| 11.5°C Dublin

Church is paying a high price for its celibacy rule


The appointment of a former Catholic priest as the Anglican Dean of Dublin's Christ Church cathedral is an example how the obligatory rule of celibacy of the Roman priesthood is losing clergy to the more liberal Church of Ireland.

After his marriage to his wife Celia, and his resignation as a priest of the Catholic diocese of Cork and Ross, Dean Dermot Dunne has been ministering as an Anglican rector in the diocese of Ferns, Remarkably, Dean Dunne discovered that three of his 11 colleagues had also left the ranks of the Catholic clergy.

A number of nuns and Catholic laity have also found a spiritual haven in becoming members of the Church of Ireland.

This relatively small but significant switch in denominational allegiance from the tight discipline and moral rules of Roman Catholicism to a freer ethos of respect for individual conscience allowed in the more broad Church of Ireland is worthy of greater attention than it has so far drawn in the national media.

Dean Dunne's rapid rise within his adopted ecclesial community in these more ecumenical times comes only days after new figures revealed the extent of the drop in clergy numbers in the Irish Catholic Church that is now reaching catastrophic proportions.

Last year 160 priests died while only nine men were ordained, and 228 nuns passed away with only two newcomers taking religious vows.

Under current trends of ageing clerics and few recruits, the number of priests will halve from 4,752 to 1,500 over the next two decades. Convents could become an antiquarian rarity.

By any standard, this is a manpower crisis. It is recognised as such by the 'Irish Catholic' newspaper, traditionally regarded as a conservative voice, but which has called for the convening of a National Synod of Bishops, priests and laity to confront the emergency.

Dioceses throughout the country have become so short of priests that many parishes are priestless, and the frequency of Masses has been drastically reduced.

Opinion polls have shown there is popular demand for ending the rule of obligatory celibacy, but so far such appeals have been ignored by the church establishment in Ireland, which will not dare to challenge Pope Benedict's unwillingness to change this rule dating from the 12th century.

Vatican policy since the early 1960s has been opposed to the revision of the celibacy obligation. Even the reform-minded Pope John XXIII did not allow the matter to be discussed at the Second Vatican Council, 1962-5.

His successor, Pope Paul VI, grappled with a massive exodus of the best and the brightest from the priesthood who left to get married. Paul described them as traitors.

An even more hard line was taken by Pope John Paul II, who made it exceedingly difficult for priests to become laicised. The present Pope, Benedict XVI, is also taking a firm 'no change' line.

Yet, an exception has been made by Rome to this rule through its admission to the Catholic priesthood of married men who have converted from the Anglican Communion.The Orthodox and Easter Rite Churches allow its priests to marry before ordination.

While hoping for an upturn in vocations, the Irish Catholic Church has won Vatican approval for the training of married male deacons over five years, the diaconate is an ordained ministry which traces its origins back to the time of the apostles.

There will be a preliminary year before a man is accepted as a candidate. The formation programme will take three years (part time). It involves the serious study of theology and philosophy, as well as pastoral, spiritual and human formation.

The minimum age for admission is 25 years for a celibate candidate, and 35 years for a married candidate.

The maximum age is 60 years. While married men may be ordained, deacons who are widowed do not normally remarry.

To ensure that the diaconate does not conflict with the responsibilities of marriage, a married man may only be accepted as a candidate for diaconate if he has the formal approval of his wife.

Deacons who receive the sacrament of Holy Orders will not normally wear clerical dress, but will be allowed to wear vestments when officiating at services.

Candidates must be men who have a good knowledge of the Gospel, a well-established spiritual life, and a proven willingness to serve others, even at some personal cost.

While the Church authorities insist that deacons will not be substitute priests, there are fears that they will be viewed as such, and that the numbers entering the diaconate will not resolve the need for priests, whether married males or women, in the Irish Church.