Clerical celibacy and clergy wives

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.

Dog collars and wedding rings

happy couple

According to Damian Thompson, the next Pope must think seriously about married priests. It may be that Damian has a point, as we all know celibacy is a discipline and not a doctrine of the Catholic church, the Church will ordain married men who have previously been in ministry, the discussion is a perfectly valid one, however I imagine that before such a far-reaching move were considered, the opinions of existing clergy spouses would be sought and taken into consideration.

Here’s my fourpennorth, speaking from the point of view of someone who was a clergy spouse and will shortly be one again – it’s interesting, we don’t often hear from the point of view of the clergy wives, who tend to quietly keep their heads down and get on with life, which should give something of an indication of the nature of the role.

Damian distinguishes between the vocation of priesthood and that of celibacy and says that the two are not necessarily mutually exclusive. He may well be right in that, but priesthood entails that one fashions and patterns one’s life around that of Jesus Christ, who was himself a celibate male. The apostles were admittedly married, but this was prior to their call to follow Jesus, there is absolutely nothing in the Gospels that suggest that they married subsequent to this. Celibacy should therefore be the norm, it’s a gift that my husband has begun to really appreciate as he has be drawn closer into the Catholic church and though he does not wish either myself or his children away, he is acutely aware that celibacy is a gift that he cannot give, although if I were to predecease him then he would not be allowed to re-marry, which is something that he has had to consider carefully. Celibacy affords a freedom that is simply not available to married men, on both a practical and spiritual level. Fr Terry Martin, the Vocations Director for the diocese of Arundel and Brighton, puts it beautifully:

a celibate discovers again and again the truth that he finds everything he needs in God .

It isn’t simply about the practical consequences or the being free to serve and pour oneself out fully in the service of your people, which is a functional consequence of celibacy, but it’s about having a heart to dedicate fully in the service of the Lord.

Does this mean that my husband is going to be less of a priest, or not a priest in the fullest sense? No, because like all priests, once ordained he will have an indelible mark on his soul, there is only one sacrament of ordination, it does not have first or second-class orders, but the church recognises the duality of vocation in those cases of convert priests who were not brought up in the tradition that they would need to choose between marriage and priesthood, as well as recognising and honouring the previous ministry.

Married priests have a lot to bring to their ministry, they will have personal and direct experience of married life and often physical fatherhood. Having had a few years out of ministry prior to ordination was an enormous gift to my husband, not only strengthening his call back to the altar, but also the experience of a full-time lay profession and juggling the demands of a young family, perennially pregnant wife along with keeping up with his spiritual formation, prayer life and volunteer work, will stand him in good stead, in terms of understanding the pressures and challenges for Catholic families, who are desperately trying to keep the faith. He also understands the great challenges and enormous gift of the Church’s teaching on sexuality and will be able to communicate that in a very open and honest way that might perhaps prove more difficult for a celibate priest.

But there is, as both Fr Tim and Fr Sean Finigan note, a duality of heart at play here. Exlaodicea also has some poignant insights.  Though one should not focus solely on the practical nature of a married priesthood, it would have consequences, not least who on earth is going to support all these married clergy, most of whom, would presumably have a fair few children, for obvious reasons. Not all presbyteries are sprawling Victorian piles, some are very functional 2 bed houses, built in the 50s and 60s when the time of the housekeeper was beginning to decline. Suitable accommodation, ideally near to decent Catholic schooling needs to be found. A married priest with children simply cannot be moved in and out of various parishes at will, as to do so would disrupt the childrens’ education, so a bishop will find that he has far less flexibility. He’ll have to find a parish or ministry able to support the married priest and his family, together with a suitable house, and leave him in situ there for quite some time, or at least until the children have flown the nest.

Those are really minor issues in the grand scheme of things. A clergy spouse has to understand that her husband does not have a job but a vocation, regardless of denomination. This entails a couple of points. Firstly, a priestly wife is going to have to share a deep love of the faith. A cafeteria Catholic or generic go to Church once a year Christian is simply not going to be well suited. An Anglo-Catholic vicar friend describes his frustrating experience of dating an Evangelical. She was, by all accounts a lovely girl, but didn’t understand or agree with concepts such as infant Baptism or Eucharistic adoration (why are you worshipping a piece of bread) which made for some fraught moments, when he felt that perhaps he was being inadvertently attacked, or just didn’t want to engage in apologetics in his own home. I guess we all search for someone who innately understands us and shares our goals. Antoine de Saint Exupery has a wonderfully apt quote about love – it does not consist in gazing at each other, but in looking outward together in the same direction.

So if a spouse has the same devout faith as her priestly husband, she is going to understand that vocation will often need to come first and before her needs and wants and sometimes above the family. An example might be an RCIA class on Valentines Day, or an evening interview doing marriage prep with a couple on her birthday. Agape will often need to trump eros. It’s also quite a scary thing being a clergy spouse. You don’t have care of souls, but you share your life with someone who acts in personae Christi. On that terrible day of judgement you will be asked to account as to whether or not you helped or hindered in the care of souls and there is really no excuse for spiritual laxity.

A clergy spouse has to understand that whether she likes it or not, to some extent she has to keep an open house and be happy to accept visitors at all hours and be ready to feed multitudes at the drop of a hat. I remember one occasion when Robin (bless his cotton socks) had no idea what it might be like following the birth of a new baby and announced when child 2 was about 6 weeks old, that we had 14 deanery clergy coming for lunch the next day and would I be able to rustle up a spot of lunch! (Gosh did I feel smug when I managed it, baby lay in her Moses basket in the middle of the living room likes a sacrificial lamb, surrounded by several clergy, whilst one elderly Father sat in my special breastfeeding rocking chair, noting that it was the most comfortable chair he’d ever sat in and asking where I bought it, to which I despatched him off to Mothercare!)

I digress, but what that means is often, in effect, it can be difficult for a clergy spouse to work – she can’t rely on her husband to help out with childcare and thus to a certain extent her ministry has to revolve around his. She has to be flexible, discreet, patient, diplomatic and tactful. So when Ethel says to you “oooh you had a late night, I saw you had your light on reading til 1am” or it takes 3 hours to get around Sainsburys after being buttonholed by half the parish who seem to take an unnerving interest in what you might have in your trolley (oooh Fr Robin, he does like his lemon meringue pie) or have folk sweep in and out of your home, which is often used to hold meetings in, you just have to smile sweetly and accept it and make the tea and sandwiches for whoever has come a knocking at whatever time of the day or night. On one memorable occasion a former parishioner attempted to quiz me on our intimate life – being a clergy wife seems to hold particular fascination in that respect for the prurient. Oh and don’t expect weekends to be your own either, for obvious reasons.

That’s not meant as a litany of horror, but rather a jolt of realism, being married to any clergyman is a vocation itself and puts a unique pressure on a marriage. In the Catholic church it is recognised that married priests do indeed have a dual vocation so technically they are never in charge of a parish, but still there will be times when a priest is pulled in two directions and may need to prioritise his family. Plus no-one has mentioned the kids – having a Catholic priest as a dad does put quite a bit of pressure and expectation upon them. We’ve heard of David Burrows MP having had his children bullied at school as a result of his homophobia. Being an RC priest is about as counter-cultural as it gets, and things can be even more complicated if you are a governor of or affiliated with a school, in which your children are getting a hard time. And there might be times when the children often have to miss out on their dad’s presence at things – simply due to the erratic hours that a priest might work. One can’t refuse the dying the sacrament of the sick due to a parents’ evening or school play.

So the idea that a married priesthood is going to be a wonderful thing and make priests so much happier, is highly dependent upon him finding a spouse who is going to be wholly supportive of his vocation. What happens if she isn’t? Is it fair for a parish to be dealing with the fallout of their priest’s marital breakdown?

And we all know that the idea of a married clergy being less likely to abuse, is a canard. The argument doesn’t make sense – in the UK less than 1% of people were shamefully abused by Catholic priests. The NSPCC states that as much as 24% of the population are victims of abuse that took place in childhood or adolescent , of which 65.9% was perpetrated by those under the age of 18. Clearly then, the majority of the blame for the abuse cannot be laid at the door of the Catholic Church, let alone celibacy, given that the vast majority of abuse is reported as taking place in family situations. Even in the US where the number of clerical abuse victims rises to 4%, this is a lesser figure of abusers than, say teachers. Most of those responsible for abuse are those who are permitted sexual relationships with others and celibacy does not account for the abuse that has taken place within the Church of England. That’s not to undermine the seriousness of the offences that did take place, but there is nothing to suggest that celibacy is responsible for abuse, the evidence points firmly away from drawing this conclusion. Which leads me nicely into the next point.

The idea that sex is a need that must be fulfilled otherwise it will lead to abuses is one that must be fought as it seeks to shift blame away from the abuser themselves. All of us have self-control and there can be no excuse for sexual assault. Furthermore those who look towards marriage as a being some sort of cure for these tendencies not only ignore the statistics on married men and abuse, but are deluded if they think that marriage is any sort of guarantee against sexual frustration. Even the happiest marriages go through periods of abstinence, for a variety of reasons and most married couples, especially those with busy lives and/or young children will testify that they aren’t swinging from the chandeliers seven nights a week. This post-modern idea of sex as a basic human need, such as food or water is one that must be fought back against. There are many non religious celibates who live happy and fulfilled lives and to treat a wife as a vehicle with whom to overcome sexual frustration is wholly contrary to Catholic teaching on marriage. Clergy spouses will have read the canonist Ed Peters on marital continence with alarm.

The other point of contention in Damian’s piece is that it wholly relies on his anecdotal evidence – most suburban priests in various Western areas are gay (which ones) and most clergy in Africa have at least one secret wife. It’s impossible to verify or discount these statistics one way or another. It’s definitely true that no vocations crises exist in Africa, seminaries are turning away candidates due to lack of space.

The happiness of a married priesthood hinges on a very narrow definition of marriage being all about sex and is mooted as a false panacea to the abuse crisis. Personally I am extremely grateful that the Holy Father has been generous enough to grant exceptions on a one-off basis, but as part of this process, I needed to pledge my whole-hearted support, knowing full well what this would entail. The happiness of a married priesthood is wholly dependent upon a good quality relationship and a wife who can get 100% behind her husband’s vocation, and places an additional burden on the priest himself who will always have divided loyalties.

That’s not to say that a married priesthood can’t work, the Eastern Rite and Orthodox churches have good approaches, but we should be in no rush to lift this and it is difficult to see how celibacy could be promoted as the ideal standard, were priests suddenly allowed to marry. One also has to note that all this speculation seems terribly unfair and unkind to those seminarians currently being formed in the expectation of celibacy as well as existing clergy. One of the problems around the time of Vatican II was that there was very little formation of this nature – everything seemed to be up for grabs and the process of formation was not as thorough as it could have been, seminarians were ill-equipped to quote with the pressures of the then emerging sexual revolution. These days seminarians are well aware as to the temptations of the modern world and have at least six years to consider their vocation.

I hear on the grapevine that Mrs Newton was a little taken aback by Damian Thompson’s piece. I’m not surprised, I expect she greeted it with mixture of delight (how flattering to have a piece in a broadsheet newspaper calling into question the discipline of celibacy based on a brief dinner encounter) and horror. Opinions on the merits of celibacy should not be hung off the back of individuals. Though many congregations are open and welcoming of married Catholic clergy as Damian notes, there are still some people that see marriage as an impairment to Father’s ability to be at their beck and call and make their feelings known, quite vociferously and at deliberately unsocial hours. At the other end of the scale, one acts as an unwilling or unintentional ambassador or advert for a married priesthood, such as in the case of Mrs Newton.

A change to the rules is one that needs to be approached with due caution. Being a clergy wife is a difficult path to navigate, particularly in a world where celibacy is the norm. Behaviour that would be acceptable in the Anglican church, is not possible in a Catholic setting, where wives are unusual and tolerated. It is not your ministry and one has to be extra careful not to tread on toes or offend a myriad of people or be seen in any way as interfering or taking over. I guess a suitable parallel could be drawn to my sixth form, which at the time was integrating girls into a formerly all-boys school. In my year there were 15 girls to 115 boys and many of the masters did not see our presence as a positive thing. It’s unfair to say that existing clergy have been anything other than welcoming, all of them have been, but all Catholic clergy wives I am friends with know that we are an exception, not the rule and have no desire to trailblaze or queer the pitch for any future former convert wives, or extol the virtues of a married priesthood. Our situations are as unique and individual as we are, and we are able to testify to both the positives and negatives.

Just as a vocation to priesthood is a calling, one could argue the same of a clergy spouse. A priest requires years of formation, one could argue that a clergy wife needs similar, she certainly learns things as she goes along on the job, often getting things wrong and making gaffes along the way. Unlike her husband she is not in receipt of any sacrament, and yet she is subject to similar scrutiny and certain standards and expectations of holiness and behaviour. She knows that her marriage and conduct will, whether she likes it or not, be held up as an example, for good or ill as will her appearance and the behaviour of her children. She knows that her husband’s vocation is ontological in a way that her marriage is not – she will no longer be married in heaven, her husband will still be a priest.

There’s quite a lot of pressure on her shoulders, it is neither a panacea nor a situation for the feint-hearted. Most of us love our spouses on account of who they are, not their job. A clergy wife loves her husband for who he is and that includes accepting, welcoming and embracing his vocation, no matter how difficult or counter-cultural. She will often need to accept that a career may not be possible for her and neither will a permanent home. Like those original fishers of men, she will need to follow the Lord wherever he is leading or calling her husband.

I never thought I’d wind up married to a Catholic priest, I think the nuns at my school would have a blue fit were they ever to find out where my life has led. But at least I knew what I was getting into when I married a man with a vocation, which I accepted as being part of who he was and impossible to separate out, being integrated into his identity given he’d felt the calling from a very young age.

It’s worth looking up the work of American sociologist Andrew Greeley who discovered that celibate priests scored much more highly on the happiness index than their married Anglican counterparts. The challenges that face the priesthood are not celibacy-related. Everyone should know exactly what they are getting themselves into, before getting carried away by notions of dog collars and wedding rings.