The latest culture war in the Church is being fought over the issue of mandatory celibacy for clergy. Those who have been agitating for a relaxation of the rules since the 1960s see an opportunity in Pope Francis considering the ordination of married men to the priesthood in the Amazon region. They see the admission of so-called viri probati as the beginning of the end of mandatory celibacy for the universal Church.
Of course, it would be no such thing. For many decades, former Protestant ministers have been ordained as Catholic priests and moved into the parochial house with their wife and children in tow. It has not affected the universal discipline on celibacy, and any decision on pastoral provision in the Amazon won’t either.
Ireland is a very parochial culture, and that is even more so the case for the Church. Global issues in Catholicism are often seen through the lens of local issues. That’s why some people here draw a ready comparison between the priest shortage in Ireland and the situation in countries like Brazil.
It’s as naïve as it is wrong-headed. Catholic communities in the Amazon may go many months without seeing a priest. In many of Brazil’s dioceses there is a priest-to-people ratio of one-to-20,000. In Ireland, it is more like one priest for about a thousand people (in Clonfert there is one priest for every 600 or so lay Catholics).
The Association of Catholic Priests is warning this week that priests risk becoming an endangered species”
Even with the vocations crisis, Ireland has a lot of priests. And part of the challenge for planning for the future is that Ireland has been substantially ‘over-churched’ for decades. Successive bishops decided the best way to keep the Irish religious was to make it as easy as possible. Churches and chapels of ease were built at virtually every crossroads to encourage regular and relatively effortless practise of the Faith and there was a ready supply of priests to service communities.
That is rapidly disappearing, and difficult decisions will have to be made about where and when to close churches that no longer serve a useful purpose. The Association of Catholic Priests is warning this week that priests risk becoming an endangered species.
No second thought
They’re not entirely wrong, but they’re not entirely on the money either. Will people have a Sunday Mass on their doorstep a decade or two from now? The answer is probably a ‘no’. But at a time when people think nothing of driving to a neighbouring town for the weekly shop or cheaper fuel, is a 35km round trip too much to ask of a Catholic to attend Sunday Mass? I would suspect anyone serious about their Faith wouldn’t give it a second thought.
As sure as night follows day, if the pope gives the green light for married clergy in the Amazon, a clamour will follow from other countries like Ireland where there is also a shortage.
But anyone who thinks allowing the ordination of married men will be a silver bullet that will see Ireland’s seminaries fill up with would-be priests will be disappointed.
The reasons why young Irish men are no longer queueing up to take on a religious vocation run much deeper than a discomfort with priestly celibacy.