There were thirty-five children, aged seven and eight, ready to make their first Confessions: well-prepared, devout, serious and articulate. This recent First Penance service had been arranged in their large local parish; but the parish priest was away, and so three priests – of whom I was one – were invited to assist by administering the sacrament. The penance service itself was conducted by one of the parish’s three deacons – a retired army officer, a fine and theologically-grounded preacher and teacher of the Faith. I have heard several of his excellent Mass homilies, at Masses that he could not himself celebrate. He is not “Father”. Yet he is himself a father, and a grandfather; and, in his homily, he spoke to the children with all the ease and gentle calm reassurance for which he had been prepared by years of paternal ministry in his own family. But he was not a priest; he could not give absolution, and others, from outside that parish community, had to be in brought in to do so.
After the service, the deacon and I were talking; and he, knowing that I am a (former Anglican, Anglo-Catholic, now Roman Catholic) married priest, asked me what I felt about the report that Pope Francis reportedly called the Catholic Church’s requirement that its clergy remain celibate a “problem” for which “there are solutions,” during a controversial interview with an Italian newspaper. The Pope recalled that celibacy was adopted 900 years after the death of Jesus and pointed out that the Eastern Church allows its priests to marry. “There definitely is a problem, but it is not a major one,” he was reported as saying. “This needs time, but there are solutions and I will find them.”
I responded to the deacon’s question as I have always done over the years: I, as a married priest, have generally avoided this debate and, hitherto, I have had no desire to take part in any campaign with regard to it – while expressing gratitude, certainly, for what has been granted to me.
Nevertheless, this does not mean that I have no opinions on the matter. Nor can it possibly mean that those of us who have lived the experience of a married priesthood can have no insights to contribute to the discussion. And it is increasingly difficult to remain on the sidelines – partly because of the questionable nature of some of the arguments which are regularly advanced against married priests, and partly because there are some positive things about such a ministry – however these may ultimately be evaluated – which ought to be set out on record.
What follows is not in any sense a comprehensive argument, but merely a brief assessment of some specific points that are regularly advanced in this context, and certain reflections which arise in doing so.
First, let me set out my credentials for claiming to have an opinion which merits consideration. Apart from the years spent in military service, at university and in seminary, my entire life has been spent in clerical households – first that of my father, then in my own. My father was ordained to the Anglican priesthood in the Church of England in 1927. He died in 1981, thus giving 54 years of his life to that ministry. I was ordained to the Anglican priesthood, also in the Church of England, in 1960. Thus, between us, my father and I (each of us was married several years after ordination) can claim an aggregate of almost one hundred years of experience of living the married priesthood in a variety of ministerial settings and assignments.
Some may want to question whether this was a “real” priesthood. Let me respond simply by saying that, in our estimation, intention and experience, it was so. Certainly it was a life focused in the daily liturgy of the Church – the Divine Office, the daily Mass, the administration of the sacraments, the hearing of confessions and the giving of spiritual direction, the pastoral care of people, teaching, visiting the sick and dying, and so on – with the all the spiritual, intellectual, emotional and physical demands which that entails, not to mention an extremely modest material standard of living. My father always made it clear to us, as I have done in my own family, that the needs of the parish and the service of the Kingdom of Christ have absolute first priority in our lives. In practice, this has never actually meant the making of acute and agonizing choices – but, to the contrary, it has brought immense, varied, and often the most unexpected blessings to us. Throughout my childhood I overheard my father’s recitation of the Divine Office, I served him as an altar boy, I watched from my bedroom window as he buried the dead in the churchyard. I sang when my mother played the organ at Vespers (attended only, perhaps, by my family and a handful of others) for the Vigils of the feasts. We went as a family to joyful parish family weddings. We mourned deeply when members of our parish family died. I would answer the rectory doorbell when someone came for comfort or help. It was a blessed state, a graceful – and grace-giving – way of life. Perhaps clergy wives and children do not have an easy time, in some respects. Easy? No. But blessed, graced, fulfilled, happy? Yes, absolutely.
Jaroslav Pelikan, in his commentary on Acts, in the Brazos Theological Commentary series, wrote:
“… for centuries compulsory celibacy was not a rule for the clergy, or even for bishops: Saint Peter was married (Luke 4:38-39; 1 Cor. 9:5); Saint Gregory of Nyssa was married; and Gregory of Nazianzus the Elder, father of Saint Gregory the Theologian, was a bishop. Nevertheless, the imperative of έγκρατεια also in this respect acquired institutional form with the rise of Christian monasticism.
Yet ascetic practice and vows could also have a darker side in Acts (23:11-13): “Behold fasting, the mother of murder!” Chrysostom exclaims (Homilies on Acts 49). This darker side becomes evident from the principal etymological derivative of the word έγκρατεια, which is “Encratite”, as a party label to mark the heresy of contempt for divine creations such as food and sexuality. The Encratites were described by Saint Irenaeus: “Those who are called Encratites … preached against marriage, thus setting aside the original creation of God, and indirectly blaming Him who made the male and female for the propagation of the human race (Against Heresies 1.28.1).”
If Pope Francis’ recent remarks were accurately reported, he indicated that priestly celibacy is a matter of discipline rather than doctrine; and that the Latin Church does actually have a number of married priests. Their assignments have not been universally “low key”. There are four married priests currently serving in this diocese, apart from the parishes and mission of the Ordinariate. I am one of them, now Pastor Emeritus of an Anglican Use parish established under the terms of the Pastoral Provision of Pope St. John Paul II. More significantly, two of the married diocesan priests are pastors of normal diocesan parishes – one of them being by far the largest parish in the Diocese, having formerly served as Chancellor of the Diocese and Moderator of the Curia. It is difficult to imagine a less “low key” role; and of course, Rome was consulted before that appointment was made.
The Ordinariates established under the Apostolic Constitution Anglicanorum Coetibus are part of the New Evangelization described in Ad Gentes (Vatican II) and represent the Catholic Church’s desire, learned from half a century of direct dialogue and ecumenism, to learn and receive for itself what the providential Anglican tradition and its patrimony – “a treasure to be shared” (Ap. Cons. III) — has to offer.
What, then, are the main characteristics of the Anglican patrimony? The Liturgy in its classical Prayer Book style and language is doubtless the most visible element in this. But there is much more: a great heritage of music, hymnody, poetry – and, a distinctive spirituality (English, perhaps, rather than narrowly Anglican) and pastoral style. Martin Thornton, in his Essays in Pastoral Reconstruction (1960) says this:
First, and predominantly, a superbly balanced synthesis between the Affective and Speculative strains of Catholic spirituality; this is our real pastoral level-headedness, our living via media, whereby emotion is never allowed to run away from reason. Thus Julian of Norwich can combine a vividly disturbing meditation on the Passion with the coldly logical doctrine of the Atonement traceable to St Anselm. … From this particular balance derives that plain acceptance of fact, with special regard to Christology, the Passion, and thence Redemption, which gives English spirituality its unique brand of simple optimism: the “homely loving” of Julian, the warm domesticity of St Gilbert. And this is where the pastoral and priestly traditions really come in, because this is the kind of spiritual environment in which they function. Of course our own land and Church share with all others their periods of laxity, abuse, heresy and, indeed, anti-clericalism; but throughout all these vicissitudes, this unique pastoral sense, or colour, or flavour, is never quite eradicated. There is always a certain honest worldliness. The English priest has never taken too kindly to celibacy; he has always inclined to do his duty and enjoy his beer, both without a lot of fuss. He has been trained not in the seminary but in the schools and universities of the land, side by side with his secular brothers—and even sisters. Compared with other traditions the English clergy might look a little weak, a little amateur, a little colourless. It is vital to see that this is not true, that it is rather part and parcel with a deep, strong spiritual tradition with roots in New Testament theology. Perhaps Professor [G.M.] Trevelyan (English Social History) gives us an analogy when he writes: “If the French noblesse had been capable of playing cricket with their peasants, perhaps their châteaux would never have been burnt.”
It is said that married priests would want to live “outside the rectory”. Having lived in rectories/presbyteries all my life, I cannot imagine why this would be supposed. But, as it happens, this could certainly be said of almost all the celibate Catholic priests, both diocesan and religious, of the city in which I ministered for almost 33 years. With one exception, the clergy of the other six Catholic parishes in that city all live anonymously (in the sense that their homes are not in any obvious outward sense “rectories”) at some distance from their churches – and, since they very rarely wear clericals (unlike me!) they readily disappear into the local background.
In the English Anglican pastoral tradition, priests do not have “offices” but “studies”. Parishioners who come to them for spiritual direction, or for any other need, are thus welcomed into a home rather than into a place of business. His personal home is not regarded as being off-limits to parishioners in the way that, say, a doctor’s home would be to his patients. His telephone number – because it is the home number of a family — is not unlisted; and his people can, and do, call him at all times of day and night. Obviously, we hope that that would not be abused; and, generally, it is not. On the other hand, it is impossible to find anything other than a highly-protective answering service if one calls any of the other parishes in this area outside office hours.
Anyway, and for what it is worth, I can provide a stack of anecdotal evidence which testifies to the 24/7 availability of the married priests as opposed to the extraordinary difficulty of finding other priests to deal with pastoral emergencies at night and on public holidays. Let me provide two (out of countless) true examples of what this has meant in practice.
First, on one Christmas Day some years ago I had finally finished a long series of Masses (of the Vigil, at Midnight, at Dawn, of the Day) at about noon. I was no longer young, and I was contentedly but truly exhausted. Knowing this, my son had assisted me as server/Eucharistic minister at this final Mass of the day, and had smoothed my way as far as possible. As we got home afterwards – looking forward, of course, to family lunch, the opening of gifts and so on – the telephone rang. It appeared that a young man had committed suicide that morning, and that a priest was sought. They had called every other parish in the area and could find no one. Eventually they called me because my family telephone number is listed, and I could therefore be found. Because of my exhaustion, my son drove me to the house where the tragedy had occurred. This was not a family from my parish – but, as it turned out, the young man had been at high school with my son, who knew him and his family fairly well. Here, therefore, there was an immediate human, personal, pastoral opportunity which came about because of the “family” context in which my priestly ministry is exercised.
The second story is more recent, concerning something which happened on the eve of a recent Thanksgiving Day. There was a young parish family who live almost directly across the street from my home (itself, of course, adjacent to the church). This family had a toddler, and they were fairly early on in a pregnancy with twins. Suddenly on that Thanksgiving morning, and without any warning, the woman gave birth at home to one of the two babies. Sadly, the little one lived only for a few minutes (but, happily, was baptized in that short time). The mother, with her husband caring for her, was rushed to the hospital where the second child was born. My wife took the toddler and cared for him for twenty-four hours until relatives arrived. When, late in the evening, the husband returned home from the hospital, my family shared our late dinner with him. Then, when he could not bring himself to clear up the after-birth and blood-spattered bed room, my son went over and did so. Forgive me: I find it hard to imagine a celibate priest being able – even if willing – to offer the kind of care that this priest’s family and household provided on this occasion.
Much of the argument against married priests seems to be based on a fallacy: that the ability to love, emotionally, pastorally, involves a quantatively finite commodity. Thus it is often alleged that the total availability and self-emptying that both marriage and priesthood demands preclude the undertaking of both simultaneously. But let’s think about it: does a mother of ten children have only a tenth as much love to give to each of them as a mother of only one? Some would argue that the ability to love increases and expands with the birth of each of them. Am I able to provide seventeen times as much pastoral care and love to my parishioners as compared with my priest-friend who has seventeen times as many people to care for as I do?
“There would be the possibility of divorce”, it is said. Sadly, because even priests share in the fallenness of mankind, that is true. However, the effects of the Fall on priests have been rather more widely noted in other and much more lurid situations in recent times. And I am optimistic enough to think that clergy divorce is not, within the structures of a vigilant pastoral care and authority, inevitable. It was virtually unknown in the Church of England, certainly, through my growing up and the years of my own ministry there (though things have, sadly, changed since then).
Someone has referred to the Catholic priesthood as “an eschatological sign”, and of course I wholeheartedly concur. But what sort of sign is most needed in our day? We live in a world that has absolutized sex. It is an age which rejoices in barrenness (homosexuality, abortion, contraception, “DINKS” – the “Double Income No Kids” lifestyle). Might one not suppose that consecrated fruitfulness and the example of happy and united family life lived in the service of the Kingdom of Christ is by far the most important sign that now needs to be provided?
It is pointed out that “Christ himself was celibate” – as though that were somehow to clinch the argument. Of course it does no such thing. If I may so put it, there was no option in the matter. Had Jesus married, but had no children, it would have been a perplexing and dubious sign as to the meaning and purpose of marriage. If he had indeed had children, then he would have established a dynasty – and the religion of his (and its) followers would have been something quite other than Christianity.
The subject of compensation for married priests is one that needs some competent research; and my comment on it is inevitably anecdotal rather than anything more factual. I can only say that my own compensation was modest but adequate – and, more importantly, very caringly provided. Furthermore, my total package was not vastly greater than that which is provided for the diocesan celibate clergy – although it has to provide for two adults and, in the past, for the needs of our children. In one important respect it is actually less: the amount which my parish set aside for some kind of pension provision for me and for my wife was significantly less than the monthly payment which is made for each celibate priest into the Diocesan Priests’ Pension fund. It should also be noted that my total compensation package was provided by a parish community which was less than one quarter the size of the next biggest parish in the area. In other words, if my parish could do it, almost all other parishes can do so.
Interestingly, in the English terminology, a priest is given what is called “a living”; that is to say, he is provided with an income (which is not in any sense a recompense, or compensation, for specific work done or the number of hours put in) on which to live, precisely so that he does not have to undertake “professional” work in order to exist. The understanding of priesthood is that it concerns “being” before it involves any particular “doing”. It is indeed a state of life: comparable to, and I would maintain compatible with, Holy Matrimony.
It has been suggested that there would be a tendency for married priests to migrate to family-friendly places, and to avoid ministry among the poor and in areas of high crime. In response to that, let me next say something of where the combined hundred years of married priesthood of my father and me have been exercised. My father, coming from a moderately privileged background and an idyllic youth spent in Prince Edward Island, went, after the horrors of the front line in World War One, to university and seminary and then deliberately chose to serve in a grim industrial diocese in the north of England. (He was never able, on the impoverished stipend of an Anglican priest, to afford to return home, even on the deaths of his parents.) Thus, when I and my sister were born in the 1930s he was pastor of an inner city slum parish in the worst of the inter-war years of depression and widespread unemployment.
Then, with the coming of the Second World War, my father cared for his people through the blitz. Night after consecutive night, as the warning sirens wailed and the bombs fell, he would leave his family – and many of the children of the parish who would otherwise have been without reinforced shelters — in the cellar of the rectory while he roamed the streets of the parish all night, caring for those without shelter, helping the injured and those made homeless by the bombing, giving the sacraments to the dying. Finally, on Christmas Eve 1940, the church, the rectory (in which my mother, my sister and I, were sheltering in the cellar) and the adjacent hospital were all severely damaged by bombs. Thereafter, leaving the parish in the care of an assistant priest, he joined the Royal Air Force as a chaplain – in which, incidentally, he gave distinguished and honored service. After the war he returned to that inner city parish – an area which by then was in rapid social decline, with all the pastoral problems attendant thereon. In addition to caring for that large parish, he also served as chaplain to a huge adjacent hospital; and there was rarely a night in which he was not called there. Nevertheless, he was in church and at the altar at 6:30 AM every day of the week.
And there was always the ready assumption that if, the civic community needed leadership in some secular matter, then the parish priest (the Clerk in Holy Orders — i.e. the educated one in the community) was the one who would of course provide it. Thus my father was not only president of the local cricket club (a game with which, as a Canadian, he was not particularly familiar) but also the one who chaired the process that led to the creation of a war memorial park, the building of a public library in the community, and the provision of covered waiting areas at the local bus stop. I, for my part, had many similar experiences, not least of which was the leading of a local referendum campaign in connection with the entry of Britain into the European Community (an activity which I have now come to regret, as things have developed)! I served for eleven years in a parish set in one of the London “new Towns” ministering to a very young and transplanted community, with all the pastoral demands associated with that. I also served on the government’s Social Security Appeals Tribunal, which provided adjudication in disputed cases. We carried out this varied and extraordinarily demanding ministry while we had families and small children — indeed, it was probably that very fact that enabled us to undertake so much, so often and so long, sharing as they did much of the burden and providing a place of respite and healing for the bruising which was sometimes involved.
My own ministry in the Church of England was all spent in inner urban parishes, with overwhelming social problems, moral decay and high crime. This is precisely the setting into which my children were born; and, in the absence of a church school, their experience of elementary education included attendance at a public school which eventually had to be closed because of repeated outbreaks of typhoid there. The fact is that I did not have to work in that parish; but that was the parish to which God called me and the bishop appointed me. And these very challenges of clerical family life – in the Church of England, at any rate – seem to have provided an upbringing to countless people who have given distinguished service to the community in the professions and in public life. It has been historically noted in the United Kingdom that a disproportionate number of those who have given distinguished service to the nation in the professions, in art and letters, in academic pursuits, in the military, in politics and public service, have been the children of the clergy.
Clifford J. Levy, in an article in the New York Times (March 23, 2010) wrote that:
“ …. in (Rudno) western Ukraine, many Catholic priests are married, fruitful and multiplying – with the Vatican’s blessing. The many feet scampering around the Volovetskiy home are testament to that. The family’s six children range from Pavlina, 21, to Taras, 9. In the middle is Roman, 16, who wants to be a Catholic priest when he grows up. Just like his father. Dad is the Rev. Yuriy Volovetskiy, who leads a small parish here and whose wife, Vera, teaches religious school. The Volovetskiys serve in the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, which believes that celibate priests are not necessarily better priests. …. Father Volovetskiy said having children changed how he approached his calling. ‘It helps me to view the world through the eyes of others,’ he said. ‘And it helps people trust me more. They see that there is a priest who has a family, and they see how we live. We are part of society.’”
An old friend of mine, a priest and a fine teacher of the Faith who is now long dead, used to say that nothing makes a man of you – not even service in the Marine Corps – more than marriage. And, I would add, nothing better prepares a man for “Father-hood” than the experience of being a father. I certainly would not claim that either marriage or fatherhood are essential for the priesthood, for I value far too highly the distinctive vocation of celibacy, and I have been greatly blessed by the teaching and care of celibate priests both religious and secular. Nevertheless, in an age where many have become “feminized”, not to say effeminate, I believe that the essential masculinity of the husband and father can make a very significant contribution to the renewal of the priesthood.
Certainly, we live in an age in which the world has lost its collective mind about sex. But I have two comments to make about it. The first is that if we lived in a society which had lost its collective mind about nutrition (as, I suppose, we do, given the ubiquity of obesity) the witness which the few sane people should give is not to starve themselves to death but to eat moderately and sensibly to the restoration of health and vitality, thus giving clear witness to what the purpose of the appetite for food actually is. And surely what the world (out of its mind, as agreed) needs most is the witness of true and holy marriages. My second point is to cry out in despair, once again, about the incredible notion that marriage is about sex tout court. Marriage is about procreation, about nurturing, about living selflessly, about companionship and community, about bearing and forbearing, about modeling in family life the Kingdom of God in miniature. Genital sex is a good, beautiful and God-given thing, which plays an important and significant – but, in terms of time, at least, a tiny — part in marriage. It is critics of clerical marriage who have sex constantly on their minds, not married priests. We eat to live; and, in a properly regulated household, mealtimes do not overwhelm the real purposes of life – though, perhaps just very occasionally they do adorn an occasion for celebration. It is like saying that Mozart was deplorable in that he consumed viennoiserie and drank chocolate rather than living only for his music. Mozart did live for his music; and his consumption of croissants, and probably other things as well, was entirely incidental to that.
The alleged connection between celibacy and the shortage of priests is debatable. However, I would want to add a couple of points. First, the Church in which the celebration of the Eucharist is rare and infrequent, and in which the lives of the faithful are not centered on the sacrifice of the altar, will be vastly different from the Catholic Church as we – at least – have known her. Second, I am convinced that to focus the problem of the priest shortage in the issue of the provision of the Eucharist, as is generally the case, is to obscure another vastly important aspect of the matter. With the shortage of priests, we are looking to the care of a Catholic community which (because of unnaturally huge parishes, with individual priests celebrating four or even five Masses each weekend) can participate regularly in the Eucharist, but has little realistic opportunity to go to confession frequently, is unable to get spiritual direction and will be deprived of the Last Rites. That is what the priest shortage threatens.
It is hard to contemplate such a situation with equanimity; and it is even harder for me to understand how such equanimity could be justified when a possible part of the solution might lie in the (relatively) minor matter of the acceptance of the fact that celibacy and priesthood are separate – though certainly neither incompatible nor indissoluble – vocations.
And, in the end, I think that the most telling argument for me is that a priesthood which contains both celibate and married men is that which is truly the most incarnational – so that the priest shares entirely with the families in his care in the matter of putting a roof over the heads of children and food in their mouths, and – as a family man inevitably and especially is – concerned with the quality of local schools and libraries, crime prevention, local press and television, and all the rest of the issues which are proper to community life. Such concerns would certainly also include concern about the cost of food, fuel and the basic commodities, housing and insurance (among other things) from which the celibate priest is largely, if not entirely, insulated.
A friend – a Catholic priest of Seton Hall — wrote to me some years ago: “It seems to me that married clergy bring the ‘familial’ into Church life in a way that is really needed. It needs to be said that this country is not ‘Latin territory’. ….. We should be out converting these people to the True Faith that is incarnated to them in an idiom (meaning a whole panoply of things) that will integrate their lives into a rhythm that is Theophanic. The way that casual barbarism is accepted is daunting. Nomads go where they can pasture their herds or find game, the modern nomads go where their jobs take them — away from family, church, school and roots. This whole pattern of life seems to be as accepted as death and taxes. An optional married clergy should draw people back to familial values.”
The whole question is set, pre-eminently, within the context of the priest’s mission and ministry. We live today in what Max Weber, the great German sociologist called a “disenchanted world.” What this colorful phrase means is that we live today with no socialized expectation of the evidence of God’s presence in the world. It is not a part of our collective representation. The Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins assured us that the world is “charged with the grandeur of God”. But society does not tell us that the whole creation is alive with proof of transcendent glory.
C.S. Lewis, in his last book The Discarded Image (1964) wrote that the medieval person who found himself “looking up at a world lighted, warmed, and resonant with music” has become modern man who perceives only emptiness and silence. It seems to me that we must come to grips with this situation and to recover the vocation of the priest as being one who enables persons to perceive the revealing presence of God in their ordinary lives — that is to say, the priest is to be an enchanter.
Urban T. Holmes once wrote:
“I have never met an enchanter who did not possess a certain wholesome earthiness. The Judaeo-Christian tradition has been its own worst enemy to the degree that it has incorporated into its own life that peculiar brand of Middle Eastern asceticism, characterized by an obsessive fear of the material world, which has been reinforced by centuries of recurring Puritanism. Its Christ is docetic, its sacraments are banal, and its sense of the holy is sanitized. The effective priest is not a dilettante or a ‘shrinking violet.’ The idea that ‘cleanliness is next to godliness’ originated with the rabbis of the Talmud, reflecting their anxiety over pollution. It strikes me as quite inconsistent with the Incarnation.”
Finally, if the Catholic Church is serious in its commitment to ecumenism – that is, to obedience to the will of the Lord that His Church should be one, so that the world may believe – it cannot avoid some eventual resolution to the celibacy issue. The married priesthood of the Churches of the Orthodox East, and of the Catholic Eastern Rites, not to mention the centuries of witness in the ecclesial communities of the Reformation, will not just dissolve away. The matter will have to be addressed in a way that gives due weight to both the celibate and married traditions within the priesthood – and, in fact, the Anglo-Catholic experience and witness in this regard may well be sine qua non.
Footnote: An extensive and thorough study of this matter has recently (2014) been published (by DDB Paris) in France. Celibat Des Pretres: La Discipline de l’Eglise, Doit-Elle Changer? is by Jean Mercier, an editorial writer for the Catholic weekly La Vie. As yet no English translation has been published.