Taken from the Catholic Universe 17 November 2013
The topic of clerical celibacy has been hotly debated on the letters page of the Universe of late and I’ve been intrigued to note the general theme has been overwhelmingly in favour of the notion that the Catholic Church ought to change her discipline regarding whether or not priests may marry.
It’s an issue in which I have a degree of personal investment; as my bio notes, my husband is currently in the process of formation awaiting ordination to the Catholic priesthood, following fourteen years of ministry as an Anglican vicar.
While one might automatically assume that I would be a natural advocate for a married priesthood, the reality is that I find discussion of the subject rather uncomfortable for a variety of reasons, not least because I am not wholly convinced that a married priesthood is in the best interests of the church, and because I find myself agreeing with St Paul not least in terms of the divided heart. Which arguably makes me something of a hypocrite!
From the point of view of a clergy spouse, one of the most irritating aspects is that the whole debate centres around the man himself and the benefits to him and thus his vocation of priesthood, of being married, many of which raise the canard of the benefits of a regular sex-life. The pedophile scandal has propagated a flawed narrative which holds that if a man is married he will therefore be enjoying frequent bouts of sexual activity and therefore less likely to go out and abuse children.
Leaving aside the fanciful notion that marriage is a guarantee of regular sex, statistics demonstrate that married men are just as likely to commit sexual offences as those who are single. There is no evidence to suggest that healthy heterosexual men develop erotic attractions to children or adolescents as a result of abstinence and even if there were, this would not excuse the heinous crime of sexual abuse. The other disturbing aspect of this line of thinking is that it validates the misguided idea that sex is a basic human need, on a par with food, water, shelter and rest. I’m yet to hear of the case of a man or woman who died as a direct result of lack of sex, and it’s more than a little insulting to the many millions of people who manage to live happy and fulfilled lives of celibacy, to suggest that there may actually be something wrong with them for not desiring sexual intimacy. The message that sexual intimacy is a necessary part of adult life runs is in direct opposition to Catholic teaching and one we should strongly reject.
From my perspective, what I find enormously offensive about all of the arguments surrounding married priests is that no matter how well-meaning people are, they inadvertently take on a misogynist tone, in that the clergy wife herself is never considered as person, she is always reduced to the status of a chattel and often by those who would no doubt otherwise consider themselves bastions of a progressive attitude. It is beyond abhorrent to be referred to as some sort of faceless sexual object, there to fulfil one’s husband’s sexual needs in order to make him a more rounded person. Christ set the standard of celibacy, I don’t remember anything in the Gospels about needing to use women as either sexual or domestic objects in order to build up the Kingdom of Heaven.
What is never mentioned and definitely needs to be borne in mind is that being a clergy wife is a tough call and a vocation in and of itself. Wives have to innately understand the demands of priesthood, this is not merely a job to put bread on the table, it is an indelible mark on the soul, your husband has responsibility for the care of souls and therefore it requires more self-sacrifice than in other marriages. On a practical level you have to accept that your husband probably won’t be there most evenings, a phone call or knock at the door means that children’s parents evenings will need to take second place to administering the sacrament to the sick or dying, weekends will be a wash-out, especially during the summer wedding season, you’ll need to run an open-house, keep a well-stocked larder, take full responsibility for childcare and accept the fact that your husband will not be able to retire until he is 75. In addition you will feel under constant scrutiny and pressure to be modelling the perfect example of family life and domesticity at the same time as trying to make oneself as inconspicuous as possible, in order not to be seen to be trailblazing a path or making some kind of political point about the merits of a married clergy.
Being married to a priest means that one needs to be able to support and not impede his ministry, so that on the terrible day of judgement, I will not be complicit in having prevented my husband in shepherding his flock. That’s not a responsibility, I, or any clergy wife I know, take lightly.
I never imagined I would wind up married to a Catholic priest, but life as an Anglican vicar’s wife has been a good preparation for the role. Convert clergy wives go into this with their eyes open and have to endure a great deal of personal upheaval and sacrifice before their husbands are even ordained.
The laity may well believe that Father ought to take a wife. But whether or not he can find one that not only wants to marry him, but is prepared and equipped to deal with the unique and demanding life of being Mrs Father, one which has a potential to strain a marriage, is another matter entirely.