The following comes from a February 25 Catholic Herald article by Jon Anderson:
The Catholic Church is once again embroiled in arguments about whether priestly celibacy has a place in today’s world. As Catholicism in most Western countries faces a rapidly aging priesthood, a severe shortage of vocations and declining congregations, abolishing or at least relaxing the ancient rule has become a major item on the agenda of those who advocate large-scale change in the Church.
The sexual revolution did its work in the 1970s, when an enormous amount of priests left to get married. Numbers have never recovered, and the resulting shortage of priests has become one of the main pragmatic arguments for relaxing the celibacy rule. As the concept of celibacy becomes ever more marginal in our culture, it becomes much harder to persuade young men to accept that kind of discipline as a lifelong commitment.
There has also been the long-term effect of the sexual abuse scandals, which have widely, though not very convincingly, been blamed on the practice of celibacy.
While priestly celibacy is a law rather than a doctrine, it is still a very ancient one. Popes Paul VI, John Paul II and Benedict XVI all repeatedly stood by the traditional position and said clearly that there was no reason to change it, though Pope Benedict did allow for a limited exception for former Anglican priests with the creation of the ordinariates.
Pope Francis’s views on the matter remain somewhat opaque. In his book On Heaven and Earth, published before his election to the papacy, the then Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio didn’t appear to see any reason to change the existing position. However, there is persistent speculation that he may be open to persuasion on the matter. Vatican communications have done little to clear up where exactly the Pope stands.
In this confused situation, kites are being flown, especially in the wealthy and powerful German Church. Veteran Vatican correspondent Sandro Magister reports Auxiliary Bishop Hans-Jochen Jaschke of Hamburg as saying that, when German bishops met Pope Francis last November, they raised the question of married priests as a solution for areas with shortages of clergy. By this account, Francis “made no sign of refusal”. Magister also insists that the Pope is considering devoting the next synod of bishops to the issue.
There has been repeated speculation in German-language media over the last few years about Francis’s willingness to address priestly celibacy, not least the intervention of Austrian-born Bishop Erwin Kräutler, of Xingu in Brazil, who raised the problem of a lack of clergy in his huge prelature with the Pope. The bishop said the Pope responded by urging him to make “bold, daring proposals”. In 2013, Cardinal Karl Lehmann of Mainz raised eyebrows by speculating that married deacons could be ordained as priests in the not too distant future. And as far back as 2008, Archbishop Robert Zollitsch, then president of the German bishops’ conference, was speaking along the same lines.
Bishop Jaschke, in particular, has a history of calling for change. In 2010 he told listeners to German radio that celibacy was a “fiction”, and explicitly linked it to sexual abuse scandals, arguing that the requirement of celibacy could lead to an unhealthy sexuality. This, as I mentioned, has been a popular argument in recent years, but there is little objective evidence that celibacy has been a major cause of the scandals. In the secular world it is hardly unheard of for abusers to be married men – in fact, most child sexual abuse takes place in a family setting – and even in terms of clerical abuse, it’s not as if other religious communities with married clergy have been untouched. Nor is it clear that those men who are sexual attracted to children would be dissuaded by the opportunity to marry adult women. This is not to say that celibacy is completely irrelevant to the scandals, but it is obvious that abolishing celibacy wouldn’t be a magic bullet that would prevent future abuse.
There are also practical objections to Bishop Jaschke’s proposal. The main one is that, although it is presented as a practical measure to help deal with a local situation, there is hardly a country in Europe that doesn’t have a serious priest shortage. Ireland, which used to export priests around the world, now has to import them to fill its gaps. So, where at present celibacy is a norm with a relatively small number of exceptions, to loosen the discipline would effectively mean abolishing the norm in large parts of the world. If a shortage of priests is a compelling reason for change in Bishop Kräutler’s sprawling Amazonian territory, the same argument could be made in Western countries. Indeed, the shortage in Belgium has become so acute that there have been calls for laymen to be allowed to celebrate Mass.
Finally, there is the financial issue. The late Cardinal Hume once joked that, despite the theological objections to women priests, the Church could at least afford them, while it couldn’t afford married priests. The Catholic Church globally is famously asset-rich but cash poor (though this may not be a problem for the German Church, cushioned as it is by its government-collected church tax). Also, the Church doesn’t have centuries of experience of providing for married clergy with families as the Church of England does.
Ultimately, much of the pressure around celibacy comes from changing views of the nature of the priesthood. One significant shift in recent decades is that the centrality of the sacrifice of the Mass to the priest’s vocation has been eroded in favor of the view of a priest as a kind of spiritual social worker. Without denying the importance of being engaged in broader society, the liturgical tradition that sees the priest as standing in persona Christi is the cornerstone of the broader Catholic concept of the priesthood. Today, most Catholics do not know the theological arguments for an all-male priesthood, never mind the traditional reasons for priestly celibacy, so pragmatic arguments that don’t go against the prevailing secular culture are more likely to get a hearing.