Monday, 17 September 2007

Married clergy

I've been following the comments in this post by Carolina Cannonball, and decided to wade in with a few observations from my own life. Sit back and make yourself a cup of tea, because this is going to be a long post...

The first observation - army wives

My father was an army officer, and I grew up moving house approximately every year or two, following my father's latest posting. My mother's role in the regiment was almost as important as my father's - while he was taking his platoon/squadron/regiment off on training exercises or, even more importantly, on actual operations, my mother was responsible for looking after the wives and families who were left behind. Her (unpaid) role included everything from lending a sympathetic ear when someone was missing her husband and organising activities to keep morale up generally while the men were away to helping with childcare arrangements to keeping an eye on particular families which seemed to be struggling and helping them to identify when they needed external help and to get that help. She was also expected to visit any members of the soldiers' families who were in hospital, and she frequently gave advice to young mothers and supported them as they struggled to look after their babies when their own mothers were too far away to help.

Until very recently, it was expected that officers' wives would perform these roles. It was equally expected that they would travel wherever their husbands were posted, and that when the men were sent on unaccompanied postings to troublespots abroad, the families of the regiment would stay together and look out for each other.

These days, women want careers of their own, and their own career aspirations are frequently incompatible with annual or biennial changes of location. More and more military families are living away from the regiment, with husbands frequently forced to choose between a long daily commute or spending long periods of time living apart from their families. And many officers' wives are quite indignant at the suggestion that they might like to get involved in any pastoral care for the families of the men under their husbands' command. This, combined with the increasing number of women who are themselves serving in the military, is leading to some quite profound structural changes in military society, which are an inevitable consequence of women wanting more independence.

The second observation - vicars' wives

A schoolfriend of mine fell in love with and married a Church of England vicar when she was 19. At the time, she was a medical student, and there was no way she was willing to give up her medical studies or her ambitions as a doctor in favour of the traditional role of a vicar's wife. She was not interested in hosting vicarage tea parties, attending functions in the village at her husband's side, or inviting parishioners into her home and making cups of tea for them while they talked to her husband.

Unfortunately, she was also not interested in sharing her husband with hundreds of strangers. She resented the fact that he was out most evenings running parish groups, visiting parishioners who were sick, leading Bible study, etc. She resented even more the occasional phone calls from parishioners in crisis which woke her up in the middle of the night and always seemed to come when she was preparing for an exam at medical school, not feeling well, or otherwise really needed her sleep.

Her attitude, while understandable from her point of view, was not compatible with her husband's calling as a vicar. It very soon became clear that he had a choice between remaining married to her or being a vicar, and they divorced. This option would not, of course, be open to a married Catholic priest, who in such a situation would be forced either to give up his vocation or to live with the intolerable stress of a wife who acted as a barrier between him and his parishioners.

Contrast this with another friend of mine, who was already married with two children at the time he entered his training to be a Church of England vicar. He had discussed his vocation with his wife, they had discussed the implications for her, for their children and for their future life together, and they had taken the decision as a family that this was the right course for them. He is now a popular vicar in the North of England, ably supported by a wife who shares his passion for his flock.

The third observation - teachers

When I was in China, I took on a pastoral role towards my students. They frequently came to me for advice, to talk through difficult issues both in their studies and in their personal lives. There were many days when I would be teaching from 8 till 12 in the morning, then the first knock at my door would come as I was preparing some lunch back in my flat, and the last student would not leave until 10 or 11 at night. In between, I somehow had to prepare my lessons and do my marking.

I was able to make myself 100% available to the students who needed my help because I had no family there, and my students took full advantage of it.

I had friends who were teaching on the same programme but had arrived in China as married couples. They too had left their friends and families in the UK in order to give their time fully to their students (we were working for a voluntary organisation, and saw our role as more than simply standing in the classroom and delivering a few classes). They too tried to make it clear to their students that they were 100% available to anyone who needed help.

However, each of these couples could go for days on end without a single student knocking on their doors. However much the couple protested that they were available, and that students could visit them at any time, the students were reticent about disturbing a married couple in a way that they were not about disturbing a single person.

The reticence must be even more pronounced for someone who knows that the person they are disturbing has a new baby and a toddler who is teething, or who knows that the person's children are both sleeping badly because they have chicken pox, or whatever other minor crisis might come up in the life of a person who has a family.

My own conclusion on the issue

I think there is a difference between a priest who is already married when he becomes a priest and one who marries after his ordination, because anyone who is already married is not going to take such a major step without discussing it with his wife and ensuring that she is happy with the effect that it will have on her. I have also known widower priests who definitely brought an extra dimension of understanding to their pastoral role - but they were older men whose families had grown up, and they did not have the pressures of a young family to look after.

However, as a general rule, if I were asked whether I thought it would be a good idea for priests to be married, I would say no, for the following reasons:

- A priest's first loyalty is to God. His second loyalty should be to his parishioners. A husband and father owes loyalty to his wife and children, and this can conflict with fulfilling the needs of the parishioners.

- Regardless of how selfless the priest and his wife and children are, many parishioners will hesitate to disturb a family man. Of course, there will always be some who think nothing of disturbing their parish priest in the middle of the night for no apparent reason, but those who are genuinely in need of help, prayer or a sympathetic ear should not be made to feel embarrassed or feel that they are unable to call for fear of disturbing other members of the priest's family.

- Women these days are increasingly unwilling to give up the chance of having their own career and to put the demands of their husband's job first. A vocation, particularly a priestly one, is not a nine to five job. Many women simply will not accept the intrusion into their 'personal' time.

Given the above, I think the Catholic Church has come up with a pragmatic and workable solution - men who are already married when they discover their vocation are, in certain limited circumstances, allowed to be ordained priests, but men who are already Catholic priests are not permitted to (re)marry. I personally think a dating priest, or even a priest who was permitted to date, would be a disaster.


Dracunculus said...

So how about a single woman doing the job then? You sound like you did a great job of pastoral care with your students in China.

Jennifer F. said...

Great thoughts.

Personally, one of my big reasons for not wanting to see priests marry would be that it would limit their ability to speak out in times of great injustice or upheaval. Nothing will shut a person up like threatening to harm their spouse or their children. The fact that priests do not have wives/children frees them, I believe, to speak the truth at all costs, even if it means risking their lives. They also wouldn't have to worry about things like who would support their families if they were jailed or killed.

Not that this is a big concern in this society right now, but I think it's something people should remember.

Anyway, great post!

newhousenewjob said...

Thanks Jen - good points.

Drac, you only have my word for that... and the issue of women priests is a whole nother post, which I won't get into right now.

gemoftheocean said...

I'd agree with you too. On balance, I'd say it's better for a priest to be single. You just exchange one set of problems for another. OTOH, don't forget that in Eastern Rites (in Europe) Catholic men are allowed to be married BEFORE they are ordained (unless they are monks) -- the bishops are drawn from single men.

And although our secular priests don't take a vow of poverty... you couldn't really expect a priest to raise a large family on the relative pittance the diocese pays priests. And all the school bills for same. And given the spouse would most likely have her own career, a bishop wouldn't feel as free to rotate that priest to different assignments in the diocese. If "the church" ever did change it so that western rite priest could be married, I'd definitely agree that they should get married BEFORE ordination. I other words "no hunting licenses given after a collar is issued."
Great point Jeffifer makes re: the single priest's greater latitude to speak up and not worry about a wife/child being harmed on account of what the priest said/did.

I AM grateful for any Anglican vicars (and their wives) who convert to Catholicism. I expect they are older, more mature couples as a rule of thumb.

newhousenewjob said...

"No hunting licenses given after a collar is issued" - what a perfect and succinct way to summarise it!

diana said...

Yes, I agree with you completely!!!!!

...but not with the comments at the other linked site, though they made some good points. I believe protestant clergy have brought up their problems in this respect and I don't think we need to introduce any more problems to catholic parish life!

newhousenewjob said...

True. If we're not getting enough vocations, the answer is not to lower the bar, but to look at why numbers of vocations have fallen and see if we can address any problems that brings to light. Adding new problems/complications is not the answer.