Britain is soon to ordain its fourth married priest — David McDonald. All four are convert clergymen — a special case argues the Vatican. Joanna Moorhead looks at moves to make it a general policy.
ORDINATION can seriously damage your health. Catholic priests are prone to burnout, and recent medical evidence suggests they could be at higherthan-average risk of heart disease, too. Psychologically, they have a stronger chance of becoming depressed, and might turn to tranquilisers or alcohol in desperation.
It is not simply the taking of Holy Orders which brings on these unpleasant conditions, of course, but the effects of a lifestyle which usually accompanies it. Living alone, and living without a partner, are the unhealthy factors in the priest's life.
These difficulties have prompted many within the Church to look anew at the issue of priestly celibacy, and to question its wisdom.
At the forefront of the promarriage lobby is MOMM, the Movement for the Ordination of Married Men. When it was born 12 years ago the organisation set optional celibacy as its aim, but
the new era ushered in with the second John Paul made the members less hopeful, and they decided to press only for married men to be made eligible for the priesthood. In fact many of MOMM's 500 members, like its chair Fr Michael Gaine, are more advanced in their personal views: "As far as I'm concerned," he says, "any mature Catholic should be eligible for ordination."
"Celibacy only became universally obligatory in the 12th century, and in the Eastern Catholic Church there have always been married priests. And, of course, we have had a married diaconate since Vatican II."
What happened, he says, was that monastic ideals of celibacy took over, and secular priests became more and more identified with the rule of the monks. "So it was, really, just a historical accident."
Historical accident perhaps, but hasn't the principle of celibate Catholic priests become so entrenched that the people of the Church would never accept it otherwise? Not so, say its proponents, not so: a survey of delegates to the 1980 National Pastoral Congress showed that two thirds of the lay, and nearly four-fifths of the priests present were willing to accept married priests. And, according to Michael Gaine, even some of the bishops who receive his society's twice-yearly bulletins have reacted favourably to its contents. "If only some of them would state their convictions openly. . ." he sighs. "It's certainly true, too, that a married man would have to spend time with his wife and children, but they would be a witness to married life, and it would also help them identify with married couples and their advice would carry more weight."
"I don't want to deny, though, that there would be problems — we'd have divorced priests and priests whose children are on drugs and so on. But you can't say we'll keep priests unmarried to avoid scandals."
In fact, believes Michael Gaine, the benefits to the Church of a married priesthood might include the very preservation of that central pillar of faith, the eucharist. "In some parts of the world the shortage of priests is so critical that the laity are denied regular or sometimes any participation in the eucharist. In Africa in particular, there is a trend towards 'Protestantisation', with regular worship centred on a liturgy of the word rather than on the eucharist. This situation is harmful for the pastoral life of the Church."
A married priesthood would not, of course, signal an end to priestly celibacy. Those who felt their call was to the celibate life could still choose it: in effect it would make the choice more honest and the vocation more valuable because it would be being accepted for itself, rather than as a price that has to be paid to follow another vocation.