Tuesday 23 January 2024

Could the benefits of married Catholic clergy outweigh the costs? (Opinion)

Catholic priests in France: A life of celibacy? - Reporters

Once in a while the spectre – as it is often made out to be – of allowing married priests to be ordained into the Catholic Church rears its head. We seem to be at one of those juntures again, with the Archbishop of Malta having suggested recently that it is time to end celibacy for Catholic priests given all the problems that have been attributed to it.

The reactions to such an idea tend to populate two ends of the spectrum. One view on whether married priests should be allowed is “Absolutely! This will save the Church, it will bring in thousands of new men to be priests and hopefully will be the precursor to women priests, gay marriages and full-scale liberalisation of the Church”.

The opposing reaction is that such a move would be an absolute disaster, destroying the very nature of the Catholic Church and her priesthood. Ironically this appears to be the position that Nietzsche, of all people, held too: “He [Luther] gave back to the priest sexual intercourse with women; but three quarters of the reverence of which the common people, especially the women among the common people, are capable, rests on the faith that a person who is an exception at this point will be an exception in other respects as well”.

Most people aren’t quite so extreme in their reactions, but it is certainly an issue that people tend to come down on one side or the other of. I find myself in the strange position – given I am a member of the Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham [created to enable to married Anglican priests enter the Catholic Church] – of not being entirely sure which argument is correct; both seem to have things to commend them.

It is however worth recognising that most people do accept that celibacy isn’t of the essence of priesthood, or in other words it is possible, ontologically, to be a priest and to be married. The Church historically has had married priests and to this day recognises the validity of the Orthodox churches’ orders, which include married priests.

Then there are the married priests of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, not to mention, more recently, of course, married priests in the Ordinariate. So most would agree this is not an issue of doctrine but rather of discipline. In some ways, to allow married priests would be less problematic than allowing blessings of “irregular couples”.

The question remains, though, is it a good idea practically, spiritually and theologically? What would be the advantages of allowing married priests?

It seems to me there are several practical advantages. It may lead to increased numbers of men becoming priests (though I think this can be overplayed). Then there is the fact that most of our lay faithful live in the context of family life and with all the best will in the world a celibate man cannot fully grasp the reality of married life and the juggling of children. In that sense, a married priest could be more relatable to married laity, certainly when it comes to issues of sex.

We have learnt that it isn’t a good idea for celibate priests to write books about sex; it comes across as creepy. In my experience, celibate men can have a rather naïve view of the sacrament of matrimony.

On a slightly more sensitive matter there is the perception that a rather significant percentage of priests are same-sex attracted. This isn’t necessarily a problem for celibate priests, but there is the sense among many people, both Catholics and non-Catholics, that if that percentage is too high it rather affects the culture. Allowing married priests may at least balance that. (It is not uncommon to hear people ask why Orthodox priests often seem more masculine than Catholic priests).  

There is also something healthy about the relationship between a man and a woman: it has a different dynamic than all-male or all-female friendships. A celibate priesthood has the danger of excluding the female voice. The marriage relationship can also be a source of great emotional support for the priest: “It is not good for man to dwell alone” as the scriptures say.

Coming back after a long day in the parish to an empty presbytery can lead to problems (less a problem in the past where priests generally lived together with other priests and the housekeeper, but now the norm is to live alone). This problem is at least to some extent alleviated by having a family.

What would be the disadvantages of allowing married priests? There are quite a few, it seems to me, that haven’t really been thought through.

Priests don’t get paid much. The agreement is that they will be provided for. But most are not in a position to accrue wealth, which seems to me to be a good thing. However, if a priest has wife and children then what is the responsibility of the Church towards them?

This issue is perhaps less acute now than it would have been as most women themselves will have their own careers. But it still raises issues about what happens, for example, if a priest should die young? Who is responsible for the children? Do the wife and children get thrown out of the presbytery with no provision?

It also has an impact on both the deployability of the priest and the availability of the priest. Moving a single priest from one parish to another is comparatively easy. If that priest has three children enrolled in schools and a wife with a job it becomes much more complicated. Likewise, a married priest must give time to his family. It’s not so easy to drop everything for a hospital call out at 3 a.m. in the morning if you have three children upstairs asleep.

A celibate priesthood can be, as noted in another Catholic Herald article of the debate of celibacy for Catholic priests, a profound sign pointing to the truth that to follow Christ is worth giving up everything for, even the good of marriage. It can point towards the heavenly reality where there will be no marriage except that between the Church as bride and Christ as bridegroom. (That said there are plenty of celibate priests who spend far too much time living as bachelors playing golf or watching Netflix. Being celibate doesn’t therefore guarantee availability.)

I have no particularly strong opinions either way as to the wisdom of increasing the number of married priests, but I suspect most Catholics – myself included – would feel a bit queasy if a new Pope steps out onto the balcony with his wife at his side.

I wonder if the Orthodox Church has something to teach us about where both married priests and celibate priests can have a role: bishops are always chosen from the monastic priests but a local village priest can be married with a family. I think that unlike many issues the answer to this is not as clear cut as either side in the argument would have it.