Married Priests and female deacons

Readers of this blog will know that at its core are the Science and Faith Columns which appear fortnightly in the Catholic Herald. In alternate weeks I post an item of personal choice, which is often designed to be challenging. That is so this week. Please note that for these and any other items I do not ask the Catholic Herald to take any responsibility for content.


I see that the issue of priestly celibacy is back in the news again. There has been a petition submitted to the Bishops’ Conference, and Bishop McMahon has spoken in public in favour of married priests.

It’s not a matter on which I feel strongly although, if pushed, I would opt for a relaxation of the rules. I honour celibacy as a vocation but I think that its true value is best seen when it is a choice rather than part of the job description. I also bear in mind the priests who have been laicised following marriage. I would hope that, if that were allowed, at least some of them would return to the ministry.

What I am unable to follow is the claim that the change is required as a matter of justice – because married ex-Anglican clergy are accepted into the priesthood. This is a very odd notion of justice basically operating at the level of a 10 year old child crying “It’s not fair” because a sibling has the larger ice cream. Justice is based on everyone receiving their due, not on equal shares for all. (Unless you’re a Marxist.)

There were good and obvious reasons for accepting the ex-Anglican clergy. And we have benefited much. But in itself, it forms no precedent. The arguments for dropping obligatory celibacy for secular clergy must stand on their own feet.

While I am in the neighbourhood of the subject I am quite clear in my opposition to the extension of diaconate. We should be working much harder to incorporate the laity into the service of parish life, extending what they are permitted to do. We should not be trying to clericalise them, as if there were an insuperable divide between “them” and “us” to be maintained to the last ditch. The official standing of eucharistic ministers as second-best substitutes appals me, for instance.

I have in fact no wish whatsoever to become a deacon. And, if I had, I would certainly decline on the grounds that here, certainly, the case for extension to women is unanswerable.

What do you think?

About Quentin

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6 Responses to Married Priests and female deacons

  1. fraynelson says:

    Well, you ask what we think. May I come forth to open–to continue–the dialogue.

    What I see missing in all these conversations about married clergy is a truly realistic approach to marriage. The tacit assumption, for many, anyway, is that getting married constitutes an all-round-win. Yet marriage is also a source of serious and quite lasting duties. Marriage often entails difficulties, clash of interest, self-restrain, humiliation, dealing with tiredness and boredom. It is not that celibate life lacks its own share of problems. My point is that it results plainly unfair to speak so frequently of the tensions and troubles of the celibate, and so little of the new troubles and tensions that come along with the commitment to live for a lifetime with another person–raising in the process a handful of children.

    And I don’t mean here the time-consuming aspect of the aforementioned but the existential burden that we all see in many married people. There is no reason to think that it would be otherwise for married clergy.

    Don’t get me wrong, marriage is fulfilling and a source of joy and stability for countless couples, but I’m just stressing what usually is not said.

    If I can go further, and put some spice on this, my guess is that many in the clergy long more for company and intimacy (in its various forms) than for family life as such. I have no scientific evidence backing my assertion, though, and my one source is having lived for more than 20 years among seminarians, priests, friars and the like.

    If my suspicion is correct, those who long for a wife but not for a family would be kind-of dis-serviced with just a loosening of the current discipline.

  2. claret says:

    I am of the opinion Quentin that you would have been better to separate the two issues of married clergy and diaconate rather than lump them together as one as though they are in some way connected.
    On the first I disagree with your view of justice in this matter. It is nothing about acting like a spoilt child. The rules that were once clear were changed. The Church changed them.The discipline was altered. The Church altered it. Celibacy as a precious gift of self-sacrifice in the service of God and the people was quietly put to one side for certain applicants to the priesthood. The Church decided to do this. ( As an expedient?)
    So why exclude men who would like to be married from doing so?
    Why say to God that we are praying for vocations but on no account should the call of the Holy Spirit be given to married men in the regions of the Western Church. ( ITs Ok, incidentally, for the Holy Spirit to do so in the Eastern regions.)
    Of course we could go a bit more controversial and say that it would be a good thing if the Church were to allow all those Priests who currently have women ‘friends’ and ‘carers’ to marry them as opposed to living as husband and wife in a celibate arrangement . (To give them the benefit of any doubt.)

    As for the Dicaonate I really don’t grasp Quentin’s objections. He says he doesn’t want to be a Deacon but if he did he would decline. As he doesn’t want to be one how does he know how he would re-act if he did?
    But being a Deacon is about committment. Any member of the laity can do all a Deacon can do liturgically speaking , and there is no limit on a lay persons spirituality. In fact a lay person can do most of what a Priest can do ( The Church in Korea flourished for 300 years without a priest in sight!)
    What separates a Deacon, and what makes it such a wonderful Ministry for the Church, is the committment.
    They make life promises that are sacred and binding over and above those required of a lay Catholic.
    Reason enough to value the Order that was given to the Church by the Holy Apostles themselves. (Having prayed about it!) Indeed there were probably Deacons before there were any Christian Priests.
    Deacons have a far greater input in many parts of the world than here in the UK.
    Was it not the African Bishiops who swayed opinion at the Second Vatican Council to re-instate the Diaconate as a Permanent Ministry?
    What is best for the Worldwide Church? Here in the UK we are simply a dot on the Catholic world. I have to say though that I have not met one Church going Catholic who has a Deacon in their parish who is opposed to that Ministry.

  3. Lucius says:

    I had a somewhat similar reaction to the cry of “It’s not fair” when former members of the Anglican clergy were ordained as Catholic priests. I didn’t think about spoiled children. My reaction was what’s the beef and it certainly is not a matter of justice!

    I remember going out to dinner with a group of priests who were outraged when a former Anglican clergyman who was married was ordained to the Catholic priesthood. They basically advanced the not-fair-argument.

    My reaction was that they were basically saying they never made any commitment to celibacy or they were not honest when they made the commitment that it was free and knowing gift to the Lord for the sake of the Gospel. They certainly had no right moral or canonical to marriage on the basis that someone else was ordained who was married.

    The Anglican cases were always exceptional and they intended no relaxation of the Western discipline. Since Leo XIII declared Anglican utters to be null and void, the ancient discipline preserved in the East was being preserved that men already married were being admitted to orders.

    As to the issue of mandatory celibacy in the West reasonable people can differ about whether that should be the case, but the Church over and over has made her mind known in this area. There’s something to be said for that because it is Christ’s Church speaking through Peter.

    For background on the apostolic origin of priestly celibacy Fr. Christian Cochini S.J.’s book is excellent, “The Apostilic Origins of Priestly Celibacy,” Ignatius Press.

  4. Frank says:

    I agree with Fraynelson. Marriage is a great – and difficult – vocation, just as the priesthood is. It is not a ‘panacea’ for celibacy.

    Priests, like the rest of us, do require friendship and companionship – but this can be provided outside marriage. When young men choose the diocesan priesthood, they do not thereby choose to be hermits; yet in our falling numbers of priests this is often what happens. In the old days, a parish priest would have a curate, or several i.e. a ‘community’. Today priests rattle around empty presbyteries, overworked, mocked by the populace, only sustained (or not) by their dwindling parishes.

    In my view, celibacy is not the problem; loneliness is. What diocesan clergy need is ‘fraternity’: with their priest-brethren, perhaps with religious houses, and with the conscious and strong support of their parishioners.

  5. Fariam says:

    It is an interesting question with regard to ex-anglican priests.

    Belonging to a small Catholic community where the state church is Lutheran, I have had people look at me in a puzzled manner when they learn that there are some married priests in the Catholic Church as they know that this is not the norm. I understand their difficulty: if married priests are not allowed in the Catholic Church, why and how can these men be ordained?

    I have also known a former Luther priest (deceased now) who converted and was later ordained in the Catholic church. The turmoil of leaving the Lutheran church and becoming a Catholic almost cost him his marriage. Later his wife and family followed him into the Catholic church. Following his ordination as a Catholic priest, his wife accompanied him when he served in our parish for several weeks once a year. Personally, I thought it was beautiful to see them together and witness their married love. I am also sure their married life gave him great insight as a priest. It was also evident that he received great support from his wife. As a result of this experience, I see a place for both married and unmarried priests/deacons in the church.

    But this priest also spoke of the price his family paid for his ministry. He was only ever partially there for special family occasions as his parishioners had to have first place. His life was dictated by his priestly commitment, and his family had to be prepared to accept that.

    I heard him – and the wife of the married deacon living in our parish – say that it must be the vocation of BOTH the priest/deacon and his wife or it simply is not possible. I have heard Lutheran priests say the same thing.

    Personally, I wonder if the whole issue of married priests is not idealized in the Catholic Church.

    I see a Lutheran church here where I live which has mostly married priests, inlcuding several women priests, and divorced and re-married priests, all of whom are paid by the state. Yet for all that, the Lutheran church is not without its problems. There are internal tensions between the priests which sometimes become major public debates, falling numbers, apathy, no unified doctrine or social teaching…

    This tells me that priesthood as such is not the real issue. The real issue is about engagement, commitment and living out our faith wholeheartedly. I think that when this happens, the whole issue of un/married priests fades naturally into the background.

  6. RBlaber says:

    Prior to my conversion, I was a ‘High Church’ Anglican, and like many such, was heavily involved in the arguments over the ordination of women in the C of E.
    Bishop Graham Leonard (as he then was, Fr Graham Leonard, as he became) was a chief opponent of ordaining women to the priesthood (and obviously to the episcopate, although there was no immediate prospect of that at the time) – but he did welcome the idea of women being ordained to the diaconate, and was, in fact, one of the first Anglican bishops to ordain women as deacons.
    As it turned out, the move was a political mistake, and the proponents of women’s ordination merely used ‘women deacons’ as the thin end of a very fat wedge, whereby they could achieve their long-term objective. Now, as we have seen, the C of E is about to have women bishops (the Anglican Communion already has an openly gay one!).
    There were some women deacons who were content to remain as deacons – they accepted that women were not called to be priests – but the majority believed otherwise, and believed otherwise ab initio. They were motivated all along by feminist theology, a sense of injustice, and a desire to assert equality with men. This is secular thinking, and conflicts sharply with Papal teaching.
    In consequence, for all that there may be no intrinsic theological objection to the extension of the permanent diaconate to include women, I do not believe it would be expedient to do so.

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