Celibacy and The Priesthood


Universe Column

By David Alton

Cardinal Bernard Law’s Boston diocese has been asking whether the rule requiring priestly celibacy should be relaxed. This is a debate that re-opens whenever there is a scandal involving a priest or whenever an article is penned about the decline in vocations in Britain and the USA.

It would be far better to debate the issue of married priests on its own merits. Linkage of the two questions makes a sober and considered assessment difficult to achieve. But, like it or not, now that the debate has opened we should approach it rationally, weighing all the arguments.

The starting point should be to dispose of some myths and misconceptions.

Myth one is that ending celibacy would end scandal. This is as wrong-headed as it is offensive to the holy men and women who live exemplary lives. The Episcopal (Anglican) church in Canada has married clergy but has been devastated by child abuse. Adultery and divorce make for new scandals – as they do now when a vicar is involved. It is always news when we fall short of the ideal for which we strive.

Myth two is that celibacy is a doctrine of the church. It is not. It is simply a rule – but one which has its origins in New Testament times. St. Paul says that it is better to be single and to give up everything for God but he cautions that if you cannot manage this then you should marry. Jesus chose not to marry.

Traditionalist can, of course, point to married clergy for the first thousand years of the life of our Church. That situation was ended in order to combat scandals such as simony. So this is not about a liberal or conservative agenda. It is about appropriate practice for individuals and for the times.

Myth three is that Pope John Paul II will “never allow” married clergy. This ignorant assertion ignored his important decision to waive the celibacy rule for hundreds of Anglican men who now successfully minister as our priests and make a major contribution to the life of our church. It ignores the centuries of full communion we enjoy with Eastern Catholics (sometime called Uniate or Greek Catholics) who have married priests. Like the Orthodox churches they choose their bishops from the celibates.

There is a powerful argument for adopting the Eastern Catholic practice throughout the whole church. By upholding both the ideal of celibacy for those who can achieve it – and who give up everything for God – and by harnessing the gifts of mature Catholic families, great balance and energy would come into the Church.

Liverpool Archdiocese bravely ordained a large number of married deacons who have done wonderful work in their parishes. Other dioceses should follow their example and then, instead of reports on whether to close another of our English seminaries, we might be thinking about how we can use them for the formation of eucharistic ministers, deacons and mature married priests and for the deepening of our lay communities.

Parishes will get none of this on the cheap. The level of giving to support married people will have to rise. We already leave too many of our priests insufficiently supported.

Some of these changes are already underway. We should get on with them, not as a reaction to institutional failure, but because a failure by the church to mobilise its resources to evangelise and to fulfil its pastoral duties really would be a scandal.