Belfast Telegraph

Micheal Kelly: Mandatory celibacy for Catholic priests has outlived what little usefulness it ever had

By Michael Kelly

There's a story sometimes told at gatherings of clergy about an earnest young priest taking up his first appointment. Fresh out of Maynooth, after seven years of study, the 24-year-old is appointed a curate alongside an elderly priest in a rural parish.

The elderly priest mentors the young man, and they get on famously. One evening after supper, the bond is such that the younger priest asks his colleague: "And celibacy, Father, when does that stop being an issue?" The older priest smiles before responding: "Oh, I don't know. I imagine shortly after rigor mortis sets in."

The story is most likely apocryphal, but its telling and re-telling illustrates a deeper truth. Many priests struggle with the Church's rule that they must remain unmarried and therefore refrain from expressing their sexuality physically.

It's something that is often shied away from. Priests are often unwilling to discuss it, lest they become subject of pity.

I spent a number of years in seminary in the late 1990s considering priesthood. Sure, there were lectures about celibacy from eminent experts, and we all assured ourselves that celibacy was necessary for the radical availability that is part and parcel of the life of a priest. There was even talk about how necessary celibacy was in imitation of Christ.

Looking back, I'm not sure to what extent the seminary system helped people internalise the life-encompassing commitment that celibacy is. Truth be told, I think most people there felt a profound call to be a priest, and just accepted celibacy as a necessary burden in fulfilment of that ambition.

"If you want to be a priest, you have to take on celibacy - that's the deal," I remember one long-serving priest telling me.

But it doesn't have to be, and the Catholic Church needs a radical debate about allowing priests to get married.

It would not change in any way the fundamental nature of the priesthood or the Church.

The apostles of Christ - men considered to be the first Christian priests - were married and had children. For centuries, priests, bishops and even Popes were married.

While it is true that there were always priests who freely chose a life of celibacy as a form of heroic self-sacrifice, the rule only became mandatory in the Middle Ages. Even then, it was only mandatory in the Catholic Church in the West.

Today, in Eastern Rite Catholic Churches, priests are routinely married and have families of their own. In Britain and the United States, Anglican ministers who convert to Catholicism are often ordained as Catholic priests and serve in parishes with their wives and children. It all contributes to making the rigid insistence that other priests must remain celibate completely untenable.

Following the reforms of the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, most people thought that the lifting of the ban on priests getting married was only a matter of time.

After all, the Mass was now in English, nuns no longer wore their habits and priests took to wearing leather jackets.

One priest who was trained in the late 1960s told me that when he was in seminary, all of his classmates just assumed they would soon be free to marry. It never happened and hundreds of men abandoned the priesthood in order to love and form a family.

Pope Paul VI infamously described such men as "Judas", but there's hardly a parish in Ireland where there isn't a man living who left priestly ministry to get married.

Many priests will tell you that they embrace celibacy joyfully and that, lived well, it is a beautiful thing. I can think of countless priests whose hearts are too overflowing with love for their parishioners to ever have a family.

Sure, there are sacrifices, but they point to the fact that people who are married often have to make huge sacrifices too. And no married person would disagree with that.

But celibacy is not easy to live well, and for those who struggle, it often makes their lives miserable. There is loneliness, isolation and oddness. Some priests turn to alcohol and other unhealthy habits in a bid to ease the solitude and heartache they feel. These men live what can only be described as lives of quiet desperation.

Will Rome change the rules and allow priests to get married? Well, it just might see that mandatory celibacy has outlived its usefulness. After all, in Church law, it is simply a matter of discipline rather than something that would affect the doctrine of the Church.

Pope Francis could end the rule tomorrow by the stroke of a pen.

He would face resistance from some who would see it as giving in, or just a further weakening of the Church's stance on a contentious issue. That is reactionary.

Celibacy is something that should serve a useful purpose in the Church, and could continue to do so for those who would freely embrace such a commitment.

On the other hand, for those priests who find it tough, or men who would consider priesthood but for celibacy, it could be the beginning of a more fulfilled life.

Married priests would also give the Church more credibility and moral authority when it makes pronouncements about family life.

For me, it's simple - Catholics need priests more than they need unmarried priests.

Michael Kelly is editor of The Irish Catholic newspaper

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