In the eighteenth-century comic poem Cúirt an Mheán Oíche (“The Midnight Court”), the narrator expresses frustration at her lack of marriage prospects, berating the young men of her day for their scheming, selfish ways. In spite of an abundance of attractive young women eager to marry and start families, these lazy men would rather chase after the “old hags” with money and land.
The narrator goes on to describe another reason that reduced the number of eligible young bachelors: priestly celibacy. She finds it hard to understand why the Church would deny priests a wife, as so many of them would make fine husbands. These young men are fit, strong and handsome, yet they have no source of comfort or consolation at night except a stack of books! Towards the end of the poem, the narrator calls on the maidens of Ireland to take matters into their own hands, exhorting them to abduct the men to take as husbands—priests included.
The vow of chastity is still a bone of contention in the modern Church, as is apparent from the controversy surrounding the issue at the Amazon Synod. Pope Francis has expressed some openness to the Amazon bishops’ proposal that older married men “of good character” be ordained to deal with the shortage of priests in isolated areas. Yet there is a fear among many Catholics, lay and ordained alike, that allowing the ordination of married men in such an exceptional case could pave the way for a more general acceptance of married priests in the Church.
Priests in the Catholic tradition have almost always been expected to abstain from sex. Even in those brief ages when she did ordain married men, the Church always preferred her clerics unattached, so as the better to imitate Christ and more fully devote themselves to serving God.
Of course, that’s not to say that priestly celibacy was always effectively enforced. During the middle ages, it was an open secret that many priests—and even some Popes—fathered illegitimate children. Moreover, some of the clergy was practicing sexual solicitation in the confessional by withholding absolution from women unless they granted them sexual favors. While only a small minority of priests were culpable, this was bringing the clergy into disrepute and providing hostile Protestant writers with ammunition to use against the Church during the Reformation.
The Church attributes these cases of sexual abuse to indiscipline and licentiousness on the part of individual priests, rather than to the rule of priestly celibacy being inherently defective or too difficult to live up to. Thus, we see that, instead of abandoning the ancient custom of celibacy on account of the failures a small number of priests, the Church decided to tighten discipline by improving priestly formation and introducing measures to eradicate vice and strengthen virtue among the clergy. As part of the Counter-Reformation in Spain, for example, various penalties were introduced for clergy found guilty of sexual solicitation: removal of their right to hear confessions, public flogging, banishment to monasteries, defrocking and, in some notorious cases, execution.
Furthermore, stricter rules were brought in across the Church regulating contact with women. Priests were banned from giving absolution to women they had slept with and from attending dances and other forms of entertainment presenting occasions of sin. Their housekeepers had to be above a certain age. Bishops were told to keep an eye on who was living with priests under their jurisdiction. Young men’s suitability for the apostolic life was rigorously tested for the first time in the newly-founded seminaries where the historical foundation of chastity and celibacy was expounded: it was explained to seminarians that they were following in the footsteps of Christ—who, contra Dan Brown, never took a wife himself.
On the whole, this tough approach succeeded: in the centuries following the Counter-Reformation, accusations of sexual solicitation against priests dried up almost completely and the clergy’s reputation for chastity and piety improved greatly.
One issue that could arise by ending priestly celibacy would be the increased financial burden falling on the faithful if they were required to support a priest’s wife and family as well as the priest himself. In recent years, donations at Mass are down in line with a drop in attendance. If priests were allowed to marry, they would be expected to have as many children as God wills. We might reasonably ask those Catholics who are calling for married clergy whether they would be willing to fund these extra costs out of their own pocket. We should also consider the increased workload for priests with a family to support—especially given that they are expected to move location every few years depending on the needs of the Church.
The idea that young men would flock to the priesthood if the vow of chastity were discarded is also mistaken. Married clergy has always been a feature of Anglicanism, for example, but its vocations have declined in line with the faith itself. Very little of the British public now even nominally describe themselves as Anglican, let alone practice the faith. In contrast, groups that remain faithful to Catholic tradition are thriving. Priestly orders that adhere to the Latin Mass and emphasize the traditional deposit of faith—the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter, the Institute of Christ the King, and the Society of Pius X, for instance—have grown and are attracting vocations. Meanwhile, orders that embraced experimental reforms have gone into decline, with their vocations falling away. The fact that traditional orders are flourishing without having compromised on priestly celibacy should give us pause for thought.
As for the lack of priests in the Amazon specifically, which was the subject of recent deliberations by senior prelates in Rome, let’s not forget that priests have always been in short supply in missionary territories. In the first half of the 20th century, this was the case in Africa, where many European missionaries were needed to propagate the faith among the native people. When Catholicism gained a foothold on the continent, native men started to answer the religious calling and the need for foreign missionaries subsequently diminished.
It was never proposed that married men should be ordained to fill the gap in the meantime. The lengthy training required of priests was maintained and the basic principle of celibacy preserved. It was understood that standards should not be lowered or discipline relaxed to deal with a short-term problem. God’s mill grinds slowly but surely, as they say.