Brendan Hoban: Celibacy should not be intrinsic to priesthood    

Western People 13.2.2024

Archbishop Charles Scicluna is a busy man with three heavy responsibilities. His day-job is archbishop of Malta but he doubles as a secretary of the Vatican Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith and trebles as one of the Catholic Church’s leading investigators of clergy sexual abuse. While the Malta position keeps him at home some of the time, the Vatican role involves a short hop over the Mediterranean to Rome and the wider international role has him hopping all over the world.

Scicluna was in the news most recently for suggesting that the Catholic Church should reconsider its long practice of mandatory celibacy for priests. It could, he told the American paper, the National Catholic Reporter, ‘be something worth discussing’ and that it is ‘something the church at the highest authority will have to decide’.

So far Pope Francis has declined to move on that pointed request. However, there are straws in the wind: at the 2019 synod on the Amazon, that proposal received a two-thirds majority vote for approval; a similar proposal was included in the final synthesis document of the 2023 Synod on synodality; and further discussion on the topic is expected this coming October when that synod reconvenes.

More pertinently, Scicluna is a trusted ally of Pope Francis and some commentators have suggested that this may be a kite-flying exercise on the pope’s behalf to access the support for revisiting the Catholic Church’s one thousand year practice of mandatory celibacy for priests. But, whatever its source, at a time when priest numbers are ‘going through the floor’, Scicluna’s prompting is attracting attention.

A recent letter to the prestigious English Catholic paper, The Tablet, signed by six priests from the diocese of Portsmouth, suggests that its time that the English bishops, on behalf of English Catholics, petitioned ‘the Roman authorities to ordain married men’. The priests make two main points. One, closing parishes due to a priest shortage and creating larger conglomerations is effectively destroying parish communities. And, two, in every parish community, there are faithful and qualified married men who could, after a short time of preparation, be ordained as priests. The situation, the priests argue, is now urgent and they feel sure that the people would support such a move.

What’s being suggested is a limited response to the mandatory celibacy problem – the ordination of married men to fill the gaps that arise as clergy numbers decline – and because in England, as so many former Protestant clergy have converted to Catholicism and are now working as Catholic priests in English parishes, Catholics there are ‘well used to married priests now’.

While some believe that such a move has the long-term benefit of eventually freeing up the Catholic priesthood to a personal choice for celibacy, not all are convinced of this strategy. Others are insistent that a long-term gradualism is an inadequate response to the present crisis and that change is needed now with the emerging present reality for the Catholic Church of a ‘no-priest, no Mass, no Mass, no Church’ scenario.

There’s a gathering consensus that the Catholic Church just cannot afford to wait for change to emerge over the course of a few centuries and that this is one situation where kicking the can down the road is a distraction rather than a solution. And, it goes without saying that, generally Catholic women will be unhappy (or maybe more accurately outraged) at the implied diminishment of ordaining ‘married men’ to fill the present yawning gap and by implication a further side-lining of the ordination of women priests, now widely regarded as a touchstone of recognising and respecting the role of women in their Church.

That said, the stop-gap measure suggested by the six priests may have some purchase in sustaining priest-less parishes. It creates some movement in the present logjam. It breaks the mental block of the priesthood/celibacy axis. It demystifies and demythologises priesthood. It is priests saying what priests have always wanted to say but often hadn’t the courage to own – that celibacy is not intrinsic to priesthood – and it introduces into the priesthood/celibacy debate, a normalising of the lived life of priests as married men (and women).

Above all, I think that in the short term it helps sustain parishes. A week or two ago, on Mid-West Radio’s Faith Alive! programme I interviewed the newly appointed rector of the Church of Ireland parish of Ballina. Rev. Alex Morahan, a native of Louisburgh, was ordained a Catholic priest, worked for years on the missions in South Africa and gradually became disillusioned with mandatory celibacy. He later married his wife, Maggie, and they have a daughter, Megan.

During the interview, as Alex described the group of seven parishes and seven churches under his leadership, he paid glowing tributes to the three ordained local ministers (OLMs) who work with him in a voluntary capacity in serving their parishioners: Reverend Caroline Morrow (in Killanley/ Castleconnor); Reverend Karen Duignan (in Easkey and Kilglass); and the Reverend Clive Moore (in Crossmolina and Ballycastle).

As the united parishes present an unwieldly and unnatural unit, the four OLMs working together – though identified with specific parishes – help to bring a local presence to their work and a personal connection to their parishioners both of which are greatly appreciated. Listening to the Reverend Alex describe how satisfactory the group dynamic is working, it struck me that the same formula would make some short term sense for Catholic parishes.

It certainly makes more sense than one priest trying to serve seven parishes.

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  1. Joe O'Leary says:

    I asked an American bishop back in 1978 why the US bishops did not petition Rome to revoke mandatory celibacy and his response surprised me: “We are forbidden by the Vatican to raise this topic at our meetings.” That was 45 years ago.

  2. Pat Savage says:

    “… because in England, as so many former Protestant clergy have converted to Catholicism and are now working as Catholic priests in English parishes, Catholics there are ‘well used to married priests now.”

    In light of the above statement and since we have had various examples of clergy who converted and held the gift of marriage as well, has any bishop, diocese or other groupings carried out a proper survey or process of examination as to the ups and downs each individual priest, and their spouse and children have found in their lived-out experience? And how did those in parish find the commitment level of their priest in such circumstances?

  3. Sean O'Conaill says:

    Jesus transformed the meaning of sacrifice by making himself the sacrificial gift. Far from elevating ritual and sacrament above charitable action he insisted that actual service of others – especially of those in the direst need – will be the decisive criterion of divine judgement of ourselves (Matt 25:31-46). Nowhere in that passage is ‘being religious’ recognised as an essential requirement for salvation.

    The elevation of the sacramental priesthood above the common priesthood of service is therefore a Christendom anomaly that lies at the root of clericalism and the western church’s missionary inertia. Measures aimed only at expanding the number of clergy will therefore not in themselves restore the church’s missionary vigour. What is needed is recognition of the truth that Cardinal Mario Grech himself expressed in 2020:

    “Theology and the value of pastoral care in the family seen as domestic Church took a negative turn in the fourth century, when the sacralization of priests and bishops took place, to the detriment of the common priesthood of baptism, which was beginning to lose its value. The more the institutionalization of the Church advanced, the more the nature and charism of the family as a domestic Church diminished.” (Cardinal Mario Grech, Civilta Cattolica, 16th October 2020.)

    Can no-one see the danger that simply fixing the ‘priest shortage’ might actually delay indefinitely the decline in the power and influence of the clerical institution that the restoration of the pre-eminence of baptism and of the common priesthood of the people – a ‘people’s church’ – now calls for?

    Brendan is surely right when he says that ‘celibacy is not intrinsic to priesthood’ but is he still associating priesthood mainly with the sacramental (i.e. symbolic and liturgical) role? Aren’t those Irish families now hosting Ukrainian refugees exercising their Christian priesthood as Jesus would want, for example?

    To elevate Christian sacrament above Christian service is to perpetuate the anomalous Christendom Church that needs to die. It was only Jesus self-giving on Good Friday that gave meaning to the Holy Thursday institution of the Eucharist – and so, today, it is the actual sacrifices of the people for others – their Christian love – that gives meaning to their Mass.

    Why, still, is it so rare to hear in Ireland a Mass presider telling us that – e.g. before the Offertory, which could and should include the proceeds of any collection for the SVP, united with all other actions and gifts given to others, as well as the altar gifts?

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