"Sorry, Kingdom of God closed for lack of clergy"

THE TABLET, editorial

Although well aware that Archbishop Robert Zollitsch of Freiburg favoured celibacy being made optional in the Catholic Church, the bishops of Germany recently elected him as their president in succession to Cardinal Karl Lehmann. That is not the only recent straw in this particular wind. The organisation representing priests in Brazil - the country with the greatest shortage of priests - has just launched a petition calling for a similar change. And much alarm is reported from Ireland at news that vocations to the priesthood have collapsed to the point where numbers are likely to fall by two-thirds in 20 years. It would not be difficult to extend the list of countries with a vocations crisis almost indefinitely, Great Britain included. Yet Pope Benedict XVI has said that the issue is not even open for discussion.

The Vatican is well insulated against pressure from below in the Church, which can be a strength as well as a weakness. Change in the Church is more often driven by theology and doctrine than by social factors, though no theologian would claim to be able to ignore entirely what is happening outside his window. The forced amalgamation of parishes because of a shortage of priests is not just a practical matter, if as a result a growing number of Catholics are denied access to the sacraments. And if celibacy has an enduring value in the life of the Church, as Popes and cardinals often proclaim, they have clearly failed to persuade a sufficient number of potential candidates for the priesthood of the importance of this theological insight (which is not to deny its truth.) Celibacy instead appears as a heavy price to be paid - or, increasingly, not - rather than a joyous symbol of the Kingdom of God. That is failure not just of communication but of theology and of leadership.

There are two ways to go. Leaders of the Catholic Church must either renew the theology of celibacy so that it becomes convincing again, or they have to find some other solution. Toughening the rules of laicisation, as tried by Pope John Paul II, has not staunched the rate at which priests leave the priesthood, most of whom marry thereafter. One possibility would be for bishops to relax compulsory celibacy on a regional basis, as has partly happened in England with the ordination to the Catholic priesthood of former Anglican clergy who were married. That experiment was entirely successful. Another would be to invite laicised priests who have married to apply on a case-by-case basis for authorisation to resume the exercise of the priesthood for which they were ordained. Or greater use could be made of the practice in certain Eastern Churches, where married men may become parish clergy but not join religious orders (or become bishops). That at least would maintain celibacy as a witness to certain important truths.

Whatever message church leaders want the faithful to receive by continuing with compulsory priestly celibacy, the faithful are not hearing it. Instead they are hearing and seeing all the sounds of a Church slipping slowly into a condition of dysfunction. "Sorry, Kingdom of God closed for lack of clergy" is hardly the Gospel message people want to see outside their parish churches. It would strike many of them as a rather pointless self-inflicted wound.

March 1, 2008

Your reactions to this editorial are welcome and we would be happy to share them with others. P.T.

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