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It's not celibacy but lack of faith which hits vocations

Edward Daly is a well-respected bishop whose life-long ministry in the North has been boiled down in recent days to just one thing - namely his support for a married clergy.

Precisely because he is both well-known and well-respected, his call on the Catholic church to consider allowing priests to marry received extensive coverage in the media over the last few days, and it overshadowed everything else in his new book, which deals with his time as Bishop of Derry from 1974, through to his retirement in 1993 and beyond.

Towards the very end of his memoirs - A Troubled See - he wonders why, "whenever commitment to the priesthood or to the church is mentioned, sexual morality, for some strange reason, seems to be the touchstone and overridicriterion".

He asks himself "why celibacy should be the great and unyielding arbiter, the paradigm of diocesan priesthood", and why other factors like "prayerfulness, conviction in the faith, knowledge of the faith" etc are not considered as important.

He laments all the good men who left the priesthood down the years to get married, and he seems to think allowing priests to marry would be one way to address the vocations crisis.

Certainly the call for married priests chimes very well with the times we live in because we think sex is so central to life that we end up regarding celibacy as being somehow unnatural.

In places like India, religious celibacy is seen as a sacrifice to make for the sake of devoting yourself to following God above all things. That is why religious celibacy is still greatly respected there, as well as in Buddhist countries like Thailand.

As mentioned, Bishop Daly wonders why celibacy should be the "great and unyielding arbiter" as distinct from other factors like prayerfulness. But it's not an 'either/or', and prayerfulness is obviously much more important than celibacy. But you can have both.

In fact, the rule of celibacy isn't ultimately about denying sex at all. It's more about giving up having a family of your own and therefore putting yourself 100% at the service of the Gospel and the Christian community. Any cleric with a family has to divide their time between their family and their congregation. That is both obvious and unavoidable.

What about the scandals though? Surely celibacy is one of the major reasons why priests abused children?

Well, if that's so then surely celibate lay people, who often don't want to be celibate, are as big a threat to children. But does anyone really believe that? In any case, there isn't a scintilla of evidence that celibate people are more likely to abuse children than non-celibates.

Bishop Daly is of course correct to say that good priests resigned from ministry to get married. But married clergy of other churches also leave ministry and in substantial numbers. Also, married clergy sometimes get divorced. What would happen then? Would we then hear a demand to allow divorced priests to carry on as before and not leave the priesthood at all?

What about vocations? It is probably true that if the Catholic church allowed priests to marry it would attract a few more men to the priesthood. The biggest reason for the vocations crisis, one that has affected all the churches in both parts of Ireland whether they have married clergy or not, is the crisis of faith caused by secularisation.

Far fewer Irish people view life through a religious prism than was once the case and that is obviously going to have a huge effect on vocations.