RECENT LETTERS have presented some very misleading views on the subject of priests who choose to marry, influenced perhaps by some of the spectacular revelations in the secular press. The errors of these revelations and any injustice suffered by such priests and their wives are largely unknown. As one such priest, and a member of Advent, the association of married priests in this country, may I put a few points to redress the balance?
It is rare for a priest to completely abandon his vocation. The majority of us cherish and treasure our priesthood, as do our wives. Such media statements as — "he has left the priesthood" are both an insult and a theological contradiction.
This law of clerical celebacy is a man-made obligation and no part of the his Divinnum. Our Lord commended celibacy but did not prescribe it. Celibacy has always been optional for men and women.
Most scholars agree that this law is not of apostolic origin. Its first recorded prescription was by a local council held at Elvira, Spain, around 300AD. There followed a seesaw battle down through the centuries, resolved with great difficulty, in favour of legislation by the Lateran Councils I and, II (1123 and 1139) and finally confirmed by Trent.
There have been increasing doubts, however, as to whether, in the assumption of major orders, a candidate actually takes a solemn vow. Although many people take it to be absolute, vows are a very thorny subject!
Celibacy imposed as a condition of ordination appears
suspect, even unjust, and its value seems lost if it is not optional. "All Christ's faithful have the right to immunity from any kind of coercion in choosing a state of life" (Canon 219 New Code). What of candidates for the priesthood?
Church history illustrates, and the numerous exceptions granted by the Holy See confirm, that when priesthood and marriage converge, they are not incompatible, The Vatican II Decree on the Life of Priests, Chap. II: l6, on Celibacy says — "It is true that it is not demanded of the priesthood by its nature."
Nevertheless, when a priest does decide to exercise his right, up go cries of "sin" and "sinful union". From then on he is regarded as an outcast, a solitary rebel.
It may be difficult to quell this outcry, but it is also difficult to ignore the fact that, far from being a solitary outcast, he is a member of a very large section of the Church — 7,000 in Spain; 7,000 in West Germany; nearly 10,000 in France and 17,000 in America — as a few examples. One of your correspondents recently quoted 70,000 altogether. Now, there is a worldwide federation of married priests in the process of formation.
These priests still love thier Church, have never ceased to be devoted to the People of God, still serve in small ways where possible but seek recognition in order that they may serve more fully.
John Crawford-Leighton Essex