Celibacy and the Priesthood


Because of the chronic shortage of vocations to the priesthood, even some flourishing Catholic parishes in Britain are likely to be told in the future that they must manage henceforth with out a priest. They may have to become outposts of neighbouring parishes. They may have to confine their eucharistic worship to the distribution of Communion already consecrated. They may continue to exist as lay-led communities, with their sacramental life maintained by itinerant Mass-sayers with six or more services to conduct during the course of a weekend. Or their church may simply close.

Yet those same parishes may have suitable candidates for the role of priest whose only impediment is that they are married. Some may already be ordained as permanent deacons. Some may already be ordained as permanent deacons. Some may indeed already be priests, but had reverted to lay status on marrying many years before. It would be contrary to common sense for the Church to insist that clerical celibacy was such a priority that whole communities should be deprived of the Sacraments, as well as the benefits of a resident priest, as the price of it. The presence among the Catholic priests in England and Wales of married former Anglican clergy is now an established, and enriching, feature of the life of the Church. It has disproved the argument that many ordinary laity would be scandalized to meet a priest with a wife. They have taken it in their stride.

The current Synod of Bishops in Rome has heard the case for allowing a married clergy, but it has clearly been met with considerable resistance in some quarters. But just as there was a pressing pastoral need to make an exception in the case of former Anglicans who converted, so the situation now developing may be regarded as no less serious and urgent. This is true not only of nations in the West, such as Britain, but in the developing world, and the synod has heard moving testimony from bishops such as Luis Tagle of Imus in the Philippines describing how priests say as many as nine Masses on one Sunday, such is the shortage of priests.

Celibacy is not compulsory in most Eastern-rite Churches in full communion with Rome. This suggests that the suspension of celibacy ought to be left to the discretion of local Bishops’ Conferences. There are important factors to be taken into consideration on both sides. Celibacy, when present as a genuine vocation and not just the price to be paid for ordination to the priesthood, can make a man or woman open to others in a unique and striking way. That charism must not be lost. Nor should celibacy be called into question because of child abuse, most of which happens in families anyway. And nor should any suspension of the universal celibacy requirement be introduced out of dislike of initiatives in lay ministry in local parishes.

The question is whether the Holy Spirit is calling forth new responses to the challenges of the times, requiring not one pattern of ordained ministry by a full-time professional resident celibate, but various models of which the traditional is but one – albeit, for some while to come, the normative version. The answer may well be “Yes”, and it would be deeply worrying for the synod to assume it must be “No”.

October 15, 2005

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