly quite reasonably doesn’t want to go into a Convent?!
      The difficulty is, if you once allow general exemptions from the norm of celibacy, then, as for so many other things, the exception will become the new norm. The few exceptions that Rome has made for eg the Ordinariate and the other convert clergy have been handled properly because they are, by their very nature, exceptional. Once you start even on a small scale ordaining those who are already married who are not convert clergy or allowing those who are already ordained to marry the dam will breach because that is the way of things and something which is intrinsically of great value will be lost.

      • Admin

        That has not been the experience of the Eastern orthodox. I think making the vocations subtly difference is the crucial point.

        • Mary B

          I may be wrong about this but is it not the case that the only Orthodox clergy below bishop status who are required to be celibate are monks and, as a result, many Orthodox bishops are actually religious rather than secular clergy? If that is so then, if implemented in the West, that would cause a major shift in emphasis rather than a subtle one.

    • Pat

      Interesting how things change. It would seem that in the early church married clergy were common. In the expatriate, Eastern Catholic Churches, the ban on ordaining married men has been lifted. The local bishop for the rite is no longer required to consult the local Western Rite bishop. Since the strictures on married clergy are changeable church rules, there would seem to be no unsurmountable obstacle to extending the facility to the Western Rite.

    • Pat

      I wonder how compelling the couple to split and sending the wife to a convent holds up against the Lord’s command to not put asunder what God has joined together. There is a clear breaking of the sacramental marriage relationship involved, even if it is not actual divorce. It flies in the face of the statement that the two shall become one flesh. I know that such usage seems to have applied in all the churches before the East – West split. But, as far as I know, it is a human imposed loading not Divine writ.

      • Admin

        Absolutely. It is as if there is something shameful in being marriage which is a scandalous suggestion given that marriage is a sacrament of God.

      • Stephen

        Just passing through on one of my very occasional visits. It is unlikely that I will return to see any replies to my post, but some may find it informative.

        It is very unusual for a married priest to be considered for episcopal consecration, and in the vast majority of cases it has been an exceptional necessity of the Orthodox Church in Russia. When the situation arises, the wife must first give her consent. There is no strict obligation for a bishop to be a monk, but the tradition in most places is for an unmarried secular priest to receive the monastic tonsure and be attached to a monastery prior to consecration – for his own spiritual and emotional wellbeing if nothing else.

        Interestingly, at least in the tradition of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, when a married man is being considered for ordination to the diaconate, his wife must also give her explicit consent privately to the bishop – and I know of one deacon, now a priest, who had to wait until their youngest child was 16 before his wife would allow it!

        Unmarried secular priests are by no means uncommon, but are somewhat unusual. My personal opinion – as a simple Orthodox layman – is that just as the Roman Church would benefit from a wider restoration of the married priesthood, so would the Orthodox Church benefit from a wider acceptance of the unique charism of the celibate, secular priest. But, like Jon Snow, I know nothing.

  3. JC

    Dear Father

    Thank you so much for this most courageous piece. I sincerely hope you do not experience repercussions. On the contrary, I hope you and your wife continue to be richly blessed with your endeavours in the Lords vineyard.

    God bless

    John

  4. Fr Barry Tomlinson

    “No cleric should be dating”? I seem to remember that you found a wife whilst a curate in Brentwood. Why should it be a problem? Many Anglican priests find their wives after they are ordained.

    • Admin

      Actually I was engaged before I began my curacy, prior to Hayley spending a year in Florence, and we married on her return.

  5. David Knowles

    How about celibacy as the norm for parish priests who would do the emergency call outs etc ; but ordaining married men to assist in parish work and say mass. It might be more sensible to scrap the permanent diaconate and ordain them to the priesthood as assistants. I have never seen much point in deacons. Most of the ones I have known have only ever been allowed to read the Gospel and look pretty.

    • Pat

      You have a point. I’d suggest that those priests who have been granted permission to leave the active priesthood to get married could be invited to come back to assist with Masses, confessions and perhaps some emergency sick calls, but not be required to take on any administrative role (on the possibly false assumption that they may have family obligations). As for deacons, perhaps the possibility of restoring some of their earlier administrative roles as assistants to the priest could be considered.

  6. Pat

    “Neither marriage nor celibacy protects against scandal”

    Unfortunately, The Lord Himself stated that scandal had to come and was unavoidable (Matthew 18) and the fate of the perpetrators would be grim. The test is how we deal with it knowing that through it all he will guide those who want to be guided.

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