Married priests in the Catholic Church – why the Pope’s possible reform is a bit of a curate’s egg

Catherine Pepinster

The media, including the BBC, has got very excited about the possibility of Catholic priests being allowed to marry after Pope Francis talked about it to the German newspaper Die Zeit. Newsnight, late on Friday night, rolled out Joseph Shaw of the Latin Mass Society to say it was a bad idea and on Saturday morning I was in the studio of BBC Radio 4’s Today programme to say it was a good one. (You can find them both on BBC iplayer).

There are a few aspects of this possible reform by Pope Francis that need to be clarified. First, celibacy for Catholic priests is not a doctrine, it’s a discipline, and so can easily change.

Nor was it always thus. Celibacy became mandatory in the twelfth century. And nor is it always the case now. There are married priests in the Middle Eastern Churches: the Melkites and the Chaldeans have them, for example. It’s also prevalent in the Catholic Church in England and Wales, ever since Cardinal Basil Hume welcomed Anglican priests to cross the Tiber in the early nineties. And they didn’t dump their wives on the riverbank. These Anglicans have made a fine contribution to the Church in this country and nobody thinks their married status is a problem.

Pope Francis’ suggestion that having married priests is first and foremost a practical solution to a major problem for the Church. It has a shortage of priests in the developing world where the Church is expanding. Congregations in England and Wales might complain about churches closing down, as is happening in Salford diocese, partly because of a shortage of priests. But this is a minor matter compared with Latin America’s shortages, where one priest might minister to 6,000 people. And Pope Francis, the former Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio of Buenos Aires, knows all about the shortage of priests in Latin America.

He will have seen what it means to Catholics to not have access to the sacraments, to be unable to receive Communion, attend Mass, to not have your confession heard or have the comfort of the last rites while you are dying.

But this is essentially a stopgap approach. Pope Francis is not suggesting that celibacy is completely removed as a requirement. Young men entering the seminary will still be signing up to a celibate life. Instead the Church would look for viri probati – older, proven men. There are plenty, of course: the Church has thousands of men in the permanent diaconate.

However much I welcome this move, I would not want to see an end entirely to celibacy for priests; voluntary celibacy would be a fine thing. All of us have met outstanding priests who have given everything to their service of God and his people. But we have also met unhappy priests who cannot bear the burden of mandatory celibacy. Think also of the numbers we have lost because of it: men who have left the priesthood, and others who haven’t joined. I’ve come across Anglicans who have told me they would have liked to convert to Catholicism when young but they stayed in the Church of England and trained for the priesthood because they wanted to be married and to become fathers.

One major word of warning, though. Instead of the burden of celibacy and the price of loneliness being paid by a celibate priest, the difficulties may end up on the shoulders of the families of a Catholic married priest. If you want to gain an insight into the price paid by the families of married priests, watch David Hare’s play about the Church of England, Racing Demon.

I’ll also remember this practical solution of Pope Francis to the priest shortage next time a bishop rejects women’s ordination as a solution to shortages. Whenever that issue comes up, being practical is deemed as not a good enough reason.

Catherine Pepinster’s book The Keys and the Kingdom – The British and the Papacy will be published this autumn by Bloomsbury/T&T Clark




I’d rather have a headteacher than a multi-site executive, Sir Michael

According to Sir Michael Wilshaw, former head of Ofsted, Britain now needs a national programme for leadership of multi-academy trusts. Speaking on Tuesday night at the parliamentary reception of St Mary’s University, Twickenham Sir Michael told the crowd that “leadership matters more than anything else”.

It’s not surprising that Sir Michael says it, but the fact that it’s not surprising says a considerable amount about his influence. When he got the top job at Ofsted in 2012, as chief inspector of schools, he found that questions about leadership of a school were right at the bottom of the report forms. He swiftly put them at the top. Five years on, priorities about schools have clearly changed. Nobody today doubts the power and importance of the head in a school. When ‘superheads’ have gone into a school, as Marie Stubbs did at St George’s Roman Catholic School, Maida Vale, and Dame Sally Coates did at Burlington Danes in West London, the failing institutions were turned around.

Sir Michael’s comments about the need for a national programme for heads who run several schools at once came as he was launching such a project at St Mary’s University, where he has been appointed professor of education and director of multi-academy trusts.

One of the notable coincidences about these three educators – Marie Stubbs, Sally Coates, Michael Wilshaw – is that they are all Catholic. They took their Catholic ethos into schools that weren’t always Catholic or not necessarily that strongly Catholic. It is an ethos that focuses clearly on the child, on schools being communities with clear identities, on the God-centred bigger picture that is not just about league tables, and on discipline.

I recently visited a Catholic school for a few days (confidentiality precludes me from identifying it) and all these characteristics were clearly evident. And what was also clear was that the school’s fortunes rose or fell dependent on the leadership of the head. Sir Michael, I could see in front of my eyes, is right: leadership matters more than anything. But I could also see that the head’s strong leadership in this particular school did not depend on him being a remote figure. The respect he earned came in part because he knew everybody – not just the staff but all the hundreds of children. He knew them by name; if you mentioned a child, either for sterling effort or for causing trouble, he knew who you meant straightaway.

This kind of charismatic leader is in short supply. They’re particularly in short supply if governors, as happens in Catholic schools, insist the head teacher’s private life must be exemplary. So if you haven’t got enough candidates to be headteachers, the attractive solution might be to make one person head of several schools. This is clearly already happening: an organization like the Cabot Learning Federation has more than 10 schools in its organization and around one in five secondary schools are in some sort of network. When a group of schools are run by one head, the individual schools have their own leaders of education within them – but everyone knows they aren’t the real boss. This is a system rather akin to regional managers having to answer to the boss at HQ. And we all know that the boss at HQ can be remote and never has the time to interact with the staff, let alone the consumers of the service provided – in other words, in schools, the pupils.

If we want to understand what might happen if we go down the route of multi-academies and executive heads, thinks for a moment about a parallel example: that of parish clusters.

The Catholic Church has yet to find a better framework for pastoral care than the parish. But in days of declining attendance and shortages of priests, the solution chosen by bishops is often to support parish closures, making one priest responsible for several churches. People don’t like it, even if they know why economies of scale are dominating conversations about the future of parishes. The priest becomes distant; he doesn’t, can’t know everyone.

Catholic schools are as important for pastoral care as parishes. Do we really want the same thing to happen to our schools – to have heads looking after several schools because it’s the easy solution to staff shortages? In both the case of priests and of headteachers, some of the problems are down to the problems of the posts not attracting enough candidates of the right calibre. Should this be a moment for bishops to ask of their priests and their heads: are we demanding too much in terms of what we want from them in their private lives? In other words, could we have more priests, but still outstanding people, if they were allowed to marry? And would we have more excellent headteachers if those who divorced and remarried were as welcome as those with uncomplicated, traditional set-ups?

The Catholic Church can be proud of its contribution to education in England and Wales; its future depends on the heads it appoints. I’m not convinced the way forward should be in the hands of multi-site executives.

Catherine Pepinster is the author of The Keys and the Kingdom – the British and the papacy, to be published this autumn by Bloomsbury/T&T Clark.





Damian Lewis can teach the Churches a thing or two about the importance of good liturgy

Catherine Pepinster

Why do people spend their time at the theatre watching Macbeth, Hedda Gabler, Kinky Boots, or School of Rock? The answer seems obvious – being entertained, moved, taken out of themselves, encouraged to rethink how they see life.

According to Damian Lewis, the actor known for television’s Homeland and Wolf Hall, it is theatre that is the most exciting dramatic form. For both actors and audience, he says: “Theatre is, has always been and always will be, one of the single most important things in any civilized society.”

And the reason why it is so vital, he said in an interview with the Evening Standard, is because “800 to 900 people sitting in a room at the same time as people in that same space is the perfect coming together of shared experience.”

I thought of Lewis’s words about shared experience this week when I read of the commission that MPs have just launched to investigate loneliness. The commission, set up in memory of the murdered MP Jo Cox, is working with 13 charities including Age UK and Action for Children to come up with ideas for change. Their research indicates that as many as nine million people in Britain say they are always or often lonely.

Which takes me back to Damian Lewis’s remark about shared experience. Most of the suggestions about countering loneliness focus on visits to people’s homes and cups of tea and a chat: the person most people envisage as lonely is an elderly person. But not all the lonely are elderly and as Damian Lewis points out, countering it doesn’t necessitate having conversation. Sitting in communal silence can make one feel deeply connected with other human beings.

The Christian churches do an enormous amount of work countering loneliness through groups they organize, and many of them do focus on offering, yes, the all too familiar cup of tea and a chat. But the invitation should also focus on the most powerful thing they have to offer: the equivalent of Damian Lewis’ theatrical shared experience – the communal encounter of God with his people expressed in the liturgy. Lewis in his interview said that shared experience is “truly enlightening for everybody”. The best liturgy is exactly the same. And it can be a similar experience to theatre in other ways – being moved, taken out of ourselves, encouraged to rethink how we see life, maybe even entertained. It isn’t that surprising given drama’s roots in religion.

The atheist philosopher A C Grayling once said to me, somewhat condescendingly, that as people get older, they turn to religion because they are “preparing for finals” – in other words, facing death. And why not? Dying focuses the mind on the important things in life. The Churches offer people a profound way of doing that alongside others, through the liturgy. Shouldn’t this be the message heard most loudly, rather than the invitation to tea, chats, films, and barbecues, which churches promote so hard? Shared experience is not just for theatre audiences. But like a play in the theatre, the moment won’t mean much if the liturgy isn’t the best it could be.

Catherine Pepinster’s book The Keys and the Kingdom – the British and the papacy, will be published this autumn by Bloomsbury/T&T Clark.



Read our lips: the messages from Justin Welby and Prince Charles to Donald Trump about refugees

Catherine Pepinster

Donald Trump doesn’t like them. Neither do plenty of people who voted for Brexit. But there’s one group which is particularly keen on refugees – Christians focused on better relations working together. Intriguingly, the people fleeing the divisions of war are helping to play a key role uniting Christians who were once dreadfully divided.

I’m talking about Catholic and Anglicans who have been marking 50 years of improved ecumenical relations. It was in 1966 that Pope Paul VI and the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey, met together in Rome and paved the way for better understanding between the two Christian denominations after hundreds of years of strife in Britain that started with Henry VIII’s break with Rome. That encounter led to regular contact between Popes and Archbishops, as well as the founding of the Anglican Centre in Rome, dedicated to ecumenism.

On Thursday the latest of the celebrations of the Golden Jubilee of the Centre took place at Lambeth Palace in London, during which the current archbishop, Justin Welby, spoke of his visit to Pope Francis in October and their shared commitment to what they are calling “the ecumenism of action”. This includes a shared Christian resolve to work for the poor and for refugees.

The Lambeth Palace celebration took place the evening after US President Donald Trump had made plain what he thinks of migrants and refugees: on Wednesday he signed an executive order for a wall to be built between the US and Mexico. During his election campaign his proposed wall always garnered huge cheers from his supporters. And also on Wednesday, it emerged that Trump will crackdown further on arrivals in the US by suspending the Syrian refugee programme. Theresa May might not go as far as building walls but her elevation as Prime Minister owes much to the deep suspicion that many British people feel about migrants and even refugees.

At Lambeth Palace, though, the support from Christians was wholehearted for the plight of people making their way to this country from wartorn Syria. And their cause enjoyed a fillip from the presence of the Prince of Wales, who joined the crowd to mark 50 years of the Anglican Centre and heard Welby speak of the plight of refugees. The Prince’s concern about the benighted peoples of the Middle East, especially persecuted Christians, has been evident for some time. At Lambeth Palace he was given a cross made from the wood of a boat that had brought refugees across the Mediterranean to Lampedusa. And as he chatted to guests, his concern for people fleeing the Middle East was evident.

It’s much harder in Europe, of course, to keep out refugees and migrants than it might be in a US with a wall. Even the English Channel has proved no barrier. When we leave the EU, the 350 mile strip of water is likely to still be impossible to police. The Church of England and the Catholic Church have come together, united in their commitment to help those willing to risk everything to escape the horrors of the Middle East. Prince Charles, who has said he would like the title Defender of Faith when he becomes king rather than the usual Defender of the Faith, seems ready to stand in solidarity with both the Churches on this issue and particularly with persecuted Christians.

If Donald Trump makes a state visit to the UK, I for one would love to overhear any conversation he might have with Christian leaders and with the Prince of Wales. He won’t find walls on their agendas. The US ambassador might like to brief Trump via a copy of Prince Charles’s Thought for the Day on populism and intolerance.

In the words of Pope Francis, speaking a year ago on a trip to Mexico, politicians who propose building walls rather than bridges are not Christian.

Catherine Pepinster’s The Key and the Kingdom – the Brtish and the Papacy, will be published this autumn by Bloomsbury/T&T Clark

Is there a crisis of confidence in British Christianity?

Catherine Pepinster

When Living with Difference– the report of the Commission on Religion and Belief in British Public Life – was first published a year ago, some of its fiercest critics came from the Christian Churches. The Commission, headed by Baroness Elizabeth Butler-Sloss, created by the Cambridge-based Woolf Institute, and backed by such patrons as former Archbishop of Canterbury (Lord) Rowan Williams, set out to examine religious belief and its place in contemporary Britain. It looked at all forms of religion, from Christianity to Judaism and Islam, as well as other minority faiths in this country and the various forms of non-belief. It pointed out Christianity’s decline in both nominal membership and active, regular church-going believers. While the report recognized that religion plays a significant role in society, it had some harsh words to say – words that often emerge from the lips of vocal secularists. For example, the Today programme’s Thought for the Day slot got the usual bashing (I should point out here that I have appeared on it for more than a decade) with the recommendation that it should be opened up to secular voices.

But the comments that really upset Christians more than anything else in the report were the criticism of faith schools. Living with Difference implied that the sponsorship and support of schools by the Church of England and the Catholic Church are harmful to the public interest. “In our view it is not clear that segregation of young people into faith schools has promoted greater cohesion or that it has not in fact been socially divisive and led rather to greater misunderstanding and tension.”

These are harsh words and appeared deeply unjust to those who know faith schools. Catholic schools, in particular, are a melting pot, an extraordinarily rich set of communities with people of very varied cultural, social, linguistic and racial differences.

So why were people so sensitive about the report’s criticisms? It may well be because they had high expectations of this Commission and felt it let the side down with its sweeping judgments, and seemed to want to expunge Christianity from the public square. It could also be that Christians in Britain are lacking in confidence. They’ve seen congregations fall and are constantly criticized by secularists with an agenda – including the aim to get rid of the schools that also got lambasted in Living with Difference.

Now the people involved with Living with Difference are turning again to Christians and listening to them in more detail. On Tuesday this week, a group of people in positions of influence including theologians, public intellectuals, clergy and what one might term social activists got around the table in Cambridge to discuss what the report exposed and what the report also hadn’t discovered. Chatham House rules mean that I can’t say who specifically said what and who exactly was involved, but I understand this was a high-powered group who were frank in their analysis.

It was admitted that Christianity is in a difficult place in this country and that it is evident that when people are looking for answers and a viable, moral perspective on the world we inhabit, they don’t automatically turn to Christianity. Large numbers of people today seem to think that they can sort out their own problems rather than depend on God. Their autonomy is what matters to them.

One of the most pertinent issues that emerged from this conversation was the extent to which the Churches are very different from what those outside perceive them to be – and the Churches are failing to communicate this. Christianity is not a monolith in a diverse society; it is diverse itself. It is rich in cultures, languages and races, and for many Christians the church pew – or indeed the church school – is their greatest opportunity to encounter people who are different from them, yet with whom they have faith in common. And in a very unequal society, the deeply attractive message of Christianity is that we are all equal under God, all equally loved.

The other, unsung, deeply attractive aspect to Christianity in Britain – and again, one that is not being communicated enough, is its service to society. The Cambridge gathering came back time and time again to this notion of service. If you want a sense of how much service Christians are contributing to society, especially to the vulnerable, the fragile and the unwanted, take a look at Theos’ recent report

I understand one participant asked: “If Christianity disappeared next Thursday, would anyone notice?” The answer, going by Theos’ evidence, is yes, they would certainly notice the difference.

Back in 2012, The Queen marked the start of her Diamond Jubilee with a speech at Lambeth Palace where she talked about the Church of England having a duty to protect the practice of all faiths and that it had created an environment for those of other faiths and none to live freely. It wasn’t what the Church of England was originally intended for, but this role was felt to be deeply attractive to the Cambridge group and they perceive it is what Christianity of all denominations should be doing in Britain.

Shouldn’t that mean Christian schools can play that role too? The trouble with the argument about education is that many Britons want schools to play a role encouraging commonality and homogeneity – in other words, preparing children for peaceful citizenship. But they perceive Christian schools to be about particularity, as if that rules out commonality and homogeneity. It doesn’t. It is entirely possible to have layers of identity and layers of values. The notion that you can be one thing and one thing only harks back to Britain’s antipathy to the papacy, and the belief that being a Catholic ruled out being loyal to the Crown. As the events marking the 500th anniversary of the Reformations begin, isn’t it time that we laid this antiquated idea to rest? Having religious beliefs is not a leisure activity; it’s a profound part of one’s life and character. But it doesn’t make you some sort of lesser citizen.

Catherine Pepinster’s book, The Keys and The Kingdom – the British and the Papacy, will be published this autumn by Bloomsbury/T & T Clark.







As debt fuels a sales boom, it’s time to rethink how we do business

Catherine Pepinster

Yesterday was Retail Super Thursday for the City, the day when large numbers of the high street’s big names reported financial results for the Christmas period. And their trading turned out to show a mini-boom with sales up by as much as five per cent on a year ago. That’s got to be good news for not only the retailers but also their staff, making jobs more secure.

But the spending boom hides another story. Earlier this week the Bank of England warned that consumer spending is being fuelled by debt. In other words, families are taking out loans and loading up their credit cards. Consumer credit, the Bank said, has risen at its fastest rate for 11 years. And the biggest problem for individuals is that many of them don’t pay off their cards, leaving people with years of debt due to not only the original sum borrowed but the interest that they pay.

Having to pay interest is central to our economic system, whether it’s by people buying their homes with a mortgage, an expanding business, or buying a car. It’s accepted by most people as a price worth paying for their everyday needs. We forget that charging interest was once considered anathema. Usury – lending with interest – is frequently mentioned in the Bible, and was considered sinful because it so often hurt the poorest. The Catholic medieval philosopher Thomas Aquinas opposed usury as a means of both charging for an item and then effectively making someone pay to use it. It’s akin to buying a cake, and then having to pay extra just to eat it. By the time of the Reformation money-lending at reasonable amounts of interest – usually around five per cent – began to be acceptable.

But with debts increasing, the term usury has reappeared in Christian discourse. The Archbishop of Canterbury has condemned what he calls legal usury – the vast levels of interest demanded by high-street pay day loan companies.

An alternative financial model comes from Islam, a religion which has remained resolutely opposed to charging interest. Rather than focus on competition that is key to trade in the West, Islam perceives business as a means of co-operating for the common good. Instead of encouraging charging interest, it advocates equity participation. For example, when money is lent to a business, the lender is repaid by being given a percentage share of the company’s profits.

It’s an approach that appeals to me because it encourages mutual co-operation and an ongoing relationship between those with money and those without it. And it’s a challenge to us all, to individuals and organizations, as we play our part in a financial system that’s created a bubble that could yet burst.

This was a Thought for the Day broadcast, first heard on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, January 13, 2017.


















Theresa May should take John Paul II’s advice on solidarity

Catherine Pepinster

Theresa May’s comments about society in The Sunday Telegraph yesterday have inevitably led to plenty of response about the meaning of the word and why politicians, particularly Conservative ones, have got so hung up about society. Cameron’s big version, Thatcher’s claim it doesn’t exist at all: defining and redefining society has become an essential part of Tory philosophising.

But society isn’t the only word that May uses that has become part of the stock in trade of social commentary. She also said in her Sunday Telegraph article: “We will act across every layer of society to restore the fairness that is the bedrock of the social solidarity that makes our nation strong”.

Meanwhile I’ve noticed certain people saying that they are in solidarity with the striking Tube drivers and Southern Rail train drivers. Our struggle is their struggle, that kind of thing. I imagine the poor commuters who can’t get to work or the hospital patients who can’t make their vital treatment would wish the striking drivers would show some solidarity with them.

The trouble with solidarity is that it’s a term that people can all too easily use and it provides the user with a warm glow. We’re with with you, brother. We feel your pain.

Pope St John Paul II in his encyclical, Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, warned against this way of thinking: Solidarity, he said, “is not a feeling of vague compassion or shallow distress at the misfortunes of so many people, both near and far. On the contrary, it is a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good; that is to say to the good of all and of each individual, because we are all really responsible for all”.

That’s why solidarity is a key concept of Catholic Social Teaching. It requires people to provide what one might term a sacred vow to others, to act together for the betterment of society. Mrs May has frequently said she is concerned about the JAMS – the just about managing members of society. If she really wants to encourage social solidarity, then she has to lead from the top. That means some imagination about the future of the NHS and the affordability of housing.

Above all, it means making amends for the most glaring error of Chancellor Philip Hammond’s autumn statement: it made no reference at all to social care. If a civilized society can be judged by how it treats its most vulnerable members, then we need more investment in social care for the elderly and particularly those with dementia. More money is not the only priority, though. We need a commitment from society as a whole for better standards of care and more interest in the social care we offer people. In other words, the most vulnerable need our commitment to their common good, our solidarity. Not just words, action. Over to you, Prime Minister.

Catherine Pepinster’s book The Keys and The Kingdom – the British and the Papacy, will be published by Bloomsbury/T&T Clark this autumn.