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Is a married clergy on Pope Francis’ agenda? I hope not

1 March 2015

4:30 PM

1 March 2015

4:30 PM

Pope Francis, is, according to Cardinal Walter Kasper – a Swabian formerly responsible for ecumenism – neither a traditionalist nor a liberal – “both of which categories have become rather timeworn and hackneyed” – but rather a radical who wants to advance a revolution of forgiveness.

Well, that’s what Christians are kind of for, even if most of us fall rather short of the ideal. But though the liberal/trad categories may indeed be a bit hackneyed – possibly because they’re completely and utterly lost on the secular majority — it’s not to say that the old agendas aren’t still being fought over with gusto. And right at the top of the liberal shopping list is a married clergy.

According to the Catholic weekly, The Tablet, after a mass earlier this month attended by five priests who left the ministry to marry, a campaigner for married priests made the case for the practice of the Eastern churches in which married priests can be ordained. In reply Francis said ambiguously that “the issue is in my diary” and “the door is always open but we are not talking about it now as the order of the day”. Really? There has been similar noises off, apparently, from the former head of the Vatican apostolic penitentiary, Bishop Gianfranco Girotti.


Now I happen to be against the idea, and I take a really dim view of priests who leave the ministry to marry (the married Anglicans who became Catholic priests are another matter), but my sense of revulsion against this line of argument is on the basis that it’s dishonest. As it happens, for the first millennium of the Church’s history, until the Gregorian reforms of the eleventh century, bishops could ordain married men (St Peter was married). Just the once; if your wife died, tough, you couldn’t have another. But what you couldn’t do was allow someone already ordained to marry. A nice distinction, I agree, since the upshot was the same, but the line was drawn there.

As it happens in the eastern churches the rule still applies, just like in the old days; you can ordain married men but you can’t allow ordained men to take a wife. So in the Lebanese Maronite church for instance, you find young seminarians around the age of 25 or 26 running around looking for a nice girl, beause after ordination it’ll be too late. Monks never marry.

All dandy, but if the liberals got there way in the Roman Catholic church and specifically in the Western bit of it, this old discipline would be unworkable because it would be incomprehensible. It’d be impossible to hold the line against allowing a parish priest to marry his lady friend if you ordained married men as priests (they can already be deacons), because most people quite sincerely wouldn’t be able to see much difference between one scenario and the other. And insisting that the two cases are completely different on the basis of tradition wouldn’t cut any ice at all. We’re used here to the Protestant way of doing things, which doesn’t make any distinction between ordaining the married and allowing the ordained to marry. If the church goes down this route, and I hope it doesn’t, then what you’re really talking about is a married clergy; end of. Pretending otherwise is dishonest.

Incidentally, I don’t think for a moment that this particular change of practice would have anything like the effect its proponents make out, viz, that it’d make the church more attractive to, more fit for, the modern world. You could have a married clergy tomorrow, plus women priests and contraception for all comers, and you wouldn’t win a single soul.

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