Australian bishop weighs pros, cons of married priests

Married couple holding hands. Credit: SunKids_Shutterstock
Married couple holding hands. Credit: SunKids_Shutterstock

.- The possibility of ordaining married men to the priesthood merits consideration both of its positives and negatives, Bishop Michael McKenna of Bathurst has said.

“I’m very open to looking at it seriously, and looking at it seriously does mean looking deeply into it,” Bishop McKenna told the Australian newspaper the Western Advocate. “It may be one of those areas where more latitude is given to individual bishops or perhaps national bishops’ conferences to decide on cases rather than every case having to go through Rome.”

“It can be more tricky to find a suitable married man to ordain than a suitable celibate man because it places very particular demands on the marriage and so not every wife is willing and able to be part of this,” he added.

The Roman Catholic Church, unlike many Eastern Catholic Churches in union with the Pope, generally requires men to be celibate, that is, unmarried, in order to be ordained to the priesthood. In the western Church, celibacy was increasingly common throughout the centuries, and became an official norm in the 11th century through a decree of Pope St. Gregory the Great.

In some cases, the Church does allow married clergy from Anglican or certain other Protestant traditions be ordained as priests following their entrance into full communion with Rome. These exceptions are made on a case-by-case basis, following examination by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and with the permission of the Pope.

For Bishop McKenna, however, the exceptions should not necessarily inform the rule. He observed that in many circumstances ordaining married men “really wouldn’t be in the best interests of the man and his wife or indeed the Church.”

“It’s one of those things that on the surface looks simple enough but like most things in life when you look into, particularly the pastoral practicalities of it, there’s a lot more so it wouldn’t be an overnight thing but it could well happen,” he said.

Bishop McKenna compared the ordination of married men to the priesthood to the formation of men seeking ordination to the permanent diaconate. This formation also requires a long process of discernment and preparation. Diaconal candidates are told emphatically that marriage is their first vocation and that if becoming an ordained deacon is going to be “troublesome” for their marriage, it is “best not to do that,” the bishop said.

“The practical pastoral difficulties are not insurmountable,” he told the Western Advocate. “You’ve got to be conscious of them and realize it could be done but there are a lot of challenges to work through.”

The Bathurst diocese, in New South Wales northwest of Sydney, has about 20 diocesan priests and several more religious priests serving about 20 parishes, the website Catholic Hierarchy says. The diocese serves about 70,000 Catholics out of a total population of 228,000 people.

While celibacy for clergy remains a disciplinary not doctrinal matter, the theological rationales for priestly celibacy have been advanced,  including the idea that the priest follows the model of Jesus Christ, whose spouse is the Church. The celibate priest can also be a sign of the beatific vision, as Christ himself said no one will be married or given in marriage in heaven. 

Pope Francis has previously brought the issue of married clergy into the news. In a March 2017 interview with the German weekly Die Zeit, he said he was open to the possibility of ordaining “proven men” who are married. At present such men, typically over the age of 35, are eligible for ordination to the permanent diaconate, but not the priesthood.

The pope did note that married clergy were not an answer to a global to a shortage of priests facing the Church. Instead he focused on the importance of prayer, of fostering vocations, and even of increasing the birth rate. He said that prayer is the crucial thing missing from contemporary life and observed that if there are no young men, there cannot be priests.

Responding to an interviewer’s specific question about the married priesthood, the Pope said “optional celibacy is discussed, above all where priests are needed. But optional celibacy is not the solution.”

Tags: Catholic News, Australia, Married priests