07 January 2014, The Tablet

The bishops' refusal to confront the priest shortage is killing the Church

by Michael Knowles

I could hardly believe my eyes when I read your report “Dioceses face up to having fewer priests” (The Tablet, 4 January). I wasn't astonished by the numbers provided from two dioceses, Birmingham and Northampton, of churches closing and the parishes being amalgamated, and of the meagre number of new priests being ordained and aspirants for the priesthood being trained.

The situation is dire across the whole Western world and everyone knows it. And it is totally self-inflicted. Before our very eyes the Church in the West is being stripped piecemeal, place by place, of parish and national leadership, and with it, of the full vibrant Eucharistic life Christ wanted for it.

No, what really astonished me, really and truly appalled me, was the hierarchical response. “Some of the changes that affect parishes will create a sense of sadness for both parishioners and clergy. However, we all are guided by the belief that our Church is not just made up of bricks and mortar but by the living presence of the Holy Spirit who guides and directs us all.”

What a pathetic get-out! Not only is there not a scrap of evidence that the Spirit of God wants his Church to be in such a mess; everything the Spirit of God tells us in his Scriptures proclaims the opposite.

The Word of God declares that “in Christ there is neither male or female”; it tells us both in Acts and in Romans that “God has no favourites”. And what's more, in the first sermon of the newly founded Church of Christ on that first Whitsunday, Peter said: “God says, ‘I will pour out upon everyone a portion of my Spirit and your sons and daughters shall prophesy ... and yes, I will endue even my slaves, both men and women, with a portion of my spirit.’”

The restriction of the priesthood to males has no God-given authorisation. His grace flows through every single one of the members of his glorious risen body equally like blood through our bodies. And the Magisterium and the hierarchy know this.

There are thousands upon thousands of Catholic married men out there – and not just ordained deacons – and Catholic women, both married and unmarried. There is no shortage of aspirants for the priesthood. There is instead a self-destructive blockage like that of an aneurysm that is bringing about a fateful coma within the Body of Christ. Let no one say this is the way “the living presence of Holy Spirit guides and directs us all”.

The mess the priesthood is in is bonkers. Imagine a major aspect of a business openly in decline brought about by the obstinacy and the clinging conservatism of its directors. What would its shareholders do? They'd bang their heads together until they ached and they changed their ways or got right out.

As the poet Shelley said in the Masque of Anarchy about the Peterloo Massacre of 1819: “We are many, they are few.” The Peterloo demonstration set in train the Great Reform Act that was passed 13 years later. It was a long struggle against oppression but we now enjoy universal suffrage. If we show the determination and courage of those demonstrators, the living presence of the Holy Spirit will guide and direct us to getting a renewed and revitalised Catholic Church.

Michael Knowles is a lay theologian and writer based in Congleton, Cheshire

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User comments (14)

Comment by: Pro-life
Posted: 22/01/2014 00:32:07

Edd, you say you *need* sex? Really? Celibacy is no harder now than ever before. Why should it be? People who respect themselves don't give-in to the secular sex-at-all-times-for-all-people-everywhere culture. 'Twas always difficult. Always will be. That's the point. Suffering and struggling are the crucibles in which holiness is fashioned. Aim high. Don't be content with going with the crowd. Celibacy is difficult but beautiful.

Comment by: John-Paul
Posted: 13/01/2014 12:44:20

@ Michael Knowles: The real danger is that we are being seen as just another NGO. But we are the salt of the earth, and this message is not reaching our young people. Read "Gaudium et Spes". If we truly live that, we will move ourselves to a place where the Spirit blows.

Comment by: John-Paul
Posted: 13/01/2014 09:26:48

@ Michael Knowles: Yes, gladly, please forgive the enforced note-form. 1. Theology. You quote the scriptures. But they are only half of Catholic revelation. Need to corroborate with Teaching and Cath. Tradition. Absent from your argument, so “wobbly”. Understanding: Spirit “blows where He will” (heart of theodicy problem). Not subject to “evidence” or “scriptural proclamation”. Also: these terms smell badly (read Mario Perniola; “Del sentire cattolico”). 2. Ecclesiology: a) faith is never “(nationally) leadership-led”, it is a personal charism lived in and through community. b) Church can never be compared to a “business” with “shareholders”, isn’t that self-evident? If anything worldly, Church is Nation (not a claim I’m making). c) Neither is Church a body-politic in any form. “Struggle against oppression” is completely inappropriate. You will not make Her democratic by using those means!
I agree with your analysis but do not recognise my faith or my Church in your solutions.

Comment by: Frank Bowe
Posted: 11/01/2014 15:01:37

I`m 85 years old and could see it coming 35 years ago. I can`t pretend to know the solution (only the Holy Spirit knows that) but at least those who govern the Church should be doing more than wringing their hands and closing Parishes. Perhaps they should have been asking "what is the spirit saying to the Church".

Comment by: Nytorv
Posted: 10/01/2014 17:20:01

I am disappointed that The Tablet has seen fit to publish this frankly heterodox blogpost.

I am going to skip over the topic of celibacy as that is just a discipline, albeit one which I regard as useful and desirable to retain.

That this author has seen fit to call openly for the manifestly impossible - the ordination of women, who can under no circumstances ever validly receive holy orders - is deeply disturbing and is not suitable for a Catholic site.

The teaching of the Church, as laid out by John Paul II in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, is entirely clear. It is that the Church does not have the authority ever to ordain women as Our Lord did not do so, and furthermore that the priest as alter Christus during the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass needs to partake of His maleness both in order to play his proper role within the recapitulation of the Sacrifice upon Calvary that happens at the altar and also in order to exercise spiritual fatherhood generally. Nor was this some whim of John Paul II: the Church has never admitted women to the ordained state (don't cite the deaconess Phoebe, as such deaconesses were not ordained and were intended merely to aid female catechumens and were not deacons in the sense in which we now understand the term). By the Church, I mean not only the Latin Rite part but also all other parts of the Church with valid orders, apostolic succession and valid sacraments (so don't cite Anglianism!). All Catholics must definitively assent to the Church's teaching

Comment by: Brendan Mooney
Posted: 10/01/2014 16:34:34

The shortage of vocations is nothing to do with the rules on celibacy and would not be made better by opening the priesthood to married men. It is more about the age in which we live. The idea of committing to something heart and soul for a lifetime, all for the love of God, does not come easy to people of our age. If life long marriage is floundering then it would make sense that the same must be replicating itself in the realm of priesthood and religious life (which have essential parallels with life long marriage). We need a sense of renewal, though I am sad to say, such renewal will likely only come about after a period of persecution when for some reason, faith revives itself again.

Comment by: Sara_tms_again
Posted: 09/01/2014 21:27:22

I like your aneurism analogy.

The Catholic Church is in thrall to idolatry of the Y chromosome. Idolatry as in privileging it above serving God. But the reality is that there is no plausible path to changing that in the near future. Married priests, maybe- I can see a route to that, via giving autonomy to the African bishops' conference. But where would we get a change in Vatican policy on women when Francis can't even see why anyone would think a woman Cardinal was a sensible idea?

So I can't see any other option for those determined to stay in the Church than living with that reality and accepting that talented Catholic women will need to take their talents to other professions- medicine, politics, journalism, academia, charity work- and fulfil their vocations there instead. And goodness knows, all those professions need talent- and emotional honesty.

Comment by: Patrick Hadley
Posted: 09/01/2014 20:01:50

We are supposed to believe that God never calls married men to the priesthood from amongst the millions of Catholic laity, but he does call married men if they are Anglican clergymen or Anglican seminarians.

So either God is a bit odd, or we have got it wrong and are refusing to accept people to whom God is giving vocations.

Comment by: Michael Knowles
Posted: 09/01/2014 14:02:05

Might I ask John Paul to point out, as adequately as he can, what is the 'wobbly theology and misapprehended ecclesiology' he attributes to my article
Michael Knowles

Comment by: Chris McDonnell
Posted: 09/01/2014 10:54:43

A poem by W H Auden, written in 1940, might well be applied to our present crisis and the coming difficult years. It concludes with the words: " Time tells you nothing but I told you so. We are drifting year by year with sticky tape solutions to a problem of great urgency.
It is time we all woke up and smelt the coffee. There ARE solutions, obvious ones, but we persist in ignoring them.
Chris McDonnell National Secretary Movement for Married Clergy

Comment by: Jim McCrea
Posted: 08/01/2014 21:04:07

There is no shortage of vocations. What there is is a shortage of courage, creativity and an openness to the changing way the pastoral needs of the church can be met.

: There may be fewer men and women entering the seminaries and convents but there are more men and women than ever with a sense of vocation about their responsibility for gospel values in their lives. (Eugene Kennedy, "The Now and Future Church", 1984.)

Comment by: rsantos
Posted: 08/01/2014 17:00:49

What makes this issue tough? Is it the hierarchy's feeling it needs to hold on to celibacy in order to hold on to its power and control? Is it our lay infatuation with a celibate priesthood? Do we find it easier to satisfy our need to be closer to God through a celibate priesthood than we do by working on behalf of the poor, for instance? But in fact canon law DOES already allow for the ministry of married priests in cases of just cause and the priest shortage which has gotten so bad is just cause NOW (see canon 1335 for instance). Sacraments and God's word does come first in Catholic theology- we only need to remember this and act on it. Visit the website citiministries.org for lists of validly ordained Roman Catholic priests in your area. Call upon a married priest, the power to bring the Church back on course is in your hands and our hands....married Catholic priests are conferring thousands of valid sacraments already.

Comment by: John-Paul
Posted: 08/01/2014 13:20:11

Glancing aside from the rather wobbly theology and misapprehended ecclesiology of this piece, I'm not at all sure that scolding the bishops will in any way ameliorate the malaise. Church draws her meaning out of dialogue with society, something that the Congars, von Balthasars, Rahners and Schillebeeckx's of the Council generation have amply demonstrated. Something of their initiatives even made it into the Council documents. But we (Church) are not being consulted. As we say in Germany, that is (here: would be) the succulent part of the rabbit.

Comment by: Edd
Posted: 08/01/2014 12:33:23

It is very difficult for young men to commit to celibacy now more so than ever! Celibacy is something which for some can be very rewarding and fruitful, but for others can be a burden. There is nothing wrong with having celibate priests, & it is very important to have our religious Brothers & Sisters who give their lives to prayer and contemplation. But I believe it is clear that celibacy is causing many young men to be unable to fulfill their vocation. Not because they are not getting what they 'want' by not marrying, but because they are not getting what they *need* to live a healthy and stable life. Marriage and holy orders can complement each other, a wife should not be seen as an impediment to ministry.

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