13 November 2014, The Tablet

England can break new ground

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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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User Comments (3)

Comment by: Revd Norman Hart
Posted: 17/11/2014 04:52:54

As a married Anglican priest who is also married to an Anglican priest, I commend marriage as a great support for any person in ministry. Having a friend, a companion and often your most strident critic are a huge asset. It is brilliant that the Catholic Church is willing to consider ordaining married Deacons to the Priesthood. The only problem is that in doing so with care and discernment the distinctiveness of the Diaconate may be lost again. The Diaconate is an important stage for priestly ministry development but not necessarily the goal. In every diocese I have worked in in Australia we have a long discernment process with lay and clerical people involved to discern and affirm a persons call to ministry and then which ministry. The deacon involved, his parish, bishop and his holiness should all be involved in deciding any change. A good Deacon may not be a good priest, please be careful and prayerful in this courageous step, every blessing, norm Hart, Associate priest, Anglican parish of Euroa, Diocese of Wangaratta Victoria

Comment by: Togold
Posted: 14/11/2014 17:35:09

Every time I read comments on the subject of celibacy in the Tablet and other catholic publications I always wonder what future historians will make of this as they study the arguments put forward by those who wish to maintain this 'discipline' . Perhaps in the future their observations will seem as absurd as the arguments which once raged over the date of celebrating Easter seem to us now

Comment by: Cure d'Ars
Posted: 13/11/2014 19:16:22

There are arguments on both sides of the celibacy argument, but it is strange not to include several of the Eastern Rites of the Catholic Church, in which it is traditional for parish clergy to be married before they are ordained. Like deacons, they may not remarry if they are widowed and they may not - as in the Greek and Russian Orthodox Churches become bishops, which office is confined to celibate men. Please, from now on, in discussing celibacy, may we discuss this without beaving as though we did not have married priests in the Catholic Church before the influx of married Anglican clerical converts. We have had married priests owing allegiance to Rome for centuries. They have their own liturgies, cross themselves in the Eastern fashion and often resemble liturgically. Perhaps it is time to educate the laity to understand that the Catholic Church extends beyond the Latin Rite and that the issues surrounding convert Anglican married clergy are not at all new.

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