Married priests are the wrong answer to the Amazon’s problems

A wooden floating church during a drought in the state of Amazonas, Brazil (Getty)

Yesterday, those of us foolish enough to trust headlines were given a brief spasm of panic when the Daily Telegraph ran an article headlined “Pope requests Roman Catholic priests be given right to marry.” Of course, he said nothing of the kind. Supposedly, Cardinal Hummes has made repeated requests that the Church in Brazil be allowed to consider ordaining some married men in answer to a severe shortage of priests in remote areas of the Amazon. The pope is alleged to have told Cardinal Hummes to “speak to the bishops [of the region] and make valid proposals.” These would then be discussed, so it seems, at the forthcoming Synod for the Amazon region in 2019

Let us be clear: no one, not the pope nor Cardinal Hummes, nor anyone else in any position of authority in the Church, is suggesting that “priests be given the right to marry.” There is a world of difference between discussing the ordination of some married men in specific circumstances, for which there is precedent, and the marriage of men already ordained, which exists nowhere in the Church. The Telegraph’s new toned-down headline is more accurate: “Pope raises prospect of married men becoming priests”.

Of course, there are some people who would like clerical celibacy to become optional everywhere. These tend, especially in the United States, to be the remnant of a 1970s generation of liberals who expected the post-Vatican II Church to reform itself into a socially progressive, and sexually permissive, form of Catholicism which was in tune with the wider trends of their time. They were left disappointed, and many of their number left the priesthood to marry and become social workers or psychotherapists. Those who remained still consider clerical celibacy as the icon of their frustrations, and the pointy end of a disciplined Church which drove their old friends away. Their arguments for a total end to celibacy often creep in to discussions, like the request by some of the Brazilian Church, which treat specific situations and muddy the waters terribly.

Behind their argument is usually a lazy logic which runs something like this: Because clerical celibacy is disciplinary not doctrinal, it can be discussed (correct); because it can be discussed, it is open to potential change (true); if it can change and hasn’t yet, this is proof of lack of “progress” in the Church (false); opposing such change is inflexible and doctrinaire (also false). It takes little or no account of the prophetic witness and dignity of celibacy and virginity in the Catholic Church, something which is fundamental to the Church’s teaching. It also presupposes that there is a long queue of men who would be priests, are desperate to be priests, but are not because they would rather married.

Leaving aside the lack of any proof that such a body of men exists, it raises the question: why is it a good thing to ordain people for whom anything, even the unquestionably praiseworthy vocation of marriage, comes before the ministry? It also ignores very real practical issues which would accompany a substantial number of married priests. Such men would, I’d assume, be living their marriages as a praiseworthy example to their flock, and would be generously open to life. But no priest I know could support a family on a clerical stipend, nor could any diocese I know afford to pay priests a living wage, or house numerous families in parish accommodation.

This is without considering the potential problems which could arise. What if, God forbid, a married priest divorces? Or what if his teenage children openly dissent from Church teaching while living in the presbytery? The current examples of married priests don’t settle the issue: in the Eastern Churches, they have existed for two millennia and institutions have organically developed to support them. As for former Anglicans, they were admitted on a case by case basis following considerable scrutiny. These small exceptions cannot make a case for the kind of disruption to the very fabric of the Latin Church which an end to clerical celibacy would bring.

As for the Amazon, is undeniable that there are far too few priests to meet the needs of some communities. (Some estimates have put it at the ratio of one priest for every ten thousand Catholics in the more remote areas.) But I am totally unconvinced that ordaining married men is the answer. Supposing that married candidates for the priesthood of proven quality could be found, there is no reason to think that they would be many in number – were there that many sincere vocations to the priesthood, it is unlikely they would all have forgone the chance of ordination for marriage. This being the case, they would be a drop in the bucket next to a ratio of one priest to ten thousand faithful. Making any real difference in the numbers would require ordinations on a mass scale, with concurrent lowering of standards and expectations for candidates – which would be a huge disservice to both the priesthood and the faithful.

Moreover, how many married men, presumably with families, would be willing to serve in these remote communities, in harsh conditions, and requiring significant travel between villages? It is hardly a life suited to raising children.

Perhaps a better answer, though not a simple one, would be a renewed appreciation for the vocation and work of missionary priests and orders, whose excellent work and proud history could and should celebrated much more loudly. The call to the missionary priesthood is a real and distinct vocation, and one we hear little about in the modern Church, where the essential work of evangelisation is often only spoken of as the post-modern need to re-Christianize the lapsed nations of Europe. We forget that many parts of the world are still mission territory proper. The needs of places like the Amazon would be far better served by a serious rediscovery of the Church’s missionary history, and by assisting religious orders in nurturing vocations, than by upending centuries of tradition and discipline in the hope of a quick fix.