A new Austrian bishop has said that optional celibacy for priests would solve “problems”, create vocations and ease “loneliness” in clerics.

Driving the news

New Bishop of Gurk-Klagenfurt, Josef Marketz – installed at the weekend in his new post – made his declarations about celibacy on a television program February 3.

“I think [compulsory] celibacy… poses problems; there would be more priestly calls and less loneliness among priests” if the discipline were eased, Marketz said.

He added that especially older priests “would have it easier” if they were allowed a sentimental companion who had accompanied them since their youth.

Marketz clarified that he was not advocating for the total abolition of celibacy for priests, but only for the easing of the practice.

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With regard to the lack of priests which optional celibacy could well palliate, the new Gurk-Klagenfurt bishop said that, regardless of whether or not priests are permitted to marry in the future, closer collaboration between priests and laypeople is essential.

But priest-lay cooperation should not be in parallel – as is the case today – but more closely interlocking so as not to unnecessarily duplicate initiatives.

The 64-year-old Marketz, the former director of Caritas Carinthia, takes over in Gurk-Klagenfurt from controversial Bishop Alois Schwarz, now at the head of the diocese of Sankt-Pölten, who was accused of personal and economic misconduct in Gurk-Klagenfurt that is still the subject of both a Church and civil investigation.

Marketz said the diocese of Gurk-Klagenfurt is still waiting on the results of those investigations, but insisted on turning the page on the Schwarz era and promised transparency, responsibility and frugalness in his own management of the Church going forward.

Why it matters

Marketz’s latest defence on TV of optional celibacy is not the first time the new bishop has come out in support of easing the discipline.

In comments last December to the Kleine Zeitung, Marketz also said he was in favour of allowing priests to marry.

“Not so much because every man absolutely needs a woman next to him, but I see the loneliness of many old priests whose own family is often gone”.

“Without a family of one’s own, it becomes very difficult to live in a dignified way, and there are many reasons for the abolition of celibacy”, the new bishop insisted on that occasion last year.

Marketz was later forced to walk back those December comments on optional celibacy after what he recognised was an outcry from “irritated” traditional Catholics, and ended up reaffirming that “celibacy remains important for priests as the way of life of Jesus”.

The big picture

Marketz’s appointment to Gurk-Klagenfurt is significant in that Pope Francis in September 2019 promised a group of local laypeople to personally “seek a solution” for the diocese after Schwarz’s rocky rule.

True to the Pope’s example, Marketz has said that he wants to exercise his new ministry as a “modest priest” and “poor friend” of the people.

“Therefore, I do not want to move into the bishop’s house, but continue to live among the people as before”, Marketz explained, adding that it is a “great concern” of his to be able to live “reasonably normally”.

“I am very aware of the moral claim of this service, and I will try to do justice to it”, the new bishop insisted, adding that another priority for him will be what he called the “social question”: ensuring that society’s vulnerable and disadvantaged be given every opportunity to live a dignified life.

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PhD in ancient Jewish/Christian history and philosophy. University ethics lecturer with 4 years' experience in religion journalism.