Those who want to overturn the ancient discipline are energetic, well organised and influential. But can they persuade Pope Francis to make such a radical change?

The Catholic Church is once again embroiled in arguments about whether priestly celibacy has a place in today’s world. As Catholicism in most Western countries faces a rapidly ageing priesthood, a severe shortage of vocations and declining congregations, abolishing or at least relaxing the ancient rule has become a major item on the agenda of those who advocate large-scale change in the Church. Moreover, the very idea of requiring perpetual celibacy from the clergy seems odd to today’s secular society.

The recent BBC programme on Pope John Paul II’s collaboration with the Polish-American philosopher Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka brought this up in a rather tenuous way. Although there is no evidence that John Paul was unfaithful to his vow of celibacy, and quite a lot of evidence to the contrary, the innuendo surrounding the programme did illustrate how alien the idea of celibacy has become in today’s culture. As Catholic blogger Melinda Selmys has pointed out, it seems to be taken for granted that close, intense friendships cannot exist without a sexual component. Denying oneself gratification seems strange to most people now.

The traditional idea of the celibate priesthood has been undermined in other ways too. The sexual revolution did its work in the 1970s, when an enormous amount of priests left to get married. Numbers have never recovered, and the resulting shortage of priests has become one of the main pragmatic arguments for relaxing the celibacy rule. As the concept of celibacy becomes ever more marginal in our culture, it becomes much harder to persuade young men to accept that kind of discipline as a lifelong commitment.

There has also been the long-term effect of the sexual abuse scandals, which have widely, though not very convincingly, been blamed on the practice of celibacy. Probably more important is that the Church has been so defeated and demoralised by the endless scandals that it lacks the confidence to stand by its traditional teachings. So something like priestly celibacy, which was once so commonplace as to be unremarkable, will find outspoken critics among the clergy and few loud defenders among the laity.

While priestly celibacy is a law rather than a doctrine, it is still a very ancient one. It is true that the universal requirement of celibacy in its present form dates from the First and Second Lateran Councils in the 12th century, but its desirability as a requirement for the priesthood is a subject discussed by early Church Fathers, and was well established by the early fourth century. Enforcement of the norm was sketchy for much of the intervening period, but then so was a good deal of Church government at the time. Celibacy as a norm, however imperfectly applied in practice, has a very long heritage in the Western Catholic tradition.

There are, it is true, exceptions to the rule. Those Eastern Churches in communion with Rome which derive from the Byzantine tradition have retained the practice of having married parish priests, though the requirement for bishops to be celibate remains. More recently, room has been made for married Anglican clergy converting to Catholicism; some observers expected this to be a temporary measure, but no time limit has been fixed.

Popes Paul VI, John Paul II and Benedict XVI all repeatedly stood by the traditional position and said clearly that there was no reason to change it, though Pope Benedict did allow for a limited exception for former Anglican priests with the creation of the ordinariates.

Pope Francis’s views on the matter remain somewhat opaque. In his book On Heaven and Earth, published before his election to the papacy, the then Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio didn’t appear to see any reason to change the existing position. However, there is persistent speculation that he may be open to persuasion on the matter. Vatican communications have done little to clear up where exactly the Pope stands.

In this confused situation, kites are being flown, especially in the wealthy and powerful German Church. Veteran Vatican correspondent Sandro Magister reports Auxiliary Bishop Hans-Jochen Jaschke of Hamburg as saying that, when German bishops met Pope Francis last November, they raised the question of married priests as a solution for areas with shortages of clergy. By this account, Francis “made no sign of refusal”. Magister also insists that the Pope is considering devoting the next synod of bishops to the issue.

There has been repeated speculation in German-language media over the last few years about Francis’s willingness to address priestly celibacy, not least the intervention of Austrian-born Bishop Erwin Kräutler, of Xingu in Brazil, who raised the problem of a lack of clergy in his huge prelature with the Pope. The bishop said the Pope responded by urging him to make “bold, daring proposals”. In 2013, Cardinal Karl Lehmann of Mainz raised eyebrows by speculating that married deacons could be ordained as priests in the not too distant future. And as far back as 2008, Archbishop Robert Zollitsch, then president of the German bishops’ conference, was speaking along the same lines.

Bishop Jaschke, in particular, has a history of calling for change. In 2010 he told listeners to German radio that celibacy was a “fiction”, and explicitly linked it to sexual abuse scandals, arguing that the requirement of celibacy could lead to an unhealthy sexuality. This, as I mentioned, has been a popular argument in recent years, but there is little objective evidence that celibacy has been a major cause of the scandals. In the secular world it is hardly unheard of for abusers to be married men – in fact, most child sexual abuse takes place in a family setting – and even in terms of clerical abuse, it’s not as if other religious communities with married clergy have been untouched. Nor is it clear that those men who are sexual attracted to children would be dissuaded by the opportunity to marry adult women. This is not to say that celibacy is completely irrelevant to the scandals, but it is obvious that abolishing celibacy wouldn’t be a magic bullet that would prevent future abuse.

There are also practical objections to Bishop Jaschke’s proposal. The main one is that, although it is presented as a practical measure to help deal with a local situation, there is hardly a country in Europe that doesn’t have a serious priest shortage. Ireland, which used to export priests around the world, now has to import them to fill its gaps. So, where at present celibacy is a norm with a relatively small number of exceptions, to loosen the discipline would effectively mean abolishing the norm in large parts of the world. If a shortage of priests is a compelling reason for change in Bishop Kräutler’s sprawling Amazonian territory, the same argument could be made in Western countries. Indeed, the shortage in Belgium has become so acute that there have been calls for laymen to be allowed to celebrate Mass.

On the other hand, a proposal that has been floated in Ireland is to restore the faculties of men who had left the priesthood in order to get married. This would
be more limited in scope. But it’s not clear that it would do very much to plug the gap. We have no idea how many of these men would even be interested in returning to the priesthood, often after a gap of decades; and since the big boom in priests being released from their vows to marry was in the 1970s and early 1980s, quite a few who would fall within the scope of the proposal would by now be approaching retirement age. It should also be pointed out that all other major denominations allow married clergy, and most are having difficulty attracting new vocations.

Finally, there is the financial issue. The late Cardinal Hume once joked that, despite the theological objections to women priests, the Church could at least afford them, while it couldn’t afford married priests. The Catholic Church globally is famously asset-rich but cash poor (though this may not be a problem for the German Church, cushioned as it is by its government-collected church tax). Also, the Church doesn’t have centuries of experience of providing for married clergy with families as the Church of England does.

A rule of celibacy means that Catholic priests cost much less than their Anglican counterparts, and the ad hoc arrangements to cater for married ex-Anglican priests have caused plenty of headaches, even given the small numbers involved.

One of the problems with the current debate is that proponents of change usually present it as a modest move, with no real overheads, which would solve many of the Church’s problems at a stroke. In fact, it would be a radical reform, with serious implications for how the priesthood is formed and how it relates to the laity. There is no guarantee that it would lead to a big influx of vocations, and if it did, this could be extremely expensive. At the very least, a serious discussion of the matter would be helpful, rather than the current round of leaks and speculation.

Ultimately, much of the pressure around celibacy comes from changing views of the nature of the priesthood. One significant shift in recent decades is that the centrality of the sacrifice of the Mass to the priest’s vocation has been eroded in favour of the view of a priest as a kind of spiritual social worker. Without denying the importance of being engaged in broader society, the liturgical tradition that sees the priest as standing in persona Christi is the cornerstone of the broader Catholic concept of the priesthood. Today, most Catholics do not know the theological arguments for an all-male priesthood, never mind the traditional reasons for priestly celibacy, so pragmatic arguments that don’t go against the prevailing secular culture are more likely to get a hearing.

A relaxation of the celibacy requirement would not involve a revision of basic Catholic doctrine, and there are arguments that could be made for experiments along those lines. The creation of the ordinariates for groups of former Anglicans can be taken as one small experiment, and Pope Francis’s move to allow married Eastern Rite priests to minister outside their traditional territories is another.

But glib assertions that radically revising, or totally abolishing, celibacy as a norm would be a simple and unproblematic move are not very convincing.

At the very least, we need to have a searching conversation about the role of the priesthood in modern society, and the profound implications of changing
such a time-honoured discipline.

Jon Anderson is a freelance writer

This article first appeared in the February 26 2016 issue of The Catholic Herald. To download the entire issue for free with our new app, go here