Francis, Catholic families and Rabbit-gate

The wheels of the papal flight have barely touched down and already both liberals and conservatives are rushing to misinterpret Pope Francis’ latest press conference, referring in particular to his words regarding birth control.

The National Catholic Reporter mistakenly attempts to claim that Francis is promulgating that Catholics have a moral obligation to limit their family size and Damian Thompson says much the same thing, yet allegedly from a more conservative perspective (although he too implies that he disagrees with the Church’s teaching on contraception).

But perhaps the esteemed Dr Thompson might actually want to stop and think twice before attacking the Pope for saying things which could be misconstrued by the media and remember the media drubbing that Benedict XVI took for his Regensburg address, which is now proving to be more salient than ever, in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacres. Also he might want to cast his mind back to how he rushed to reinterpret the former pontiff’s interview with Peter Seewald as being an indication that condoms were actually permissible in certain circumstances – an interpretation which respected Catholic scholars Jimmy Akin and Janet Smith were at pains to correct and which Damian himself later clarified, could have perhaps been hasty. And let’s not forgot the classic “Catholic teaching on homosexuality can, and I think will, evolve”. Given that evolution can never entail an 180 degree turn or contradict previous teachings, it’s difficult to see what it meant and arguably an irresponsible assertion from someone who would like to claim pole position as the UK’s leading Catholic journalist, in a newspaper which enjoyed an enormous national circulation.

The irony here is that Damian Thompson himself is guilty of the very thing which he claims that the press has a tendency to do – namely misinterpret papal utterings, to suit a particular agenda. In this case he runs with the hare and the hounds rather well, condemning Francis’ tendency to come out with what he calls “streams of consciousness” and stating that his remarks could be deemed to be insulting to Catholics with larger families, all of which will appease those who believe that Francis is the worst possible thing that could ever have happened to the Church since Pope Alexander VI. At the same time, he also throws a bone to the liberals with his implied disagreement with the Church’s ban on contraception and the alleged comparison of gender theory with the Hitler Youth. “He said what??”

Actually, it’s worth reading what Pope Francis had to say in full here, before chasing easy headlines. He talked about a number of worthwhile issues, including exploitation of the Third World and the poor and so perhaps we ought to be playing those up a bit more instead of buying into the boring obsession that the secular and media world has about Catholic teaching on contraception. We don’t permit it and are not likely to. Get over it.

But to address the great elephant in the room, there is absolutely nothing that Pope Francis said which could be deemed either to be in opposition to Church teaching and neither did he state that Catholics have a moral responsibility to limit the number of children they had.

I’ve wtritten about Catholics and family size before, here and here, and Francis re-affirmed the teaching of Humane Vitae, the prophetic vision of Blessed Paul VI and condemned what he called Neo-Malthusian population theories. Francis doesn’t have  a photographic memory or all the facts and figures to hand, so he referred in general terms to the collapsed birth rates in Italy and Spain and the predicted demographic crisis which will see an increased elderly population combined with a dramatically reduced younger generation who will be unable to afford to support them.

What we saw on the flight was a straighforward defence of Catholic teaching on the family, which has always urged responsible parenthood, with the decision as to how many children a couple ought to have being a matter for personal discernment. The Catholic Church has never taught that Catholics ought to ‘breed like rabbits’, or that every single sexual encounter must result in a baby, simply that no sexual encounter ought to deliberately seek to exclude the possibility. The term ‘responsible parenthood’ is not new to Catholicism, Gaudium et Spes 50, outlines the various considerations involved:

“takes into consideration their own good and the good of their children already born or yet to come, an ability to read the signs of the times and of their own situation on the material and spiritual level, and finally, an estimation of the good of the family, of society, and of the Church.

Francis specifically mentioned that couples ought to seek the guidance of the Church who has experts, marriage groups, and not least priests if they have any doubts about family size, because the decision is a purely personal one based on a number of individual factors. The Church does not have any generic policy on family size, because she understands that we are all different. Couples are urged to be generous, but also advised to prayerfully discern what is right for their family, seeking spiritual counsel where necessary. Furthermore the decision not to have further children needs to be kept under regular review.

Perhaps not the best Western Catholic cultural stereotype.
Perhaps not the best Western Catholic cultural stereotype.

Admittedly ‘breeding like rabbits’, the phrase that many Catholics may have taken umbrage at is unhelpful. Francis likes to deal in colourful idioms and coming from a South American perspective, he likely does not appreciate the Western ostracism and prejudice which exists towards those who have larger families. Not only have I been subject to some deeply unpleasant and uncharitable trolling about my own family size (which isn’t what many Catholics would consider large) but I’ve also had to put up with some thoughtless and unkind remarks in real life. People genuinely believe that how many children you have is somehow their business and that they have a right to comment. It’s not helped by the popular media narratives about ‘scrounging’ large families on benefits, government plans to cap child benefit beyond 2 children, or politicians such as Caroline Lucas and Evan  Harris  who condemn those with large families as being selfish, due to the an imaginary impact on the planet and resources. The Pope doesn’t come from a culture where being an orthodox Catholic or having a large family  means one is held up for ridicule on a daily basis.

There will be those who misinterpret his remarks, but then Catholics ought to be used to widespread misreporting and misunderstanding of the faith.  It’s disappointing if the Pope seems to be giving succour to our enemies, but then again, even ignorant (even if well-meaning) comments can be an opportunity to explain and evangelise.

Every bit as ignorant and irritating is when other Catholics try to make out that by only having 5 children, you aren’t being quite Catholic enough and mention great-aunt Cecelia who had twenty-two and was perfectly fine! Family size is a deeply personal matter and not for anyone else to pass comment upon – Catholic or not. In this day and age these enormous family sizes are simply not feasible for the vast majority of people. Speaking as someone who has a number of pregnancies over the past 6 years, I can verify to the enormous strain that these can place upon your physical, emotional, spiritual and material resources. Women are not expected to physically compromise themselves and their families by consecutive pregnancies.

Pope Francis was not saying that large families are ‘bad’ but advocating responsible, thoughtful and considered parenthood. You know as Catholics we ought to be aware that anything said or written down can be interpreted every and which way to suit a particular agenda –  which is precisely why we have the Magisterium.

Yes we can berate him for being a little insensitive, but then again, to focus unduly on one specific comment, which in context was affirming Church teaching, is to ignore all the good stuff that he did say and in which he confirmed that he most certainly is a Catholic.

There are several natural and licit methods of avoiding pregnancy – this did not refer to artificial birth control. Likewise he was not advocating the woman with 7 previous cesarian sections should abort her baby, but stating that the decision to conceive again could reasonably be construed as irresponsible- who is he to judge?

Actually, he has a point. I had to see my consultant last week to plan the forthcoming birth of our child, my fourth section. The risks to my life and health posed by a future pregnancy were explained in no uncertain terms. I was strongly advised to have a sterilisation at the same time as having a c-section. I declined, hardly being in a position to claim ignorance of the Church’s teachings and the reasons behind them, but I guess this is the kind of situation to which the Pope was referring when he asked for mercy. It would be irresponsible for me to attempt a future pregnancy and risk leaving my 5 children as orphans or putting myself in a position where I could end up severely physically incapacitated.

Modern methods of NFA are highly effective but a woman who is told that she potentially risks her life by a future pregnancy, ought to be treated sensitively and compassionately by the Church, hence confessors need to tread a fine line between both pointing out the error of ocntraception while at the same time, understanding the difficult position in which a woman finds herself.

Once again Francis was speaking in the context of Catholic teaching and addressing the uncatechised who mistakenly do believe that Catholics have an absolute duty to keep on having children, even though to do so puts them under intolerable strain. Ever since my blog began I have been stating that this is absolutely not the case, my choice of phrase being even less delicate than his. “You don’t have to keep on having children until your uterus falls out”.

The dismay of larger families is understandable, ‘breeding like rabbits’ does little to bust the false stereotype and perhaps dehumanises those with big families, but he was referring to the act of unthinking reproduction, those who have huge numbers of children, not with any sense of joy, delight or wonderment but out of a sense of duty or because they feel they have no other option. What he said was decidedly female-friendly and as Fr Ed Tomlinson points out, Francis has a tendency to say one thing for the Catholic faithful, while at the same time understanding that secular liberal non-Catholics need an entirely different message.

But you know what we’re not ultra-montainists. An impromptu press gathering is not official Church teaching. Faithful Catholics know what the Church teaches and will continue to practice and propagate it. Given some of the post-synodal commentary we ought to be grateful that the Church’s teachings are being so publicly re-confirmed, and indeed to Francis himself for making sure that this topic of Catholics and contraception remains firmly in public consciousness. And as for speaking out strongly on gender theory – good on him! The way this is being imposed on students as irrefutable fact in universities and schools with those who dare to question the liberal consensus being penalised and closed-down, is totalitarian in nature.

I suspect most of those critiquing the pope for the rabbits comment would strongly agree and furthermore they’d find that if their large families were ever to meet Papa Francisco, they too would be greeted and welcomed with warmth, generosity along with heartfelt thanks for their generosity. If, as a heavily pregnant woman with 4 young children, I can accept these comments with grace and without taking gratuitious or vicarious offence, or use them as grounds to claim that families size should be limited, so should everyone else.

Francis appoints Lord Patten to improve Vatican media relations


According to a report in today’s Financial Times, Chris Patten has been appointed by Pope Francis to take on the new role of improving the Church’s Vatican media  relations.

As former Chairman of the BBC Trust Lord Patten should have a lot of experience in terms of advising the Vatican how to overhaul their communications department and in particular their media outlets, which let’s be honest, need bringing up to date. Much of the heavy lifting in terms of communicating both the Gospel message and using the media as a form of Catechesis has already been done by enterprising American apostolates. The Vatican has, for some years now been lagging behind, the Church’s own media agency is never the first port of call when it comes to catching up on Papal news and events, or what’s going on in the Catholic world,  unless you are a well-connected Vaticanista or official reporter looking for confirmation of facts. The Vatican still needs to get its act together when it comes to stopping a lie from travelling half way around the world, while their press operation is still switching on their fax machine.

Of course the very last thing that Pope Francis needs right now is the services of a spin doctor, which I suspect he’d eschew, but if Lord Patten is going to use his expertise to help the Vatican in terms overhauling their digital output (which has markedly improved over the past few  years), or getting Vatican radio, TV and newspapers more up to date and able to better maximise the opportunities presented by the rolling news cycle, it will be no bad thing. Patten is a canny operator, in possession of a sharp intellect with a passion for public service and by all accounts a very personable and charming individual. Whatever one may think of the BBC’s editorial policies, their output is of a consistently high quality.

That said his tenure at the BBC wasn’t free of controversy, there was the disastrous coverage of Queen’s diamond jubilee river pageant which Patten admitted was ‘not the corporation’s finest hour’. Also was the affair of the over-generous pay-offs to executives which revealed a chaotic management with no-one willing to take responsibility, and there’s also the issue of the shiny new refurbishment at Broadcasting House (a project which came into being prior to Patten’s tenure) which came in millions over budget. Anyone whose visited there can’t help but to admire the place, I was struck between the transformation between October last year and just last month, the building seemed more high-tech and glossy than ever-before, all the lifts have been replaced and modernised, the recording studios are more spacious and comfortable, but nothing had previously seemed to be screaming out for improvement. I was nonetheless amused to learn that despite the billions spent on the place, apparently bits of the set on the news studio have a tendency to fall off. Perhaps it’s a deliberate retro-70s effect? BBC News meets Crossroads.

One doubts whether or not the Vatican, which is currently engaged in a Curial streamlining and efficiency exercise will have the inclination or surplus cash to play about with in the same way as the BBC – they simply don’t have large amounts of liquidity at hand, nor can I see senior Cardinals and prelates or lay officials getting together for a blue-sky media brainstorming mind-map session followed up by spot of team-building – although the sight of archbishops blind quad-bike racing or rock climbing in St Peter’s Square might be rather fun!

And of course, the big elephant in the room when it comes to the BBC is the Savile affair, although taking heed of the lessons learned in the Catholic Church Lord Patten stated that the BBC must tell the truth and face up to the truth about itself, no matter how terrible. He is no stranger to an institution rocked to its foundations by an abuse scandal and the need for confidence to be restored. At the beginning of this week BBC broadcaster Nicky Campbell launched a scathing attack on Lord Patten’s ‘ignorance’ in apparently ignoring talented female broadcasters and presenters, so it might be that this appointment is further grist to the feminists’ mill.

Lord Patten oversaw arrangements for the phenomenally successful Papal visit of 2010, and in September of 2010, The Tablet named him as one the UK’s most influential Catholics, such an accolade being something of a double-edged sword. Perhaps that’s why Damian Thompson appears to have little time for him, describing him in one tweet as being as Tory, as Tony Blair is Catholic. Ouch! It’s a theme reiterated by Damian in several posts, along with the fact that Lord Patten is a trustee of the Tablet, a Chancellor of Oxford University and  seemingly much trusted by the Bishops Conference in England and Wales, as a safe pair of hands.

Still, who are we to judge? He’s an experienced media operator, businessman and politician. For those understandably cautious about his orthodoxy, (he isn’t going to be responsible for formulating or promulgating the message, only the medium by which it is transmitted), let’s pray and wish him and the Vatican media operation, well.


It looks as though Lord Patten will be leading an extremely senior and experienced international team, according to the Vatican Press Release, which includes the very highly regarded Monsigner Paul Tighe, Secretary for the Pontifical Council for Social Relations and Gregory Earlandson, president and publisher of Our Sunday Visitor, so the Media Committee set up to consider reforms is not a mere quango and neither is Patten’s appointment some sort of English Catholic establishment political coup d’etat as might be claimed. Chris Patten is not acting as a Mandelson-style personal advisor or spin doctor, as reported in the Mail and his role is a voluntary, unpaid one.

The dry nature and visual format of the press release and the fact that the FT has so far been the only outlet to pick up the news, neatly proves the point about the need for reform.

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.