Recently, those of us foolish enough to trust headlines were given a brief spasm of panic when the Daily Telegraph ran an article headlined “Pope requests Roman Catholic priests be given right to marry”. Of course he said nothing of the kind.
Supposedly, Cardinal Cláudio Hummes has made repeated requests that the Church in Brazil be allowed to consider ordaining some married men in answer to a severe shortage of priests in remote areas of the Amazon. The Pope is alleged to have told Cardinal Hummes to “speak to the bishops [of the region] and make valid proposals”. These would then be discussed, so it seems, at the Amazon synod in 2019.
Let us be clear: no one, neither the Pope nor Cardinal Hummes, nor anyone else in any position of authority in the Church, is suggesting that “priests be given the right to marry”. There is a world of difference between discussing the ordination of some married men in specific circumstances, for which there is precedent, and the marriage of men already ordained, which exists nowhere in the Church. The Telegraph’s revised headline was more accurate: “Pope raises prospect of married men becoming priests”.
Of course, there are some people who would like clerical celibacy to become optional everywhere. These tend, especially in the United States, to be the remnant of a 1970s generation of liberals who expected the post-Vatican II Church to reform itself into a socially progressive, and sexually permissive, form of Catholicism which was in tune with the wider trends of their time. They were left disappointed, and many of their number left the priesthood to marry and become social workers or psychotherapists. Those who remained still consider clerical celibacy as the icon of their frustrations, and the pointy end of a disciplined Church which drove their old friends away. Their arguments for a total end to celibacy often creep into discussions, like the request by some of the Brazilian Church, which treat specific situations and muddy the waters terribly.
Behind their argument is usually a lazy logic which runs something like this: because clerical celibacy is disciplinary not doctrinal, it can be discussed (correct); because it can be discussed, it is open to potential change (true); if it can change and hasn’t yet, this is proof of lack of “progress” in the Church (false); opposing such change is inflexible and doctrinaire (also false). It takes little or no account of the prophetic witness and dignity of celibacy and virginity in the Catholic Church, something which is fundamental to the Church’s teaching. It also presupposes that there is a long queue of men who would be priests, are desperate to be priests, but are not because they would rather be married.
Leaving aside the lack of any proof that such a body of men exists, it raises the question: why is it a good thing to ordain people for whom anything, even the unquestionably praiseworthy vocation of marriage, comes before the ministry? It also ignores the practical issues which would accompany a substantial number of married priests. Such men would, I assume, be living their marriages as a praiseworthy example to their flock, and would be generously open to life. But no priest I know could support a family on a clerical stipend, nor could any diocese I know afford to pay priests a living wage, or house numerous families in parish accommodation.
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