November 8, 2017

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Sex and celibacy have an unerring appeal. When a notification hit my phone last week with a headline ‘Pope to consider allowing priests to marry’, I was riveted . It would have been radical, even for this pope. But the actual story, it turns out, is that Francis is to attend a synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazonian region, which will then consider a proposal to ordain men who are already married.

So why change the rules? Context is everything. And it’s notable where this discussion is taking place: in the Amazonian basin, where the number of priests is grossly inadequate for the number of people needing them. Even now there are some 140 million Catholics in Brazil, but only 18,000 priests to minister to them, and the problem is more acute still in the Amazon. But there are pious married men interested in helping to solve it, if only that were allowable.

What’s the difference, anyway, between making married men priests and allowing priests to marry? Well, one is a revival of a tradition dropped a millennium ago, and the other would be a significant departure from the Catholic norm.

There is nothing new about ordaining married men, since that was the practice in apostolic times. St Peter, you may recall, had a mother-in-law and was therefore married, though we hear absolutely nothing about his wife. There is an instruction in a letter of St Paul to Timothy (3:2) which maintains that a bishop “must be blameless, the husband of one wife, vigilant, sober, of good behaviour, given to hospitality, apt to teach…” (The bit about the one wife has been debated over time, but the traditional take is that when his wife dies, he should not marry again.)

Unlike in the Catholic Church, Orthodox priest can be married. Pictured is an Orthodox priest celebrating Epiphany, next to a cross cut into the ice. Credit: Sergei Konkov/Tass/PA Images

In the Orthodox churches, married men are priests; ditto other churches that are in communion with the Roman Catholic church, such as the Lebanese Maronites. One Lebanese woman told me about young men in Byblos preparing for ordination rushing about anxiously in search of a wife, so as to have their married status established before they are ordained. In the eastern churches, as elsewhere, it’s monks who take a vow not to marry, and hence to celibacy, and it’s monks who are ordained bishops. Indeed quite recently in Britain, the Roman Catholic church ordained hundreds of married Anglican clergy to the ranks of the priesthood after they broke ranks with the Church of England; they didn’t have to give up their wives.

So, what’s the problem about allowing already ordained men to marry? Celibacy was extended in the Latin Church, a millennium ago, in the great reforms of the eleventh century, from monks to ordinary priests as part of a general tightening of standards: more monks were ordained priests, and in turn the celibacy required of monks was extended to the normal clergy. It was of course a means to prevent church property from becoming simply a family possession of married clergy. But it also reflected a sense, developed since the fourth century, that sexual intercourse was incompatible with the functions of the priesthood.1

The Catholic church ordained married clergy to the ranks of the priesthood after they broke with the Church of England; they didn’t have to give up their wives.
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That traditional understanding was upended at the Reformation: when Martin Luther married an ex nun, it was shocking in that both of them had made vows not to marry. It was a revolutionary act, and it confirmed the Catholic insistence on celibacy of the clergy, which the Reformers condemned as a later innovation.

Nowadays, no-one in the Catholic church suggests that sex is tainted; rather the modern take on celibacy is that it represents the complete gift of a man’s life to the community. It is a generous gesture rather than a negative one. More than that, celibacy has come to represent a radical challenge to the secular age, notwithstanding the assumption that clerical sex abuse is somehow linked to celibacy.

Pope Benedict’s take on celibacy was that

“In this age of increasing secularization, where people live their lives etsi Deus non daretur – as if God did not exist – the need for lived witness to an eschatological vision about our common human destiny, and how to live in this life as a preparation for the next, is all the more necessary.”

So, in this way of thinking, if celibacy sets priests apart, it’s a witness to the gospel.

When Martin Luther married it was shocking in that he had made vows not to marry. It was a revolutionary act, and it confirmed the Catholic insistence on celibacy of the clergy.
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Allowing married men to be ordained could repair the crisis in the Amazon, but iit’s not possible for the church to loosen the rules in one area and not in others. And how will priests who have been faithful to their promise not to marry, who have lived chaste lives only with enormous difficulty, feel if married men are ordained too, if the exceptions go beyond the formerly Anglican clergy who are now priests?

More importantly, how on earth does the pope explain why ordaining married men is fine, but denying marriage to men who are priests is a no-no? It may work in the eastern churches, where the old rules are understood, but elsewhere, upending a tradition of a millennium will take a good deal of explaining.