Northern Ireland

Celibacy debate rages, but change unlikely

Bishop Edward Daly
Image caption Bishop Edward Daly has raised the issue of celibacy

Bishop Edward Daly has now added his voice to a growing chorus of Catholic leaders and commentators across the world calling for an end to the church's requirement that priests should remain unmarried and celibate.

Why he waited to the age of 77 to share this conviction with us is anybody's guess.

The Catholic Church in Ireland was quick to point out that the retired bishop of Derry is "speaking in a personal capacity".

Indeed he is, but he's not alone.

I presented Tuesday's edition of the Nolan Show and asked the public, particularly the Catholics in our radio audience, to tell us what they thought of Bishop's Daly's comments.

The response was almost unanimously in support of his call for reform.

In the past few years, I've lost count of the number of priests who have privately expressed the same conviction. Some have gone public, but most say they feel unable to speak out on the subject.

Perhaps the most highly-placed Catholic leader to call for a re-examination of the traditional ban on married priests is the Archbishop of Vienna, Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, whose former theology professor is now pope.

When, last year, he published an article which appeared to challenge the current rule of compulsory celibacy, Cardinal Schönborn was forced to issue a clarification: He was simply calling for a healthy debate. Some close to him later claimed he'd been nobbled by the Vatican.

Speaking out

But Edward Daly, as a retired bishop, has more freedom to share his current views with us than a serving Cardinal-Archbishop.

The argument he offers for changing the church's practice is an old one - it was considered and rejected by Pope Paul VI in his 1967 encyclical Sacerdotalis Caelibatus ("On the celibacy of the priest").

Bishop Daly said he is worried about the decreasing number of priests and the requirement of compulsory celibacy is part of the reason why so many otherwise well-qualified candidates for the priesthood are walking away from the church.

In short, the priesthood forces men to choose between God and family.

It is undoubtedly true that some young men currently struggling with what they believe is a vocation to the priesthood will, after painful reflection, decide that that requirement of celibacy is a rule - a personal sacrifice - too far.

A church divided

The controversy about married priests is one of the longest-running debates in the history of the Catholic Church.

Gregory VII, the great reforming pope of the 11th Century, is often described as the architect of clerical celibacy, but it is clear that the case for an unmarried priesthood was being made within the Catholic Church for centuries before Pope Gregory's reforms.

Supporters of the new rule found evidence for the policy in the celibacy modelled by Christ himself and in the guidance of the early apostles, including St Paul, who once wrote: "An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord's affairs - how he can please the Lord. But a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world - how he can please his wife - and his interests are divided." (I Corinthians 7: 32)

Since the 11th century, the Roman Catholic Church has required priests to remain celibate, while other churches, including the Eastern Orthodox churches, have permitted clerical marriage (though, in the case of the Orthodox Communion, bishops are required to remain unmarried).

The Catholic Church's rule is just that - a rule, a discipline, not a doctrine or a dogma, which means that the church is free to change that practice if or when it believes change is necessary.

Old subject, new debate

If this is an old debate, it is equally true that it is still a very current one.

That's because the celibacy issue has been set in stark relief by its relation to other contemporary controversies.

First, there's the clerical abuse crisis, and the widespread sense that compulsory celibacy is at least part of the problem.

This has been roundly challenged by the Vatican and by some recent academic studies.

In a major new report published earlier this year, researchers at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York concluded that compulsory celibacy itself was not the cause of the abuse crisis, but found that many seminaries had failed to prepare priests for a celibate life.

Others disagree.

The theologian Fr Hans Küng, who was stripped of his licence to teach Catholic theology in 1979 after he rejected the doctrine of papal infallibility, argues that celibacy is not the only cause of clerical abuse, but described it as "the most important and structurally the most decisive expression of the church's repressive attitude to sex".

Second, there is the fact that some Catholic priests are married.

Former Anglican priests who left the Anglican Communion after it changed its laws to permit women to serve as priests and bishops have been received into the Catholic Church by a special papal dispensation and ordained as Roman Catholic priests even though some of them are married with children.

I recently interviewed one such priest, ministering in England, who has nine children.

Galling

He's been told by the Catholic Church that he should live with his wife and family as a husband and father, without any requirement of celibacy.

Can you imagine how galling it must be for some Catholic priests to look on as their church permits some of their priestly brothers to enjoy a married life, while they are required to remain single, celibate and, in some cases, lonely and isolated?

Third, there is a vocation crisis.

Not in every part of the Catholic world, for sure, but in many parts of the west, including Ireland, the church is struggling to persuade young Catholic men to join the priesthood.

Where celibacy once looked heroic and sacrificial, it can now appear weird and unnatural.

Those may look like good reasons to change the church's practice to permit married priests, but I wouldn't expect change any day soon.

Clerical opponents will consider any reform an insult to those priests who have faithfully lived celibate lives (and there are many).

And it is a truism of Vatican politics that the Catholic hierarchy thinks in centuries, not decades.

More on this story