Page last updated at 00:54 GMT, Monday, 4 May 2009 01:54 UK

Time to relax Priest celibacy rules?

In some parts of the world, especially the West, the Roman Catholic Church is facing a shortage of priests. Should the Vatican act to resolve this crisis by relaxing the rule that clergy must be celibate and single? Or would allowing priests to marry lead to other, unforeseen problems? Two Catholic commentators argue the pros and cons of married priests.


Mary Kenny
Mary Kenny: marriage is not a panacea for personal ills

I know several good men who feel drawn to serving the faith and the people and who would have made excellent Catholic priests - if they had been allowed to marry.

This is such a loss to the Church, and the faithful. I am often inclined to agree that the rule of celibacy is obsolete.

Yet I have also encountered certain married clerics in other denominations who have struck me as rather too comfortably ensconced in the bourgeois life of domesticity.

Recently, a married vicar in a well-to-do parish that I know turned away an application from an addicts' self-help group to meet in the church hall; such undesirables did not fit into the parish profile.

But "undesirables" are exactly the people to whom the Christian faith should be offering succour.

If you seek comfort at every turn, the culture becomes decadent

A Christian should not live too comfortable a life: an ordained Christian minister should be ready to "take up your Cross and follow Me".

The faith is not about cosy living in nice rectories where the children can obtain a good education. It is about bearing the thorn in the flesh, about self-denial, about serving the kingdom of God as the greatest priority.

There is much emphasis now on what is convenient and comfortable.

Maybe there was wisdom in an eccentric warning against central heating heard in my childhood - we should sometimes "put up with" the cold, for the sake of our characters.

If you seek comfort at every turn, the culture becomes decadent.

There are strong arguments for a married clergy.

The Irish Protestant William Lecky called celibacy "a war against human nature". But wedlock is far from being a panacea, as many unhappy marriages show.

And there remains a heroic role for the priest whose life is dedicated to his vocation, his faith, and his flock, sanctifying conjugality and domesticity by sacrificing it.


John Pugh MP
John Pugh argues that celibacy does not automatically make for good clergy

Rational Catholicism believes that man has a definite nature ultimately fulfilled only by adherence to, and union with, his creator.

Part of our nature self-evidently is that we are sexual beings and fulfilling our true nature is what this life and indeed morality is all about.

No-one can ignore, disown or deny their sexual identity or the various and complex drives that come with it.

Donald Goergen pointed out in his book The Sexual Celibate many years ago that although sexual, maternal and paternal feelings and drives can be rechannelled opportunely and successfully by those sworn to celibacy, absolute denial and attempted elimination are fraught with psychological dangers and moral hazard.

Every priest is also a man; every nun a woman.

Given that Vatican II stated that a vocation to virginity is not inherently superior to a vocation to matrimony, it is not clear that there ever was a convincing theological case for a celibate priesthood; rather the arguments are pragmatic and traditional.

The very existence of a willingly celibate priest reminds his flock of a higher destiny for humanity than propagating one's genes (renunciation also boosts charisma).

The Church gains a relatively undistracted individual with modest economic needs.

However, requiring celibacy leaves us with a hierarchy whose knowledge of marriage, childcare etc is largely second hand; with ever fewer applicants, much underlying loneliness and embarrassment over the sexual transgressions of a small minority.

A robust response attributes this downside of celibacy entirely to weakness of vocation and points out that a married priesthood is not exactly free from scandal, difficulty, worldly aspiration and distraction.

Which misses entirely the crucial point that celibacy is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for being a good priest.

Judiciously relaxing the requirement seems hard to gainsay.

Print Sponsor

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Sign in

BBC navigation

Copyright © 2019 BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.

Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific