Bishops in England and Wales are in a unique position to approach Rome to reconsider its opposition to married priests, according to one of them who this week added his name to the groundswell of support for change.
Two more bishops – Brentwood emeritus Thomas McMahon and Middlesbrough emeritus John Crowley – have added their voices to that of retired Bishop Crispian Hollis, who in the Tablet's letters page last week called for “the logical step forward” to be taken by the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, and for an approach to be made to the Holy See asking for permission to ordain married men.
Separately, serving Bishop Tom Burns, of Menevia, has also lent his support for change. In a letter published today in The Tablet, Bishop McMahon writes: “It seems to me that what people are looking for above all else are good priests and whether they are married or not would appear to be secondary.”
He told The Tablet that he thought there was an argument to suggest that the Church in England and Wales was in a unique position to prompt Rome on the issue.“We are well viewed as a conference at the Vatican and we are not seen as extreme,” said Bishop McMahon. “I think we would have a very sympathetic hearing and we can draw on a very unique experience in this country.”
“We have fewer priests, and we used to have many; and many of our Ordinariate clergy are married. We also have married deacons,” said Bishop McMahon, adding that the feedback from ordinary Catholics has been very positive on both married Ordinariate priests and married deacons. He said they had been almost universally accepted, and showed there was no problem of acceptance by the people.
Also writing in today’s Tablet, Bishop Crowley backs married priests, saying that “the signals emanating from the centre are all in favour of encouraging open and serious debate on… vital topics” such as ordination of married men.
However, when asked about the possibility of ordaining married men to the priesthood, Cardinal Vincent Nichols said that he did not see it as a “pressing issue”. In a statement, Bishop Burns said that throughout history celibacy had been regarded as a high calling and even as a practical matter, given the responsibilities that a priest carries. Yet, he said, the majority of clergy were married until the twelfth-century first and second Lateran councils decreed clerical marriages to be invalid.
After this, celibacy was made a disciplinary measure, although for hundreds of years afterwards a number of priests and popes continued to marry and have children, and the Eastern Orthodox Church to this day has married clergy; in addition, Pope Benedict recently welcomed Anglican married clergy as Catholic priests.
However, said Bishop Burns, it was wrong to claim that celibacy should be abandoned because it was linked to child abuse, nor was there evidence that it should be abandoned to improve vocations. “Celibacy should be made optional,” said the bishop. “That leaves the way clear for the status of married clergy to be recognised in its own right as a true gift of the Spirit to the Church.”
In summary, said Bishop Burns, the obligation for priests not to be married was neither church doctrine nor dogma, but “a disciplinary measure dating from the twelfth century and potentially can be re-stated as a gift of the Spirit to the Church.”
Last year another serving bishop, Seamus Cunningham of Hexham and Newcastle, said ordaining married men of proven character would relieve problems caused by the shortage of clergy.
Above: Bishop Tom Burns