It is estimated that one in 10 priests in diocesan ministry in the Catholic Church in England and Wales began his priestly vocation in the Church of England. Many of them are married. This is very relevant to the question increasingly being raised about the compulsory celibacy of the Catholic priesthood – compulsory except for former Anglican clergy, who are given a dispensation. And what makes it urgent is the growing realisation at all levels of the Church that the shortage of priests is gradually having a profound effect on Catholic parishes, who are finding themselves – often with little consultation – being closed, merged, or told to share a priest.
Some of the movement is due to population shifts, but the stark truth is that the rate of recruitment to the priesthood is far below the level required to replace men now in post. Many of these are elderly. The latest figures from seminaries in England and Wales show a slight upturn in the total of new entrants, but it would be foolish to regard that as proof that the crisis has passed. Maybe 2009 was a low point, but in that year the Catholic Church in England and Wales ordained just 13 new priests for diocesan ministry. The equivalent figure for the Church of England in that period was nearly 600. The principal differences between the two forms of ministry concern celibacy on the Catholic side and the ordination of women in the Anglican Church.
Maybe a Church with fewer priests is what God wants, forcing the laity to take their Catholicism seriously, including their responsibility for keeping the institutional Church in being. But it seems like an experiment to be avoided, certainly while there is an available alternative such as the ordination of suitably qualified married men. No new issue of principle would be involved, because of the existing presence of married formerly Anglican priests. Nor would the merits of celibacy have to be downgraded.
Pope Francis has indicated that he is prepared to lift the obligation of celibacy for candidates for the priesthood in response to a plea from an individual diocesan bishop or from a bishops’ conference. As far as is known, no such dispensations have been applied for or granted, but is it not difficult to imagine an existing seminarian finding himself having to choose between marrying and ordination. He may in all respects be suitable except for the barrier of celibacy. He will know of former Anglican clergy who are married, and eligible for Roman Catholic ordination despite it. He will also know of married Catholic deacons who can do almost everything a priest can do except say Mass and hear confessions.
Because of the successful arrangement regarding married former Anglicans, England is uniquely situated to pilot a modest experiment. It is not hard to imagine a bishop finding himself faced with having to close a parish church despite there being a married deacon in the parish. An application to Rome to ordain that deacon to the priesthood, if he is willing, would be by far the better outcome. Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor indicated recently that there are circumstances where he would do precisely that.
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