Roman Catholic bishops have called for the Church to take the historic step of allowing priests to be married amid growing signs of liberal reform under Pope Francis.
The controversial issue is set to be raised at the next Bishops’ Conference after three bishops in England and Wales spoke out in favour of relaxing the centuries-old ban. Their comments follow signals from the Pontiff recently that he could be open to change on the issue and criticism of Britain’s most senior Catholic leaders for refusing to release the findings of a survey of their views on sexual ethics.
Married Anglican clergy have been allowed to convert to Catholicism under a special decree by Pope Benedict XVI, which saw the first ordinations take place in 2011. Supporters of a change say their arrival has been welcomed by parishioners and that relaxing the rules on celibacy could help meet the shortfall on clergy as well as providing a valuable pastoral insight into family life.
Speaking to The Tablet, the Bishop of Hexham and Newcastle, Seamus Cunningham, the Bishop of Menevia (Cardiff), Tom Burns and the outgoing Bishop of Brentwood, Thomas McMahon, all voiced their support for change.
Bishop McMahon, who has a number of married ex-Anglicans in his diocese, is a strong advocate of celibacy but he described his experience of married priests as “a very good one indeed”.
He said: “I think people in those parishes where they [married priests] have been placed have taken to them very well indeed. People look to their priest as a man of God, to lead them to God.
“If he is a real pastor at their service then it is rather secondary as to whether he is married or not.”
A spokesman for Bishop Cunningham said: “He [the bishop] hopes that the Holy Father will extend the present possibilities of ordaining viri probati (married men of proven character) to the priesthood… He feels that such a move would enable the Church to make greater use of the many gifts which married men could bring to ordained ministry and it would certainly alleviate some of the difficulties that result from the shortage of priests.” He is expected to repeat his call at the next Bishops’ Conference.
Bishop Burns said that extending those eligible to serve would send a powerful message on the importance of the family. “These married men would bring a wider experience and understanding to priestly ministry.