A remaining question – concerning the falling number of priests


An issue that refuses to hide its face is the continuing fall in the number of priests serving our parishes.

We should be considering this question as a matter of some urgency if we are to maintain our present diocesan structures at anywhere near their present level, let alone seek to become a Missionary Church.

Factors behind the problem

A number of factors might be considered that have given rise to our present predicament.

The age profile of serving priests continues to rise.

Parishes with more than one priest are rare so the return alone to an empty house is uninviting.

Above all, the question of a compulsorily celibate clergy remains with us.

How often do our bishops face the unenviable task of replacing a priest who through age or infirmity can no longer continue with his duties?

Or a younger man who has fallen in love and is unable to sustain his vocation?


A contributor to the working document for the Vatican’s Synod of Bishops on the Amazon region made his case for the priestly ordination of married men in the region.

“I’m saying this with great sincerity – there is no other option,” Bishop Erwin Kräutler, the retired head of the Xingu prelature in Amazonian Brazil, said recently.

The availability of the Eucharist is of far greater importance than the marital status of the priest.

What is the bishop to do?

Amalgamate parishes is one option but this often only serves to double the load of an already aged priest or leave the parishioners to fend for themselves with the occasional help from priests in surrounding parishes?

Harriet Sherwood writing recently in the Guardian reported on the challenge by Archbishop Scicluna to the present discipline.

“Archbishop Charles Scicluna, Malta said ‘If it were up to me, I would revise the requirement that priests have to be celibate. Experience has shown me that this is something we need to seriously think about.’

“The church had lost many great priests because they chose marriage.

“There was a place for celibacy but the church also had to take into consideration that priests sometimes fall in love, and were forced to choose between that and their vocation”, he said in an interview with the Times of Malta.

One man, two vocations is perfectly possible if everyone concerned is aware of what is involved.

Movement for Married Clergy

It was with these thoughts in mind that a small group in the 70s set about the establishment of the Movement for Married Clergy (MMaC).

Its aim was to raise the profile of this question and so separate a vocation to celibacy from a vocation to the priesthood.

Over the last 50 years, that has been our objective. Now has come the time to re-appraise the position.

Our membership is an ageing one, largely because the argument is already won. For the majority of younger Catholics, there is no case to answer.

We have been down the route of writing to our bishops, only to be, in most cases, ignored.

We have kept the issue alive in the Letters column of the National press. We have become of the ‘go to’ points for journalists looking for factual material on current issues.

We have built a large database of articles, letters and a web site which is a valuable resource.

So it is time for a change.

We cannot continue re-inventing the wheel.

The current committee of MMaC, after consultation with membership, have decided that we will cease to function as an independent organisation from this Easter, 2024.

This decision was not reached lightly but only after much thought and discussion.

Illness and age has led to the loss of three committee members in recent months. Without that core direction we faced an unsustainable future as an organisation. We needed a new home to reinvigorate our goal.

After discussions with the Root & Branch community, we decided to lend our voice to their cause.

Root & Branch community

For those of you who are not familiar with this Community, here is a brief summary of their goals and recent achievements.

Root and Branch is a grassroots community for reform, working for a safe, just and inclusive Roman Catholic Church.

Beginning just before Pope Francis initiated the current Synod on Synodality 2021-2024, Root and Branch organised their first acclaimed lay-led Synod in Bristol in 2021.

They and were honoured to play a foundational part in Spirit Unbounded in Rome and Bristol in October 2023, alongside the official Synod for Synodality in the Vatican.

With contributions from prominent reform-minded Catholics such as Joan Chittister, Mary McAleese, Diarmuid O’Murchu and Tom O’Loughlin, people worldwide recorded their often painful lack of human rights within the Catholic Church.

They called upon it to accept and recognise all who are currently marginalised or excluded by Church teachings.

A Christian community, centered on a thriving parish Eucharist, must be our aim, our voice that of the risen Christ.

That, at this stage of the journey MMaC has decided to make this move should not be seen as a failure of intention, rather as a continuation, a new direction, a global direction.

Parish discussion

As individuals we haven’t gone away.

Many and varied voices can be heard and are welcome within the forum of Root & Branch.

The Catholic Church in England and Wales is well placed to plead the cause of acceptance of a married priesthood given our experience of convert Anglicans.

Many Catholic parishes are familiar with married priests and have welcomed them into the parish community.

Maybe the next step is to urge parish discussion of the immediate and long-term future of priesthood for the sake of the people. Moreover, it is apparent from Synodal reportage that the celibacy issue was not dealt with adequately during the recent gathering in Rome.

May I thank those members who have served on MMaC’s national committee over the years and offer thanks to members who have loyally paid a yearly subscription that has covered our ongoing activities.

We urge you as individuals to support the Root &Branch community by keeping alive discussion of issues vital to a flourishing Christian mission in the Third Millennium.

  • First published by The Association of Parish Priests Republished with author’s permission.
  • Chris McDonnell is a retired headteacher from England and a regular contributor to La Croix International.  He was the secretary of the Movement for Married Clergy.
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