Bishops for married priests

Michael Kerrigan

The debate about mandatory celibacy and the ordination of married men, long effectively suppressed since Vatican II, has re-emerged under Pope Francis. Serving bishops have begun again to speak out publicly, many in favour of change. The author is a retired HMI of Schools, currently chair of the Movement for Married Clergy.

Although the Second Vatican Council was prevented from discussing mandatory celibacy for priests in the Latin Church, there was nevertheless a widespread expectation that change was imminent. But that hope was soon quashed by Paul VI’s encyclical, Sacerdotalis Coelibatus – and all serious debate effectively banned for the next 45 years, under the Polish and German popes. Those to be ordained bishop had to have ‘respectful acceptance of celibacy for priests’. This condition (together with others such as rejection of women’s ordination and acceptance of Humanae Vitae) ensured that the bishops appointed during this period were predominantly conservative in outlook – or at least had to behave as if they were. Very few bishops, therefore, publicly discussed the matter.

Others in the Church were not so cowed. The Movement for Married Clergy (MMaC) in England and Wales, for example, was founded and has persisted for over forty years, trying to persuade the bishops here to at least discuss the question, not only because of the implications of Vatican II’s clear admission that celibacy is not intrinsically required for priesthood and its affirmation that marriage is no less noble a state than consecrated virginity, but also in the face of the rapidly worsening shortage of priests. But there was – and continues to be – virtually no response from our hierarchy.

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