Charles Kingsley, the author of The Water-Babies, was a notorious baiter of papists. He viewed celibacy in our clergy, and that of John Henry Newman in particular, as a mark of effeminacy. “Cunning is the weapon which heaven has given to the saints,” Kingsley sneered in an attack on the future cardinal, “to withstand the brute male force of the wicked world which marries and is given to marriage.”
Newman fired back with his Apologia Pro Vita Sua – the most powerful spiritual autobiography since the Confessions of Augustine. “Her zealous maintenance of the doctrine and the rule of celibacy, which I recognised as Apostolic,” he wrote, “was an argument as well as a plea in favour of the great Church of Rome.”
But is the Church of Rome now ready to abandon that apostolic doctrine? That’s the question Pope Francis will put to our prelates at the Amazon synod in 2019. This sprawling, isolated region of Brazil has been hit hard by the vocations crisis: there’s just one priest for every 10,000 laymen. Charismatic pastors are moving into the void, and the country’s Protestant population has more than trebled since 1960. Animism is also enjoying a renaissance of sorts in the world’s largest Catholic nation.
The Holy Father thinks young men are willing to become ministers and shamans, but not priests, largely because of the celibacy requirement. He has suggested that viri probati, or married men of extraordinary faith, be ordained to the priesthood. “We must consider if viri probati is a possibility,” he told Die Zeit in March. “Then we must determine what tasks they can perform, for example, in remote communities.” That’s what the synod will be asked to decide.
Married priests are, of course, a possibility. Celibacy is a matter of discipline, not faith or morals. It can be constituted or revoked according to the Church’s needs. And while there have been practitioners of celibacy since the days of the early Church – including Jesus, of course – it didn’t become mandatory for the clergy until the 11th century by order of Pope Gregory VII.
The question is whether priestly celibacy is a good idea, which is why the fast-approaching synod will have implications that reach far beyond the rainforest. If celibacy is suspended in the Amazon, why not in Germany, which ordained just 58 men last year? Or Africa, where countless priests simply ignore the prohibition on marriage and take a mistress? The Zambian ex-archbishop Emmanuel Milingo, who was defrocked in 2009 for getting hitched in a Moonie ceremony, claims to be the spokesman for 150,000 clerics who are involved in such illicit unions. Why not reconcile them?
Frankly, the Church could always use more priests. If this is purely a question of expedience, there’s no reason to keep the celibacy laws at all. As the Jesuit commentator Fr Thomas Reese told Newsday: “Once you’ve opened it for remote communities, you’ve opened the possibility for everybody.”
The Amazon synod could become the most controversial convocation of prelates since Vatican II. True: Rome is still dealing with the fallout from the family synods, which critics called a stalking horse for liberalising Church teaching on marriage. But the conservatives’ most powerful defence against such a change has been Cardinal Gerhard Müller’s repeated assertions that “Amoris Laetitia can and must be interpreted in an orthodox way in the unity of Catholic tradition.”
In other words, this famously ambiguous Pope hasn’t posed a serious threat to the status quo – until now, anyway. Not since Paul VI banished the Tridentine Mass to the margins has a pontiff taken so favourable a view of modifying centuries-old tradition.
By no means, however, does this mean that clerical marriage will be embraced only by radical progressives such as Hans Küng and Sister Margaret Farley.
In England, the ordinariate has made a once-extraordinary phenomenon – licitly married Catholic priests – almost commonplace. As refugees from the increasingly liberal CofE, virtually all of them are solidly orthodox. Some surprising people are now asking: what if we’re pushing away powerful priestly evangelists? Why can’t a man serve on the altar and the PTA?
The retired Conservative politician Ann Widdecombe is no one’s idea of a liberation theologian. But she supports married priests. “In this country, hundreds of Anglican priests have crossed over to Rome and stayed married, whereas a Catholic priest must choose between marrying and his vocation,” she told me. “But I don’t think we should lift the celibacy rule wholesale. That would cause a lot of division. What the Pope should do, rather, is leave it to the archbishops and let it be decided on a case-by-case basis.”
Damian Thompson, editor-in-chief of the Catholic Herald, agrees. “A vocation to celibacy isn’t the same thing as a vocation to the priesthood,” he observes. “We already recognise that by ordaining married men who belong to Eastern Rite churches or were previously Anglican clergy.”
He hopes that married priests would solve more problems than just the vocations crisis.
“This is a delicate point,” Thompson says, “but I think the ban on marriage lies behind the dramatic over-representation of gay priests in parts of the West. Although most of these men lead faithful celibate lives, and I’m horrified by attempts to exclude gay men from seminaries, shouldn’t we address this imbalance?”
Then there are pastoral concerns.
“This is my main point,” says Thompson. “I know married Catholic men who would make outstanding priests. Ending compulsory celibacy would be a radical step but ultimately a far safer one than allowing women deacons, which would inevitably lead to schism.”
Lord Alton of Liverpool, one of Britain’s foremost Catholic laymen, also cites the Eastern Churches, most of which have never required their priests to remain celibate. “I have travelled in many jurisdictions where, for centuries, Greek Catholic and other Rites, in full communion with Rome, have married priests who faithfully serve their communities,” says the leading pro-life champion. “So, Pope Francis is acting in accordance with precedent and current practice in suggesting that diocesan bishops may base their decision on pastoral needs.”
England, however, is a special case – one that might baffle conservative Catholics in America. No other region of the Latin Rite Church has such wide exposure to licitly married priests. In countries like the United States, where factionalism is all-consuming, we will probably see a clean break in debate on the synod between liberals and conservatives. Africa, too, is likely to be divided between those seeking to appease the Milingo clique and traditionalists such as Cardinal Robert Sarah.
Indeed, Sarah earned Benedict XVI’s confidence – and, ultimately, his cardinalate – by his crusade in 2009 against prelates in the Central African Republic who broke the rule of chastity.
I’d like to go on the record as saying that I oppose any changes to Church discipline, as I imagine most Catholics do. And we have reason to be confident. Again, any ambiguity at the synod in two years’ time will favour the status quo. But that’s all the more reason to give those who support optional celibacy a fair hearing, especially those with solid conservative credentials. We have a rare opportunity here to prove that Catholics can engage in a significant debate with thoughtfulness and charity.
Michael Davis is the Catholic Herald’s US editor
This article first appeared in the November 17 2017 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here