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Clergy marriage
January 31, 2011, 1:45 pm
Filed under: Opinion | Tags: ,

These comments are provoked by posts on Fr Ray Blake’s blog about Priesthood and celibacy.

Is celibacy “intrinsic” to the priesthood, as Cardinal Piacenza has stated recently? Surely not, in view of the practice of the Eastern churches, including some in communion with Rome. Surely not, also, in that the New Testament clearly envisages that presbyters and even episkopoi will have wives and families. Without disrespect to the long-standing practice of the Latin Church, and without considering the historical factors that led to its adoption as a well-nigh universal norm, I would like to raise the following points.

Both Matrimony and Holy Orders are sacraments. Is there any theological basis for claiming that one is incompatible with the other? The vocation to celibacy is of a different kind to the vocation to priesthood (or indeed to matrimony, if that is regarded as a vocation). An individual may feel called to a celibate life, and if that is so it rests with them to live in this state. They cannot be compelled to marry. The vocation to priesthood is an ecclesial vocation, in that whatever the personal feelings of an individual, they cannot simply demand ordination as a right, but must be called to that office by the Church. Further, once they have validly received the sacrament of Holy Orders, they can assume that they are truly called, and that God will give them the necessary graces to live out that vocation.

Similarly, those who validly receive the sacrament of Matrimony receive the grace of the sacrament ex opere operato unless they deliberately frustrate it. Soon-to-be Blessed John Paul II taught that marriage is the primordial sacrament, instituted by the Creator before the Fall. It is a consecration of a man and a woman to the responsibilities of parenthood, “for the increase of mankind according to the will of God,” as the 1928 prayer-book puts it, adding in accordance with the 1662 book, “for the procreation of children, to be brought up in the fear and nurture of the Lord.” It surely follows that the procreative act, undertaken with the right intention, is intrinsically holy and an act of the sacrament, just as the offering of the Eucharistic sacrifice is an act of the priesthood.

It surely cannot be that the act of one sacrament is intrinsically incompatible with the act of another, still less that procreative activity renders someone “unfit” for the activity of priesthood in itself. The argument that must be made should rather be that the responsibilities of marriage and family life impede the availability of the priest in his pastoral activity. There is force in this, although family responsibilities are not the only impediments to this (and in any case are not limited to marriage- what of a priest who has responsibility for an aged or infirm parent or other family member?) It could be argued that giving a good example of family life is, especially in our modern society, a considerable help to pastoral care.

“Anglican patrimony” has for centuries included clerical marriage, and in my experience family responsibilities can enhance as well as hinder pastoral care in the parish. Perhaps instead of setting one pattern of priestly life against another, we should see that the Church is enriched by cherishing both.


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