Thursday, August 13, 2009

Is it time to let priests marry?

Following the shocking revelation of Fr. Peter McDonough's love child and his decision to leave the priesthood to focus on being a real father, the Manchester Evening News posed this question to a couple of people...

by Paul Taylor and Simon Donohue
August 13, 2009

NO, they shouldn't marry, says Dr Robert Aston, a former medical officer for Bolton and Wigan:

"The fact that our priests are celibate is something that the great majority of us find of tremendous value," says Dr Aston. "Our priests are fathers. They have given themselves totally to us without reservation.

"That is the essential thing - total self-giving, service, dedication and loyalty to their own people and through their own people to God."

To Dr Aston, 64, the concept of self-denial is a basic Christian principle, and "we as Christians are expected to take up the Cross and follow God, our Lord, and we do that by total self-giving according to our state in life."

But how can a priest plausibly minister to families if he never has a family of his own?

"I can understand people thinking that," says Dr Aston, of Horwich, Bolton.

"But you don't have to be in a particular position yourself to be able to advise others. That's what we expect of lawyers, doctors, all professional people. We don't expect them to be in the same condition as ourselves. In many ways, independence, impartiality and fairness can sometimes be better."

Should the rules of the church alter with the changing times?

"St Paul in the New Testament refers to celibacy as being a desirable state, so we are talking of a tradition which goes right back to the origins of Christianity," says Dr Aston.

"Should truth bend with the fashions of time? I would hope the church would not bend to passing fashions or strong public opinions or democratic process in the form of pressure groups."

Is there a discussion among Catholics as to whether the priesthood should be celibate?

"All things are discussed and have been discussed not just by modern Catholics but throughout the history of the Church. Don't just look at celibacy, look at anything within the Church," he replies.

There are, of course, some Catholic priests who do have families - priests who have come to Catholicism from an Anglican ministry, and been permitted to bring their families with them into the Catholic priesthood. Where do they stand in this argument?

"I would regard them as dedicated people who have given lifetimes of services within their own community," says Dr Aston. "I speak as a former Church of England member myself. I was brought up CofE and became Catholic in my twenties. These are people who had terrible pangs of conscience in not being able to accept the way their own church was going and have sought communion with the Catholic church. There has been a pastoral awareness within the Catholic church of the needs of these people, and an exception made, out of compassion."

YES they should marry, says the Rev Michael Gaine:

AT the age of 79 and having served for the vast majority of his life as a Catholic priest, the Rev Gaine admits that his one regret is never having had a wife and family.

"Perhaps that is something I have missed out on," he says.

"I think that I could have done my job just as well with a family."

Rev Gaine has campaigned for 20 years now on the subject of the ordination of married priests - or priests who might one day go on to become married - and says that it has been a frustrating battle for him against both senior bishops and the might of Rome itself.

He has now disbanded his campaign group, the Movement for the Ordination Of Married Priests, and says that the Roman Catholic church might be inflicting damage upon itself by failing to modernise.

"Twenty years ago, when I first started out on this campaign, it was suggested that lay people within the church simply would not accept the idea of priests who were not celibate.

"I now think that many lay people within the church wouldn't mind so much at all.

"I have written any number of articles to senior people stressing the spiritual, historical and psychological reasons why it makes sense, but to no avail."

Rev Gaine, who served as a teacher at a Catholic college in Liverpool and was a secretary to two prominent north west bishops, says that there are good practical reasons why the ordination of married priests would be good for the church today.

"The number of clergy is declining substantially," he says. "When I first became a priest, there were many, many priests and they tended to live together in a presbytery.

"That meant that there was companionship and support for priests.

"Today I fear that many priests are working alone in communities where they can be quite isolated.

"Allowing married priests would alleviate that problem of isolation and help to increase the number of people seeking ordination."

Rev Gaine says his situation is all the more frustrating given the way the Roman Catholic Church has permitted married priests who have converted from the Anglican church into the fold.

"Those people tend to work in hospitals and prisons and other institutions rather than within parishes, but they are still celebrating mass," he points out.

"It seems to suggest double standards that we have married men leading mass in some parts of the church, but we still do not allow the ordination of men who do not wish to remain celibate into the priesthood."

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