The Malta Independent 21 April 2024, Sunday
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TMID Editorial: The celibacy of priests

Sunday, 25 February 2024, 10:30 Last update: about 3 months ago

Archbishop Charles Scicluna last month opened the debate, at least in Malta, saying that priests should have the option to marry.

It is high time to discuss the issue seriously, he told another media house in an interview. “Why should we lose a young man who would have made a fine priest, just because he wanted to get married? And we did lose good priests just because they chose marriage”.

The influential prelate, who holds a high position in the Vatican as Adjunct Secretary of the Holy See’s Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith and is well regarded in the corridors of the Holy See, said that as things stand, young men have to make a choice between a woman and the priesthood. He admitted that some priests cope by having secret relationships while publicly continuing to serve in the community.

Archbishop Scicluna said this is a global reality, acknowledging that there are priests who also have children. Malta is not an exception in this.

Last week, in an interview with The Malta Independent on Sunday, the Provincial Prior of the Maltese Carmelite community expanded the matter further, saying that allowing priests to marry could increase the number of men who take up the priesthood.

The Carmelite Order has felt compelled to give up two parishes it has administered for many decades – the ones of Balluta and Mdina – simply because it no longer has the numbers to run the operation efficiently.

The dwindling number of Carmelite priests, with most of them now over 65 years old, has rendered it impossible for the Order to continue taking care of all the parishes it was responsible for, and it has now decided to concentrate its work on just three. The last intake in the Carmelite community was 15 years ago, and only two serving Carmelite priests are younger than 45.

A revisiting of the celibacy rule, Fr Charles Mallia told this media house, might attract a few people to the priesthood while they can still have a family.

And, if this change had to happen, it will be a return to how things were in the Church’s first millennium and beyond. It was only in the 12th century that the First Lateral Council forbade priests to marry, ordering those who had already done so to renounce to their wives. Since then, celibacy has been practised in the Catholic Church for 900 years.

Since it is not a Church dogma, it is a rule that can be reversed, and it was only recently that the Church was close to making changes to that regulation, at least in part. The Bishops’ Synod voted in favour of allowing married men in the Amazon region to become priests to enable the Church to function better, but the decision was overturned by Pope Francis, who as head of the Catholic Church has a final say on the matter.

In this sense, Archbishop Scicluna said the Pope is correct to insist that any change to the celibacy rules should not be to mitigate the vocation crisis.

Yet, sooner or later, the Church will have to decide on the way forward. Whether it is because vocations are declining all over the world – and the Church needs priests to continue pushing its ideals and beliefs – or because of other reasons, the time will come when the Church will need to address the issue.

The fact so many bishops, including our own Archbishop of Malta, seem open to the idea that celibacy should be waived for men who want to become priests gives a strong indication that things within the Church are changing.

It may not be under this Pope or the next one, but the difficulties the Church is facing these days for its message to get through – the last decades have seen many people moving away from religion, and by this we do not only mean Catholicism – will inevitably push it to take the necessary action in order to survive. And one such move for the Church to stay alive will possibly be a change to the celibacy rule.

A sign on the way forward will be given when the time comes for the cardinals to choose their next leader. A conservative choice will retain the status quo; the selection of a more liberal pontiff will open the way to changes.

As things stand now, the door has been slightly opened to the idea of a relationship between a priest and a woman; the Church, at present, is still far away from accepting formal same-sex couples, let alone one involving priests.

That will be another story to tell.

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