Permission to ordain married men should be widened, according to three bishops of England and Wales who have spoken out following reports that Pope Francis would like episcopal conferences to put forward suggestions for reform.
Last week The Tablet reported that the Pope had relayed to an Austrian bishop serving in Brazil that “regional and national” hierarchies should seek a consensus on the matter and then go to Rome.
The news was welcomed by the outgoing Bishop of Brentwood, Thomas McMahon, whose diocese contains 20 former Anglican priests, a large number of whom are married. Similarly, the Bishop of Hexham and Newcastle, Seamus Cunningham, said ordaining viri probati – married men of proven character – could relieve problems caused by a shortage of clergy while the Bishop of Menevia, Tom Burns, argued that a married priesthood would be a witness to marriage and family life.
“I would be saying personally that my experience of married priests has been a very good one indeed,” Bishop McMahon told The Tablet.
“I think people in those parishes where they [married priests] have been placed have taken to them very well indeed. People look to their priest as a man of God, to lead them to God. If he is a real pastor at their service then it is rather secondary as to whether he is married or not.”
A spokesman for Bishop Cunningham explained that he would be making his views known to the bishops’ conference, who are due to gather soon for their Low Week meeting.
He added: “He [the bishop] hopes that the Holy Father will extend the present possibilities of ordaining viri probati to the priesthood … He feels that such a move would enable the Church to make greater use of the many gifts which married men could bring to ordained ministry and it would certainly alleviate some of the difficulties that result from the present shortage of priests.”
Bishop Burns argued that married clergy were already in place in the Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham – the group for ex-Anglicans – and said “this faculty should be extended to other viri probati in the Church”.
He added: “The proven example of such men being ordained priests (already seen in the Permanent Diaconate) would further underpin the value of marriage and family life. Whilst others seem intent on dismantling these building blocks of society, these married men would bring a wider experience and understanding to priestly ministry. The advantages far outweigh the disadvantages, whatever they might be.”
Bishop McMahon added, however, that married clergy would not be a “total answer” to the shortage of priests and that the discipline of celibacy should not be diminished.
A spokesman for the Bishops' Conference of England and Wales said it would not be appropriate to comment on a private conversation between the Pope and an individual bishop.
There was no comment from the Scottish or Irish hierarchies.
Above: Pope Francis, who told an Austrian bishop he was open to the ordination of married men. Francis at this morning's Chrism Mass in Rome blessed the sacramental oils and said that without Christ, priests are "very little indeed" and that the oil represented an outward-looking joy rather than a grease that "makes us unctuous, sumptuous and presumptuous". Photo: CNS/Paul Haring