David Quinn: Lack of vocations down to crisis of faith, not celibacy
Published 16/09/2011 | 05:00
Edward Daly is a well-respected bishop whose life-long ministry in the North has been boiled down this week to just one thing, namely his support for a married clergy.
Precisely because he is both well-known and well-respected, his call on the church to consider allowing priests to marry received extensive coverage in the media over the last few days, and it overshadowed everything else in his new book, which deals with his time as Bishop of Derry from 1974, through to his retirement as bishop of the diocese in 1993, and beyond.
Towards the very end of his memoirs, called 'A Troubled See', he wonders why, "whenever commitment to the priesthood or to the church is mentioned, sexual morality, for some strange reason, seems to be the touchstone and overriding criterion".
He asks himself "why celibacy should be the great and unyielding arbiter, the paradigm of diocesan priesthood", and why other factors like "prayerfulness, conviction in the faith, knowledge of the faith" etc are not considered at least as important.
He laments all the good men who left the priesthood down the years to get married, and he seems to think allowing priests to marry would be one way to address the vocations crisis.
He didn't say, but a lot of people also think that if the Catholic Church permitted priests to marry the child abuse scandals wouldn't have been anything like as bad as they were.
Certainly the call for married priests chimes very well with the times we live in because we think sex is so central to life that we end up regarding celibacy as being somehow unnatural, a terrible imposition.
In places like India, on the other hand, religious celibacy is seen as a great sacrifice to make for the sake of devoting yourself to following God above all things. That is why religious celibacy is still greatly respected there, as well as in Buddhist countries like Thailand.
As mentioned, Bishop Daly wonders why celibacy should be the "great and unyielding arbiter" as distinct from other factors like prayerfulness. But it's not an 'either/or', and prayerfulness is obviously much more important than celibacy. But you can have both.
In fact, the rule of celibacy isn't ultimately about denying sex at all. It's more about giving up having a family of your own and therefore putting yourself 100pc at the service of the Gospel and the Christian community.
Any cleric with a family has to divide their time between their family and their congregation. That is both obvious and unavoidable.
What about the scandals though? Surely celibacy is one of the major reasons why priests abused children?
Well, if that's so then surely celibate lay people, who often don't want to be celibate, are as big a threat to children. But does anyone really believe that? In any case, there isn't a scintilla of evidence that celibate people are more likely to abuse children than non-celibates.
Bishop Daly is of course correct to say that good priests resigned from ministry to get married. But married clergy of other churches also leave ministry and in substantial numbers.
For example, married clergy often quit ministry because their families, especially their children, hate having to live as paragons of virtue in the eyes of the local congregation.
Also, married clergy sometimes get divorced. What would happen then? Would we then hear a demand to allow divorced priests to carry on as before and not leave the priesthood at all?
Would some future bishop lament the fact that so many good priests were lost to the Catholic Church because the church doesn't believe in divorce? You can bet your house on it.
What about vocations? It is probably true that if the Catholic Church allowed priests to marry it would attract a few more men to the priesthood. However, it wouldn't have that big an effect because the Protestant churches have also suffered a big drop in vocations compared with a few decades ago.
Of course, the Catholic Church could change the rule of celibacy tomorrow and allow priests to marry. However, anyone who thinks this would be a huge shot in the arm for the Catholic Church simply hasn't examined the issue properly and is being wildly optimistic.
The biggest reason for the vocations crisis, one that has affected all the churches in this country whether they have married clergy or not, is the crisis of faith caused by secularisation.
Far fewer Irish people view life through a religious prism than was once the case and that is obviously going to have a huge effect on vocations.
Address the crisis of faith and you automatically address the vocations crisis. The debate about married priests is a sideshow and a distraction compared with that. Indeed, it is a symptom of it.