Catholic bishops in England and Wales are facing a fresh call for a national commission on the ordination of married men amid mounting concern that the church’s celibacy requirement is contributing to a shortage of priests.
The call for a review of celibacy as a condition of priesthood comes after Pope Francis signalled last month he was open to the possibility of ordaining married men under specific conditions. The issue is expected to raised at a synod next year on vocation.
The Movement for Married Clergy (MMaC) is renewing its call for a national commission of bishops, clergy and laity to discuss ways of tackling the shortage of priests. “We’re asking bishops to recognise the issue and examine possible solutions in good faith,” said the MMaC secretary, Chris McDonnell.
A recent editorial in the Catholic Times endorsed the call. “What has the church got to lose by establishing such a commission? Or perhaps more importantly, the focus should concentrate on what the church has to gain from such a move,” it said.
According to Catholic church figures, 25 men entered training for the diocesan priesthood in 2016 for England and Wales compared with more than 150 in 1985, although the pace of decline has slowed in recent years.
“We have a very advancing age profile of serving priests, and low numbers of people going into seminaries,” said McDonnell. “At the moment, it’s just about manageable. But in five years’ time it’s going to be very different. We want to use this window of opportunity to look at what could be done.”
Last year it was announced that a third of the 62 Catholic churches in north Wales would close by 2020 because of a shortage of priests under the retirement age. In January, Salford diocese said more than 20 churches across Greater Manchester would close and about 100 parishes would merge, partly because of falling numbers of priests.
The MMaC said Pope Francis’s comments suggested a new openness to the idea of married priests. In a separate interview, Cardinal Walter Kasper, a German theologian close to Francis, said the pope wanted to leave the decision up to local bishops’ conferences.
“The [vocation] situation differs so widely in different parts of the world that a uniform worldwide solution is not possible,” Kasper told a German church website, katholisch.de. Each bishops’ conference should decide whether it was in favour of married priests and then submit proposals to the pope. “I have the feeling that if their application is well-founded, it will be met positively.”
He added: “We simply cannot carry on with the situation as it is at the present … One cannot just go on clustering more and more parishes together into ever larger entities.”
Celibacy is a matter of church discipline rather than doctrine, and Catholic priests were often married up until the 12th century. In the UK, married Anglican clergy who joined the Catholic church in disagreement over the ordination of women have continued to serve as priests.
“I think the vast majority of lay Catholics would accept married clergy – particularly young people for whom it is a no-brainer,” said McDonnell. “But we want to be very clear that we’re not rejecting celibacy. If a man decides as part of his vocation to be celibate, we’d applaud his dedication. Celibacy and the priesthood should not be considered incompatible.”
Two of the church’s 22 serving bishops, Tom Burns of Menevia and Seamus Cunningham of Hexham and Newcastle, and three retired bishops have backed married priests in recent years. However, the bishops’ conference of England and Wales rejected a proposal to ordain married men in 2015.
Cardinal Vincent Nichols, archbishop of Westminster and leader of the church in England and Wales, has said he sees no need for change. “I don’t think we are in a [vocations] crisis in England and Wales.” he told the Irish Catholic in February. adding: “I personally value … the celibacy of the priesthood.”
Father Christopher Jamison of the Catholic National Office for Vocation said he had “no problem” with the ordination of married men, but “it does not solve the fundamental challenges facing churches today”. He pointed out that the Anglican church ordained married men and women yet still faced a clergy shortage and declining congregations.
Pope Francis has said the next synod in October 2018 will discuss the decline in vocations. Reports have suggested the pope wanted the issue of celibacy to be discussed but yielded to objections from his advisers.