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