Married men deserve our blessing if they can balance the priesthood with family life
Published 21/04/2014 | 02:30
AT my local Easter Mass, the parish priest finished the ceremonies with a somewhat weary coda: God be with the days, he said, when a priest only had to say one Mass for Sunday. Now he has to say three Masses over Saturday night and Sunday morning. Exhausting!
Unconsciously, he could hardly have given stronger support for a movement that is gradually building momentum within the Catholic Church – to ordain more married men.
The Association of Catholic Priests in Ireland said last week that Catholics would soon face a situation where there were no priests to say Mass at all, unless married men are ordained in greater numbers. In England and Wales, there have also been calls from bishops to widen the grounds for married men.
Surely a change in the rules of celibacy is long overdue.
I can think of several individuals who would have felt a calling for the priesthood if they could have combined that vocation with married life – starting with my own father, who trained to be a Jesuit and only decided to step back from ordination at the last moment because he honestly didn't think he could commit to a life of celibacy.
Many good men have left the ministry, too, because they wished to marry and have a family. And many fine clergy have been lost to the church and the community because of the celibacy rule. Anglicans and non-conformist Christian ministers marry and so too do the priests in the Eastern Orthodox rites (though not bishops).
Anglicans who have joined the Roman Catholic family under the auspices of the Ordinariate may keep not only Anglican rite and ritual but may keep their wives, too. There is no prohibition in Christian doctrine against a married clergy.
A married clergyman can be more in touch with both the joys and the vagaries of family life, and this experience may enhance his understanding of everyday problems.
A friend of mine whose father was a canon in the Church of England recalled how he and his sister used to critique their father's sermons over Sunday lunch, sometimes telling him: "Dad, you can't say that!"
Under the strictures of his teenage offspring's scrutiny, the canon became an ace preacher.
As the 17th century essayist Francis Bacon wrote: "Wife and children are a kind of discipline of humanity."
The celibate priest, by contrast, is subject to no such audience reaction from a ruthlessly honest – and emphatically non-deferential – kith and kin. He is not as likely to be kept up to the mark by polite parishioners. He may become more detached, and also more lonely – more priests suffer from loneliness than might be imagined.
So there is every reason to go forward on this issue. Or almost every reason. There may be practical considerations to be ironed out: will the parish agree to support, financially, a married clergyman and his family?
In times gone by, the vicar's wife in the Anglican Church was virtually an unpaid curate to the community, organising everything from the Mothers' Union to the fundraising efforts for church repairs. Modern spouses have their own careers – as evidenced by the amusing BBC 1 comedy 'Rev', in which Tom Hollander plays a sincere but rather hopeless city rector, minding the baby while his wife pursues her legal career.
Modern women are seldom the invisible "helpmeet" they were once expected to be – husbands and fathers are expected to play their full part in family life, rather than be lofty absent presences. In that sense, I can see a practical problem for a married clergy.
As a father of three young children, my younger son seems to live an exhausting – although rewarding – life of working to support his family and being a hands-on dad, too. It's difficult to imagine how a man in this position today really could give his full energies to a parish as well as to his family. St Paul made this very point 2,000 years ago.
Priestly celibacy is upheld both as a practical measure – to enable a cleric to give his full focus to his vocational duties – and to symbolise a sense of sacrifice: the sacrifice of sexuality. We don't go in for sacrifice much these days, though perhaps we should be reminded that men and women have made sacrifices for the sake of their vocation, to serve God, and to serve others too. Where that sacrifice has been honourably carried out, it is surely deserving of respect.
Pope Francis – and also John Paul II – are men who might easily have married if they had not felt called to choose the path of celibacy.
And yet, Francis himself has said that he is open to dialogue on the question of ordaining more married men, which, perhaps might be a prelude to allowing priests to marry before they are ordained.
And how about ordaining women? Well, in other denominations it took from 1517 until 1970 (for the Lutherans) and 1994 (for the Anglicans) to achieve that step. Don't expect it to happen overnight in the Church of Rome.