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Anglicans and celibacy: the sticking point

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Oct 29, 2009

To the surprise of no one, priestly celibacy is emerging as the most contentious issue to resolve in connection with the Pope's invitation to Anglicans. Italian journalists report that it was questions about celibacy that delayed the release of the Pope's apostolic exhortation. 

The question is not whether married Anglican priests will be allowed to become Catholic priests-- they will; in fact they already have-- but whether in the future married men will be admitted into priestly training in the "personal ordinariates" set up to continue the Anglican tradition. If Andrea Tornielli of Il Giornale is right, they won't. Tornielli has the best track record for accuracy in the past few years among all the Vatican-watchers in the Italian press, and Tornielli says that "everything suggests" the Anglo-Catholics of the future will be expected to fall into line with the Roman tradition of priestly celibacy. 

If that is the case-- if married priests will be allowed only under a sort of "grandfather clause" applying solely to Anglicans who are already in the clergy-- I foresee problems.

The personal ordinariates are being established to provide for the continuation of an "Anglican tradition" within the Catholic Church. Married priests are part of the Anglican tradition. Many Anglicans who are otherwise disposed to enter the Catholic Church will hesitate if the married clergy-- which some see as an essential part of their tradition-- is destined to disappear within a generation.

The Eastern Catholic churches admit married men to the priesthood. If the Vatican's offer denies Anglicans something that is already allowed for other Catholics, it will appear unfair-- or at the very least, ungenerous. 

Since the purpose of the Pope's plan is to make a generous offer to Anglicans, a strict handling of  celibacy could undermine the entire initiative. Anglicans who wish to enter the Catholic Church will be required to embrace all of existing Catholic doctrine, and rightly so, because our beliefs define our faith. But if they are required to accept all of the existing discipline of the Roman Church as well, the offer will no longer be so attractive.

I am not making an argument against priestly celibacy. Personally, I regard the discipline of priestly celibacy as a great strength of the Roman Catholic tradition. The key issue here, I think, is whether, after 450 years, the Anglo-Catholic tradition can be recognized as something separate: compatible, but separate.  

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: james-w-anderson8230 - May. 04, 2018 6:23 PM ET USA

    However PP isn't interested in a carefully orchestrated death; They are more like a horde of barbarians on a scorched earth campaign.

  • Posted by: Comares - May. 04, 2018 4:46 PM ET USA

    This reminded me of when my Mother died at 92, eight years ago. Just after she was admitted a doctor asked me if I and my Mother had ever discussed end of life treatment (or lack of it)? When I asked "Why?" I was told we ought to. I was appalled! I made sure that she had the Sacrament of the Sick, as she always did when she went into hospital. I fed her twice a day because I was aware that if I didn't no one would. She was called to the Lord 10 days later fully prepared on Good Friday ready.

  • Posted by: dfp3234574 - May. 02, 2018 8:34 PM ET USA

    Outstanding post, Phil.

  • Posted by: shrink - May. 02, 2018 3:51 PM ET USA

    "carefully orchestrated death" what a pithy and pointed expression. Isn't that what assassins do?

  • Posted by: MWCooney - May. 02, 2018 11:50 AM ET USA

    For me, the worst part of the Alfie Evans drama was the "inexcusable encouragement from Catholic prelates." That the world acts in shameful ways is, unfortunately, to be expected, but that "Catholic" leaders should act in this way is downright discouraging. They are, after all, appointed to be our defenders against the evil ways of the world. Millstones.

  • Posted by: FrPhillips1125 - Oct. 31, 2009 10:04 AM ET USA

    There is no change in the general discipline of celibacy, but there will continue to be consideration of dispensations for specific individuals at the request of the Ordinary. A clarification on this matter has come from the Holy See, and it's posted at

  • Posted by: jeanneg117438 - Oct. 31, 2009 7:52 AM ET USA

    It's not a red herring. Going through the Anglican communion could become a back door for wide spread married clergy in the Catholic Church, thus changing our tradition.

  • Posted by: - Oct. 30, 2009 9:52 PM ET USA

    Pemanently alter Roman Catholic tradition? Which one, since even in the 11th century the Roman rite had married priests, and currently does now? One does not have to be "left" to see the value of both celibate and married priests. But why would anyone presume that to suggest that Rome allowing a married clergy would in any way be construed as making an argument against celibacy? Why drag this red herring through the conversation?

  • Posted by: extremeCatholic - Oct. 30, 2009 5:37 PM ET USA

    The comparison to the Eastern Church is not exact: Anglican priests who are single are always free to marry. The Anglican tradition includes married bishops as well. The structure of personal ordinariates strikes me as temporary, or at least exceptional. The biggest indication of its permanence will if it will be allowed to swim the Thames/Great Stour as well as the Tiber.

  • Posted by: brenda22890 - Oct. 30, 2009 12:47 PM ET USA

    I'm concerned though about the Catholic left using this as a further wedge to permanently alter the Roman Catholic tradition. It would be naive not to realize the left uses anything/everything to destroy a tradition they hate.

  • Posted by: Solzy2004 - Oct. 29, 2009 6:35 PM ET USA

    I agree with Phil 100%. This initiative should not be undermined. I have hope because our Pope has an even better track record than Andrea Tornielli - BXVI hasn't gotten anything wrong yet: He always does the important things, and better than anyone could have foreseen: (1) Personal meeting with abuse victims; (2) Summorum Pontificum; (3) pushing Liturgiam Authenticam along;(4) RESPONSES TO SOME QUESTIONS REGARDING CERTAIN ASPECTS OF THE DOCTRINE ON THE CHURCH (Levada 2007) was excellent too.