Page 3, 20th September 1996

20th September 1996
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Page 3, 20th September 1996 — Celibacy: one of the Church's singular glories
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Celibacy: one of the Church's singular glories

As I WRITE, I am about to do my seventh television or radio interview in less than 24 hours on the question of the celibacy of the clergy.

One extraordinary feature of the affair of the disappearance (with a divorcée considerably his junionr) of Bishop Roderick Wright has been the media fascination, not so much with the juicy details of the affair (these are in any case thin on the ground at this stage, and long may they remain so) but with the question of whether or not the kind of total and sacrificial dedication imposed by celibacy ought now to be relaxed as the normal requirement for ordination to the priesthood in the Roman Catholic Church.

My answer (much to the surprise of some interviewers) is that there is no case for change. It is because it makes possible that total and uncompromising dedication, it seems to me, that celibacy is such a precious possession of the Catholic Church. A priest is a being set apart for the purposes of God alone. He is wholly available for the care of souls.

A married clergyman (and I write with personal experience) has to balance his commitment to his people with his commitment to his wife and children. A successful marriage demands that time be devoted to it, time which is then not available for priestly duties.

A husband and father has to give his wife and children first priority. Providing for them is the main motivating force for his career. So the partial effect of marriage for a clergyman has to be that his vocation is also a career: he has to consider where he will go, whether the house is suitable, what the local schools are like.

Many places of great spiritual need, like the inner cities, are ruled out as places where he can exercise his ministry. A celibate priest travels light. He can set out for some new place where he is needed at 24 hours' notice.

Churches with a married clergy have their own problems. A celibate priesthood may be demanding, but so is the life of a married clergyman. There is a high rate of marriage breakdown among married clergy. The life of clergy wives and children is often isolated and stressful. Those in the Catholic Church who think that getting rid of clerical celibacy is the panacea for all our problems are simply ill informed.

None of this means, of course, that Catholic priests cannot be married. There are already married clergy in the Churches of the east; and in this country a special dispensation has been granted to those married former Anglican clergy who are to be ordained to the Catholic priesthood.

The arguments for this dispensation, it seems to me, are very clear: here is a case of special pastoral need, essentially temporary in nature. But I do not think it justifies a permanent change in Catholic practice.

The married former Anglicans for the most part will not have charge of parishes, where (apart from any other consideration) the sudden appearance of clergy wives would not be universally welcomed.

But the real reason for retaining a predominantly celibate clergy is that it is one of the Church's most singular glories. It is one of those mysterious features of Catholic practice that demonstrate to the secular world that the Catholic Church has a totally different set of values from anything that can be justified by merely human arguments.

It is what the Pope calls a "sign of contradiction" an indication that the Catholic Church has its own agenda, which is not simply to mirror whatever happens to be the fashion in any particular society at any particular time.

It is a sign in an age when so many Churches have come to do no more than mirror the moral fashions of the passing age that the Catholic Church thinks in centuries and not in decades, and that her real business is God's business and not that of the rulers of this world.




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