One of the most common arguments in favour of ordaining married men is that the Catholic Church in many parts of the world is suffering a priest shortage and it can’t afford to lose any more good men to marriage. Many dedicated Catholic young men don’t even consider the priesthood because they know that a life of celibacy is not for them; the ability to live without the possibility of ever marrying is not a gift they possess.
It is easy to tag the word “scandal” to the sudden resignation of Bishop Kieran Conry of Arundel and Brighton this weekend. The Mail on Sunday reported that he had an affair with a woman six years ago and the paper made allegations about the nature of his relationship with a 43-year-old married parishioner, although he denies their friendship was sexual.
In a message read out at Masses in his diocese this weekend he said he had been “unfaithful to my promises as a Catholic priest” – but he added “I would like to reassure you that my actions were not illegal and did not involve minors.”
So it’s a scandal in as much as he broke the vow of celibacy that he made when he was ordained at 25 and as a result of his affair, lived out double-standards.
Conry told the Daily Mail later he was “relieved” that his affair six years ago was now out in the open. “I don’t think people would say I have been a bad bishop. But I can’t defend myself. I did wrong. Full stop.”
His departure is clearly a loss to the Catholic Church – a personable, popular, down-to-earth pastor who did a fantastic job in the Church’s communications department. And it’s a blow to the Church’s integrity – but not a devastating one. Assuming Bishop Kieran has told the full story, his resignation highlights a fundamental weakness in the rules regarding clergy in England and Wales.
For around the table at plenary meetings of the Catholic bishops’ conference is a man who has been married for decades and has three children, and who has been a Catholic for three years – Mgr Keith Newton, whom Pope Benedict XVI enabled to enter the Catholic Church via an ordinariate for former Anglicans. In addition to three married monsignors and 84 priests in the ordinariate, there are 302 former Anglican priests ordained into the Catholic Church via the conventional way. Only those who were unmarried when they were ordained into the Catholic Church would have been expected to be celibate. Had Bishop Conry been allowed to marry, he would have been able to enter one healthy, public and lifelong relationship rather than ending up in the pages of the Mail.
It’s not new to point out that lifelong devoted Catholic priests must remain celibate while former Anglicans can turn up with their wives, children and home lives. But with the departure of Kieran Conry, the need to iron out this bizarre discrepancy – which is costing the Catholic Church many potentially good clergy – is all the more glaring.
Abigail Frymann Rouch is The Tablet's Online Editor