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.
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….