Would the sky fall in if priests were married?

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Imagine if it was no longer a sin to get into bed with the parish priest. What if the next Pope let loose thousands of dog-collared men on a world in which romance with the Roman clergy has been out of bounds for nearly a thousand years?

Women's magazines would become obsessed with the subject. Priests, with all those New Man qualities of caring, leadership and responsibility, would be catch of the month. There would be features on "bringing Father back to meet mum", guides on "what to do when your man is busy over Easter" and advice on "brightening up the Presbytery". The men's magazine Loaded would probably celebrate with a special edition for the "Latin Lads" and an introductory guide to the intricacies of sex in a soutane.

The change, however, would probably not come quickly. "There would be great confusion if the Pope suddenly issued a decree relaxing celibacy rules," says Fr Michael Gaine, a Liverpool parish priest and former chairman of the Movement for the Ordination of Married Men. "What would Catholic priests do? Would they ring up the dating agencies or put an advert in the parish newsletter? Change would have to be slow."

There would be big problems about money. Catholic priests are poorer than church mice, paid pounds 5,000 a year on average. They also receive expenses; housing and food is paid for by the parish. But it all amounts to far less than the sums on which Anglican clergy already struggle - the minimum stipend for an incumbent vicar is pounds 13,250 with the vicarage thrown in.

The Catholic Church would have to find large sums if their men of the cloth were to support a family. A child, according to a recent survey, can cost pounds 20,000 in its first five years, an expense which alone would swallow up a priest's entire current stipend.

Then there would be the question of pensions. Catholic priests often die before they reach retirement (at 75), and if they make it to that age their pension is far less than those of their Anglican equivalents (who receive more than pounds 8,000 a year). If celibacy was made optional, provision would also have to be made for widows.

All of this recalls the original reason why celibacy became the norm after the 12th century. The Catholic church became worried about dynastic tendencies among clergy who were passing on church property to their children and so opted for the monastic model of priesthood.

But the financial difficulties of abandoning celibacy may be diminishing. The Anglican model shows that as women's earning power rises, marriage is increasingly subsidising Anglican clerics rather than draining their meagre resources - many Anglican vicars have spouses who earn far more than they do.

However, as Cardinal Basil Hume said yesterday, why should marriage be any easier a vocation than celibacy? A change in the rules would be bound to produce clerical divorces and questions of remarriage, all thorny issues which have dogged Anglicanism but which Catholicism has been spared.

The reaction of older clergy to the proposed change would be significant. "Imagine the distress of those who felt they had missed the boat," says Nicholas Coote, assistant general secretary of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of England and Wales. "How do you think elderly priests would feel if all the clergy were let off the celibacy hook? You can imagine a priest thinking: 'I'm 78 and I have spent 58 years of my life sticking to the rule of celibacy. Now I'm being told to go out and find a pretty girl. But it's too late.' I can see some very awkward situations."

A big question would be whether all priests would be allowed to be married or only future candidates. In the Orthodox and Eastern Uniate churches, men are permitted to marry only prior to ordination. "If existing priests were excluded from the dispensation," says Fr Gaine, "you could imagine large presbyteries having a young priest with a family and an older one not allowed to marry. It could create enormous personal tensions."

Those priests who voluntarily chose to remain celibate might also have difficulties. "Would they have no choice other than to join a religious order which retained the vow of celibacy?" says Nicholas Coote. "Priests would face a real dilemma, given the old joke of the eligible curate, chased by all the girls because he is so attractive. Would they wear placards when they arrived in a parish, declaring: 'I've taken a vow of celibacy. Girls stay away'?"

Perhaps Loaded would provide some advice on how to avoid the unwelcome attentions of the opposite sex.

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