Their latest pope-bashing operation is entirely irrelevant to a Church which thinks in centuries

Another Sunday, another early phone-in, this time for the BBC 5Live breakfast show (do people really listen to the radio on a Sunday morning at 6.10am?) The BBC had organised a poll designed in the run-up to the papal visit to show divisions among “British Catholics” – a typically cynical BBC Pope-bashing operation.

The question I was asked to address was about the Pope’s teachings on celibacy. “The poll results… suggest,” the BBC reported, “that a large number of Catholics think that the Pope should drop his insistence on clerical celibacy. Just under a half of those polled, 49 per cent, said the celibacy rule should be relaxed, compared to 35 per cent. A further 17 per cent were uncommitted”.

How did I react to these disturbing figures? Well, the answer is that I wouldn’t have expected anything else, and that they are entirely irrelevant to what the Universal Church does or teaches. It isn’t the Pope who is “insistent” on celibacy: it isn’t a personal “policy” which he could change at a stroke of the pen; it’s been the normal (though not universal) practice of the Church for a thousand years.

Furthermore, a poll of what Catholics here think can’t have remotely the same effect on their Church as, say, a poll of English Anglicans on the Church of England, which decides its theology and practice at any given time by majority votes in the General Synod. The Pope has to declare the beliefs and practice of a Church which operates alongside every culture known to humanity, and which proverbially thinks in centuries and not in decades.

It has come to be the mind of the Catholic Church that its priesthood should be predominantly celibate. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church luminously explains: “All the ordained ministers of the Latin Church, with the exception of permanent deacons, are normally chosen from among men of faith who live a celibate life and who intend to remain celibate. Called to consecrate themselves with undivided heart to the Lord … they give themselves entirely to God and to men. Celibacy is a sign of this new life to the service of which the Church’s minister is consecrated; accepted with a joyous heart celibacy radiantly proclaims the Reign of God.”

This isn’t just something that clergymen have thought up: its origins are principally biblical: in Matthew 19:12, Christ commends those who, “for the sake of the kingdom of God”, have renounced the married state, and St Paul says that “He that is without a wife is solicitous for the things that belong to the Lord, how he may please God. But he that is with a wife, is solicitous for the things of the world, how he may please his wife: and he is divided (see 1 Corinthians 7:7-8 and 32-35).

This is a matter of discipline, and not of doctrine; and it is normative and not universal. There are, for example, several hundred married priests in this country who are ordained ex-Anglican clergymen. I know several, and they are dedicated and effective. But they are exceptional; and I do not believe their existence indicates in any way that we should, or that it is likely that we will, abandon a practice that is still one of the jewels in our crown.