Tuesday 6 May 2014
Our Diocesan newspaper has the topic of allowing priests to marry as the front page article in this month’s edition. I cannot help but wonder if those who propose this idea to our Bishops have really thought it out.
Let me begin by saying that just because the idea of married priests keeps coming up does not mean it is prompted by the Holy Ghost (as some may claim) but rather that we have turned our ear to the voices of a secular and over-sexualised society and stopped listening to the spiritual wisdom of the Church through the ages; a wisdom which is not to be dismissed as of little or no value. Indeed, the witness of celibacy in an age such as ours has even greater significance than ever before. While priestly celibacy may not be doctrinal, it is certainly deeply spiritual -it is perhaps the core way the priest conforms himself to Christ the Good Shepherd who gave up His life for His sheep.
The celibate priesthood calls for self-sacrifice, without doubt; not to ask for the highest ideals in those applying for priesthood is intrinsically to ask for less than the most complete commitment. Is asking for less than the best really what we want?
We also have to consider that both vocations, priesthood and marriage, are under attack today, do we really want to add the stresses of one embattled vocation to another? Does not this encourage the likelihood of failure in one or both of these vocations?
Continuing to consider the spiritual import of a married priesthood, one has to say that to attach priesthood to marriage (or marriage to priesthood) is in fact to devalue each vocation as a path to holiness in its own right; it is to imply that there is room in both vocations for adding further opportunities for self-sacrifice. In short, both vocations are inevitably diminished as complete and sure paths to sublime holiness of life.
We should also consider that both the priesthood and marriage are vocations in crisis today, and to add one crisis to another makes no sense at all. Having a married priesthood will not alleviate the crisis in priestly vocations, witnessed to by the fact that there is a fall-off in vocations in all Christian communities, not just the Catholic Church. We are fooling ourselves if we think having married priests will see a return to the levels of priests we had even 20 years ago.
I cannot help but think too that attaching marriage to priesthood is the last thing to be introduced if Pope Francis wants to eliminate careerism. A married priesthood would only encourage careerism. After all, it is altogether possible that those who seek the office of Bishop will remain celibate for career prospects -and a celibate episcopacy would need to be retained since it is rooted in the Church’s Apostolic Tradition, the witness to which is that even in the Orthodox world where priests can marry, only priests who have not married are chosen to be Bishops.
Practically speaking, we have to consider how we could support a married priest and his family. Congregations are dwindling and costs of living rising; are we really expecting smaller congregations to pay for the up-keep of the priest and his family when they are struggling themselves? Are we going to diminish the role of wife and mother in the Christian home by requiring she go out to work and leave the up-bringing of their children to someone else? As one of my parishioners said, “How could we support a priest with six kids? And if he only has two, can we assume he’s using contraception? What a great example that would be”. And what if there is a divorce? Who pays the alimony? These are not unimportant considerations.
I suspect that behind supporting the call for married priests is the assumption that the world will accept the Church more easily if she has a married clergy, and that it will lessen the risk of child abuse. This would be wrong on both counts. Child abuse, loathsome and reprehensible as it is, is not a ‘Catholic priest’ problem (see here and here). No; the underlying reality is that the secular spirit always has and will always hate Christ’s Catholic Church (Jn.15v18-20), primarily because of her pro-life stand and doctrinal objection to fornication, contraception, abortion, serial marriage, homosexual activity etc. Is not ultimately the devil who is at the root of the call for a married priesthood? Very likely yes, in the hope that the stresses and strains of marriage will bring the clergy to cry out for a renunciation of the Church’s teaching on marriage and sexuality, by which renunciation the devil and his secular spirit will obtain a limited victory over the Church and the Gospel of Christ.