Ireland: Priests Who Want to Be Husbands

By Giacomo Galeazzi
Vatican Insider
September 16, 2011


The association of Catholic priests, supported by an emeritus priest has asked for celibacy to be abolished. The issue has been hotly discussed for years

Another group of priests, Irish this time, is asking for the abolition of celibacy. The Association of Catholic priestshas publicly sided with those in favour of the abolition of obligatory celibacy, with the support of Edward Daly, Emeritus Bishop of Derry. "What has pushed us in this direction is the crisis in the vocations and a basic commitment, Fr. Brendan Hoban, the association's founder explained. Over the next ten to fifteen years, there will be a drastic reduction in priest numbers and there is no "Plan B." Seeing as the Vatican has created a new personal prelature for married Anglican priests, why not extend this possibility to the entire clergy?"

Clerical celibacy is a hotly discussed topic and not just in Ireland. In June 2009, when Benedict XVI spent two days confronting Austrian bishops who had protested in the Vatican, in favour of the revocation of Lefebvrian excommunication and hardliner Gerhard Wagner's appointment to Linz, the same problems emerged: a drop in the vocations and in numbers of faithful, strong polarisation between conservatives and neoliberals, a growing anti Roman sentiment, a series of scandals in the dioceses: from concubine parishioners to missing provisions from neoliberal bishops against the revolt of priests who demanded the right to be able to live with a partner. The Church always takes a long time in making changes but the desire to abolish ecclesiastical celibacy is growing inside it.

Up until now, priests who wished to ask for exemption from their priestly duties could only do so after the age of 40, declaring that they made a mistake in becoming priests and declaring the invalidity of their ordination. There was a tendency to put things off and keep silent. Things are slowly starting to change. The question of the ordination of married priests "can be discussed," the French cardinal, Emeritus President of the Pontifical Council of Justice and Peace and Vice dean of the Sacred College, Roger Etchegaray stated in November 2007, opening up to married priests. Over the past few years, important signs have been sent from the Vatican about one of the most thorny and controversial questions. The question could be considered, as it has been in the Greek Catholic Church, the cardinal said in an interview with French newspaper "Le Parisien". But it must be made clear that this is not a solution to the problem of the vocational crisis." Four years ago, these carefully meditated words reignited the hopes of those who have been fighting against ecclesiastical celibacy. The minister of the Clergy, Claudio Hummes supposed the abolition of ecclesiastical celibacy almost simultaneously with cardinal Echegaray. But the majority of the Curia then overruled this, with the intention of keeping the old disciplinary rule.

Some of the Sacred College's neoliberal leaders, such as the Primate of Belgium, sided with married priests. "Celibacy is a rule set by the Church, which can be changed," Cardinal Godfried Danneels said. A large section of the Church hierarchy, however, is against an end to celibacy. "The ban on marriage is such an old rule that it is impossible to alter it, Opus Dei's "conservative" cardinal, Julian Herranz warned. Herranz is one of the Holy See's top legal practitioners and President of the Disciplinary Commission of the Roman Curia. Of course, dogma is one thing, but laws are quite another. Laws can be modified, but that does not mean it is an opportune or suitable thing to do. The abolition of celibacy would seriously impoverish Church life. People prefer priests who have dedicated their lives to their vocation completely. The world is not all about eros and sex."

Celibacy is of "great spiritual and pastoral value" to the Church, as was confirmed at the meeting of the heads of the dicastery a year ago. This was laid on even thicker by the Italian Episcopal Conference's Religious Information Service, which said: "To the Kingdom on high, chastity is part of the "evangelical advice" Jesus gave to his disciples. This piece of "advice" slowly developed into common practice until the Western Church turned it into a law for priests of the Latin rite. Unlike the rules that guide the lives of priests of the Eastern order, including Catholics." Of course, "the Church's discipline can always be re-evaluated by the Church itself, unlike the truths about faith." Sunlight is a utopia for "priests in love" (eight thousand defrocked priests in Italy alone, over fifty thousand throughout the world) and for women who are sentimentally attached to them. "Vocatio" an association for married priests, said "we are families too, but we are rejected. In the name of respect for human rights and evangelical charity, we have three requests to make to the Pope." Firstly, that priests who wish to get married can obtain a licence more easily "without any humiliation and long waiting times." Secondly, that married priests can continue to carry out their priestly ministry, "in line with the Scriptures and for pastoral reasons, that is due to the current shortage of priests." Thirdly, that the Church's management becomes more democratic, with a functional decentralization and a more active role for women. "We are the Church of silence, complain Italian priests who have traded in their sacred robes for marriage. Married priests are driven away from their ministries and have to start their lives again from scratch. They are forced to look for a new house and job, banished from ecclesiastic communities or just about tolerated on its margins."

The license which allows priests to marry legally can only be conceded by the Pope: It is incredibly hard to obtain and waiting times are getting longer and longer. Paul VI used to hand them out quickly and with no difficulty, to priest who asked for them, but his successors do not. "The Vatican should compare priestly celibacy with the ordination of married men." A strong appeal was also made to the Curia by the group of Austrian bishops who attended a summit in Mariazell in May 2010. "We must tell Rome about our problem," the Bishop of Carinthia, Alois Schwarz explained, stressing the fact that this issue should not be ignored but "dealt with." The Bishop of Burgenland, Paul Iby, declared himself to be in favour of the abolition of priestly celibacy, also as a way of facing the drop in vocations: "Priests should be free to choose whether to marry or not. The Holy See shies away from such questions too easily."

According to the Archbishop of Vienna Christof Schoenborn, priestly celibacy, which is "unique to the Catholic Church," partly explains the acts of paedophilia committed by priests. The cardinal blames "both the education of priests and the consequences of the sexual revolution of '68, as well as celibacy as affecting their personal development," encouraging "a change of vision." Schonborn presented an appeal by Austrian Catholic authorities to the Curia, asking for the abolition of compulsory celibacy, the return of married priests to work, the opening of the diaconate to women and the ordination of the so-called "Viri probati". At the same as the Austrian appeal was being made, Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini added the abolition of ecclesiastical celibacy to the agenda of the Church worldwide. In response to the global whirlwind of the sex abuse scandals involving the clergy, the Sacred College and national communities (especially the Church in Northern Europe and the Third World) were engaged in lengthy discussions about whether priests should be allowed to marry or not. "What can the Church do to avoid new case of violence and sexual abuse in the future?" Cardinal Martini asked himself last year. "The Holy Father's judgement is always clear, the former Archbishop of Milan added, today, given the fact that our duty towards youngsters and the abuse committed against them scandalously contradict each other, we cannot pull back now, we have to find new solutions." "Fundamental questions need to be asked," and this also involves "a re-examination of whether priestly celibacy as a form of life should remain compulsory." "Central questions regarding sexuality need to be re-examined in the context of today's generations, the human sciences and the Bible's teachings," because "only an open discussion can give the Church back its authority, correct failures and reinforce the Church's service to man." "The idea of celibacy as compulsory for priests should be reconsidered," Cardinal Martini stressed to the Austrian daily "Die Presse". "The fundamental questions regarding sexuality must be reconsidered by engaging in dialogue with the new generations," Cardinal Martini clarified, explaining that "we must ask ourselves the fundamental questions again, in order to regain the faith lost."

And according to a survey, 92% of Swiss citizens are against the ban on marriage. "Hopefully this scandal will reopen the debate on compulsory celibacy for the diocesan clergy, as soon as possible, the Dominican Frei Betto, one of the fathers of the theology of freedom commented. According to the Church, marriage is a sacrament, just as the priestly order is a sacrament. Marriage and priesthood are not incompatible. It is the sexual taboo inside the Church that is contributing to the creation of a cultural background which favours aberrations such as paedophilia." Frei Betto hopes "that the Church changes its law on compulsory celibacy for priest as soon as possible." Even scandals, he said, can "prove to be useful" in order to make further steps towards the improvement of church life. "Priestly celibacy is not a dogma, but an ecclesiastical law that can be changed on the basis of historical, social and cultural facts, Frei Betto stressed. Mark's Gospel, for example, describes how Jesus healed Peter's mother in law, a sign that the apostle was married. And Peter is not only one of the twelve apostles but the one chosen by Jesus as the first Pope." Exponents of neo liberalism in the South American Church have called upon Benedict XVI on many occasions to convene a new Council, to abolish celibacy amongst other things.

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