Marriage unlikely to solve priest shortage

13 Aug 2008

By The Record

By Anthony Barich
ALLOWING Catholic priests to marry is unlikely to be the instant fix for the Church’s shortage of priests or to rid the Church completely of paedophilia, a married Catholic priest has told The Record.

Fr Richard Smith, former Anglican priest now Catholic priest, says marriage causes all sorts of complications to the priesthood. Photo: Anthony Barich

Fr Richard Smith, who was received into the Catholic Church in 1997 from the Anglican Communion, says that he suspects the Catholic Church could change the marriage rule eventually. It might use the Orthodox model, in which priests must be married before ordination and bishops are chosen from Religious Orders. He affirmed that celibacy can enable greater pastoral involvement and care.
“Many priests would find celibacy useful as it enables a wider connection with people,” said Fr Richard, parish priest of Our Lady of Grace parish in North Beach.
“It can be easier to work as a single priest, because it is easier to be part of other people’s families. I believe that while there’s a place for some married men in the priesthood, there’s certainly also a place for celibate men.
“If people think marriage will solve the problem of a lack of priests, they’re well off the mark, because men will still have issues in their lives.
“Within the life of each priest is a sense of their vocation; of being called and a willingness to live that calling out, regardless of marital status.”
He says that a larger group of married priests will inevitably raise issues concerning clerical divorce, family life, children and the size of presbyteries.
“Family life has its own demands and as a married priest these demands often compete with the demands of ones priestly ministry. A married priest has to make time for his family and sometimes these demands come when there is also a compelling demand from the parish,” he says, adding that in the Anglican Church, priests’ wives have been expected to be virtual unpaid curates (assistant priests), answering calls from parishioners, making tea for them and looking after the parish ladies Guild and visiting parishioners.
“These expectations may not have been on the horizon when the marriage first began. The situation has changed in the Anglican Church now but none-the-less the pressure can still be there simply because it’s the wife or one of the children who answers the telephone or the doorbell.”
He conceded that combining his marriage to his wife Pam and the priesthood has presented its own set of challenges in his life.
“While Pam married a priest, I don’t think either of us fully understood the implications of that and we’ve had to work through issues. It hasn’t all been beer and skittles,” he said. “Pam isn’t expected to look after the parish, and if people want to whinge about me, she just says, ‘Talk to him’.  Pam’s chosen vocation is as a horticulturalist and she has her own life’s journey to follow.
“Pam is certainly interested in what I do and is good pastorally but I cannot expect her to be the parish pastoral worker.”
He also said that the way many Catholic parishes operate, having a married priest would “change the nature of the beast”, especially the way staff, parish council and other volunteers relate to the priest.
“A priest’s family would change the dynamics of parish relationships. There is a different set of demarcation lines. Time constraints are also different,” he said.
“Traditionally, parishioners have made sure that Father is fed and cared for, invited out for meals, maybe that his clothes are washed and so on… For a married priest the needs are different and yet in some ways the same! Adjustments would have to be made. Change can be painful.
“I sometimes think that the discussion on clerical marriage runs along the line that if it were allowed, then like a good fairy tale everything will end happily ever after. I do not think the reality is quite this simple.”
“However, there are issues and needs to be addressed and maybe enabling priests to marry could be part of the way forward.
“If clerical marriage is enabled by the Holy See and the Holy Father then some priests who left their clerical orders and subsequently married may wish to explore the possibility of practising as priests again.”
Perth Canon lawyer Fr Brian Limbourn said the obligation of celibacy is a “disciplinary law” that is changeable as priests could be married in the first thousand years of the Church’s existence after Christ founded it.
And because marriage has the caveat of openness to life and the fulfillment of the wedding vows in sexual intimacy, men who are considering the priesthood should simply not get married.
Exceptions are made for priests of other denominations such as Fr Richard, and are granted on a case-by-case basis according their individual circumstance. “It’s not something an individual bishop can change. Various countries’ petitions might be sent to the Vatican about the issue, trying to get them to discuss it, but it has to be a decision that is peacefully accepted by the Church throughout the world, not just for one region.”
He said such a change would have far-reaching implications for the Church, “like If priests started having families there are issues of the upkeep of the priests, financially supporting a family, would they be working part-time or fulltime… there’d be many questions that would arise.”
He said it is often non-Catholics “who don’t understand it” who are the ones agitating for change. “It seems to be just a very easy way to solve a very difficult problem,” he said. Fr Limbourn said the practice of ordaining married men to the permanent diaconate and the Eastern churches’ allowance of ordaining married men is often used as an argument, but it still comes down to society’s fixation on sex solving everything, which misses the point of the nature of the priesthood itself, rather than the priest’s “job description”.
“Everyone seems to think things are solved with sex. This is where the obligation of celibacy is a counter-cultural thing and very attractive as it’s showing people a sign of the kingdom of God,” he said.
“It’s not purely a pragmatic thing; there is a theology behind it too.  One sees oneself in terms of the sacrifice that the priest makes.”
While Fr Limbourn says he is “completely comfortable” in his celibate life, others say that celibacy helps the priest “focus on his relationship with the Lord Jesus and keeps his heart united with Him”.
Fr Limbourn, the former Dean of Studies at St Charles Seminary in Guildford, said he used to encourage students to think about who they are as a priest rather than the job description, “then you can draw a more profound picture of the nature of the priesthood”.
“That’s the question Jesus asked his disciples – ‘who do people say I am’. It’s not about what he does, it’s about who he is as a priest that’s part of his identity, and it’s part of my identity; part of my priestly ministry.
“The Church is good at holding together what it keeps and proclaims, and once you change something it might be a challenge to the priesthood and even threaten it as far as we understand it, as much as it might also enrich it.”