Among the select group of old friends back in Argentina whom Pope Francis rings regularly from Rome was, until her recent death, Clelia Podesta. In 1972 she had married his former colleague, Bishop Jeronimo Podesta, causing the couple to be abandoned by every other leading figure in a Catholic hierarchy that sticks rigidly to the line that priests must remain celibate. But not by Pope Francis.
Clelia Podesta – a mother of six – was outspoken on the need for a married priesthood and if Pope Francis, as an Austrian bishop who met him recently has claimed, is looking afresh at Catholicism’s rule banning the practice then perhaps her influence is being felt from beyond the grave.
Or it may just be that, in a church that has for centuries proudly declared that it is not a democracy, sheer weight of numbers advocating change is beginning to tell. To the ranks of supporters of a married priesthood has been added this Easter three of the Catholic bishops of England and Wales, who have come out in The Tablet newspaper in favour of a reform that is backed by overwhelming numbers of mass-goers, whenever polls are taken of their views. It undermines the authority of the leaders of any organisation, democratic or not, when the grassroots rejects its position on so central an issue.
It is tempting to see the glimmer of reform as another sign of the “Francis effect”, with the former Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio opening doors that had hitherto been locked. But a word of caution. Among those friends in Argentina who know him best, he is almost universally described as a conservative. “He loves his celibacy,” his former press spokesman Father Guillermo Marco told me.
Yet this is not an either/or choice. There can still be a place for a celibate priesthood as well as married priests, as happens, for example, in the Orthodox branch of Christianity, where the upper echelons of bishops are reserved for those without wives. The problem that Catholicism is saddled with is that it lumps together two vocations – to the priesthood and to celibacy, and so forces many young men who feel called to serve God at the altar effectively to deny their sexuality. Yes, there are successful celibates, who channel that energy into the service of others, but they are few and far between.
The cost of imposing this double vocation on all has been huge – in terms of individuals who end up living a lie, of the dramatic fall in vocations in recent decades in the developed world, and of those outstanding priests who have been lost. In Argentina, Bishop Podesta was a popular champion of the poor. In this country, among the hundreds of married priests who can no longer say mass in parish churches, at a time when many are closed because of lack of manpower, are outstanding and prophetic individuals such as the former leader of CND, Bruce Kent, and the broadcaster Oliver McTernan. How they are missed!
The situation is absurd. The ban on married priests is an invented law, not something God-given. Saint Peter, the first pope, was married, the gospels make plain. Compulsory celibacy was introduced in the 12th century to tackle disreputable behaviour by some married priests and their offspring.
And yet, for the past 20 years, a small but radical experiment has been running that has allowed married priests into Catholic parishes. They are former Anglican clergymen, who left the Church of England when it decided to ordain women and were given a special exemption to become Catholic priests. At my local church in north Norfolk we have been fortunate this past decade to have a married priest-in-charge. No scandal, no bad behaviour and no consternation in the pews. Indeed, the opposite. He is admired, loved and – though he’d be too modest to claim as much – a model of how it should be. As Bishop Thomas McMahon of Brentwood, one of the prelates urging change, said last week: “If he is a real pastor at their [the parish’s] service, then it is secondary as to whether he is married or not.”
Catholics rely on their priests for many things, and advice and guidance in life’s challenging moments is one. How much more natural, in a domestic or relationship crisis, to seek counsel from one who has some experience of that reality. I remember making this point to a bishop who was adamant the celibacy rule must remain. “But I know all about family life, too,” he protested; “I had a father and mother.”
That he didn’t understand the difference between observing his parents and trying to sustain a marriage and family life is perhaps the best argument for reforming this outdated church law. If it remains there will be fewer and fewer priests, who will be more and more divorced from the lives of their parishioners, and so will make their church increasingly irrelevant.
Peter Stanford is a former editor of The Catholic Herald