At a time when the shortage of Catholic priests in the western world, not least in Ireland, has become acute it is hardly critical to wonder at a model of priesthood which no longer meets the needs of the faithful through lack of personnel. Not least when, as is widely believed, the matter could be helped greatly were adjustment to be made to a discipline rather than a teaching of the church.
The rule of celibacy did not exist for the first millennium of Christianity. The first pope, by tradition Peter, was himself married – a fact that caused no crisis back then. It ought to be possible, with a will, for the Catholic Church to revert to a married clergy again without trauma. Indeed, many within and without the church would welcome such change as, pastorally, it would lend credibility to the ministry of its priests and bring it into line with the practice and experience of all other Christian denominations. It is one area of Catholic practice where Pope Francis can himself change things more or less unilaterally, as no issue of dogma is involved. So it is to be hoped by many within the Church that, following the October synod in Rome, he will make such change.
Should he do so it would go some way to addressing what papal nuncio to Ireland Archbishop Charles Brown has described as a "huge problem" in Ireland, as elsewhere, whereby an increasingly elderly clergy is burdened with a labour which would challenge men decades younger. As Dr Brown noted in an interview with this newspaper last week, many priests now in their 70s and 80s, on whom the Church increasingly relies, will soon no longer be able to continue their ministry.
At the same time, vocations to the priesthood remain sparse, leaving many dioceses facing a future with too few priests to provide even the most rudimentary ministry in every parish; a great many of whom have a large practising faithful. As an example, within the next five years the largest diocese on the island, the Catholic archdiocese of Dublin, will struggle to have one priest for each of its 199 parishes. The Catholic Church must choose. It is celibacy or a future.