ANOTHER VIEW; The value of celibacy

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The Independent Online
The likely ordination of former Anglican married clergy as Catholic priests has sparked off several questions. What will it do to the Catholic church? Why insist on celibate Catholic priests in the Nineties? And even the dilemma suggested by the headline in yesterday's Independent: "First divorced Catholic priest sets poser for the Pope".

What difference will it make? It could mean around 100 married priests among more than 5,000 celibate priests in England within the next four years. The Pope personally asked English Catholic bishops to "be generous" in welcoming suitable ordination candidates from former Anglican clergymen, including some who are married. Those unhappy with the decision will undoubtedly include some who see it as weakening priestly celibacy, yet these rare exceptions have not had that effect so far. Nor are they new. Rome permitted a married priest in Germany in the Forties, and nine here in the past 10 years.

Some would like those of our own priests who once chose celibacy, but later left the active priesthood and married, to be free now to re-enter the priesthood. The welcome given to married Anglicans, while our priests were asked to abide by their original promise of celibacy, will unfortunately reawaken some of their unhappy memories. However, Catholic experience so far, including a little in England, indicates most Catholics would welcome the ministry of former Anglicans as married priests.

"Why retain celibacy?" is not a new question. Since Christ's time, it has been an outstandingly idealistic way of showing we are made to live not only in the here and now of this world, but also in the next life, with God. That has made it a constant challenge to succeeding generations. (It made my RAF colleagues think I was "mad".)

Being celibate enables priests to serve their people much more flexibly, moving to places of real need and giving themselves freely, fully and generously to their work. It's not a discipline the present Pope alone wants; all the bishops of the Catholic church strongly reaffirmed it at the Vatican II Council in the Sixties and their representative international Synod of Bishops has done the same at least twice since. Celibacy has proved its worth, but the church is flexible enough to make occasional exceptions.

If a married priest and his wife decide to part, they have to decide what is best for their family, like anyone else. As Catholic Christians, they will not be free to marry someone else. Moreover, those who have been ordained have already undertaken not to marry again.

The Catholic ordination of former Anglican clergy is not principally a problem. Those selected, whether married or celibate, will enrich Catholic priesthood, as many of us have done, by bringing to it their varied experience.

The Rt Rev Hugh Lindsay retired as RC Bishop of Hexham and Newcastle in 1992.