The Catholic church should accept married men for ordination in an effort to prevent the extinction of priests in Ireland, a prominent clergyman has urged, amid warnings about rising rates of depression, isolation and suicide among the ageing priesthood.
Father Brendan Hoban, a co-founder of the Association of Catholic
Priests (ACP), said urgent action was needed to counter the “vocations
As well as ordaining married men, those who had left the
priesthood – sometimes to get married – should be invited back, and
women should be ordained as deacons, he told the Guardian.
Married priests would be a “massive change”, he conceded. But he
added: “At the end of the day, without the priests there is no mass, and
without the mass there is no church. So we see in Ireland a huge
eucharistic famine in a few years’ time.”
The number of parish priests in Ireland fell by almost 17% in the 10
years to 2014, from 3,141 to 2,627, according to the church’s most
recent statistics. About a quarter of the 2014 figure were thought to be
retired already, and “the vast majority of those remaining in the
priesthood are in their 60s and 70s – or even 80s,” said Hoban.
A survey by the ACP in 2012
found that almost nine in 10 Irish Catholics wanted priests to be
allowed to marry. “The situation is imploding because priests as a body
are getting older and older and there are very few priests coming after
us. So people see this huge dilemma,” said Hoban.
Pope Francis – who is to visit Ireland in 2018 – was reportedly keen
to examine the possibility of married priests at his next synod of
bishops. However, the Vatican announced in October that its theme would
be young people and vocation after the issue of celibacy was voted down by the body that decides the synod’s agenda.
an address given in November to the ACP annual general meeting, Hoban
warned that the priesthood in Ireland was a “lost tribe; we’ve come to
the end of a long line”.
When he was ordained in the 1970s, he told the meeting, “parish
priests took for granted that they were admired, respected and supported
by their parishioners. Their words were infallible; their decisions
confident and unquestioned … Now, we’re often pitied, patronised,
reviled, insulted, disrespected, ignored and resented.”
At best, he added, “we’re now little more than a ceremonial presence on the sidelines of life”.
He said priests who “can’t wait to get off the stage” by retiring
were manipulated into staying on beyond the age of 75 because of a lack
of younger clergymen.
“We’re expected to work longer and harder … The effect of our
increased and ever-increasing workload is that as we morph into
sacrament-dispensing machines, we find pastoral work less and less
He went on: “With the implosion of our church, the unease and
inconvenience and isolation of our lives, with the regrets and
ambivalences that disturb our waking hours and with our singular
lifestyles, we’re prone to depression in one or other of its malevolent
He told the conference suicide had increased among priests in
Ireland, but speaking to the Guardian he acknowledged that there was no
firm data available.
“A lot of this is hidden. But certainly in the past number of years,
there have been five suicides. We’ve no doubt at all that it is
increasing and it hides a whole subculture of depression, isolation and
loneliness that priests are now experiencing in parishes and that we
ignore at our peril,” he said.
His said his speech had triggered a huge reaction from priests and
the public, but a “very muted” response from bishops, whom he accused of
at best ignoring the problem and at worst bullying clergymen into
working longer and harder.
Since the ACP was established six years ago, it had sought “realistic
and respectful engagement with [bishops] to discuss issues that we
believe are really fundamental to the future of the Catholic church”.
The ACP has about 1,100 members – more than one in three priests in
He said meetings with bishops had been friendly. But he added: “They
don’t seem to want to talk to us very much any more. We’re very
disappointed that they haven’t taken on board what we’re saying. They’re
effectively in denial about the problems facing the Catholic church in
Hoban acknowledged that the church had lost respect in society
“because of what’s happened particularly in respect of the child sexual
abuse scandals and the way they were handled – denials, lack of
transparency and openness”.
Individual priests and some bishops continued to have good
relationships with their parishioners but “institutional authority and
respect has gone. It’s been a huge revolution, a huge drop in the status
of the church.”
The ACP was not a trade union nor a thorn in the side of the church,
Hoban said. “We’re loyal to the church, and loyal to Rome and loyal to
our beliefs, but we also feel a huge responsibility to say what we think
needs to be said at this critical juncture.”
In response to a request for comment, the Irish Catholics Bishops’
Conference forwarded a letter sent by Raymond Browne, the bishop of
Kerry, to Hoban in October, which said: “The current challenging
situation for the future life and mission of the church in this country
requires that all of us work together.”
It added: “Overall, the bishops are committed to working with priests
at every level in ensuring that we are all wholeheartedly proclaiming
the gospel and serving the people of God.”