Rediscovering Married Catholic Priests

Catholic priests in the ordinariates do model what a married priesthood should look like, but do not lobby for change.

Rorate Caeli (a fine traditional Catholic blog) reported that Pope Francis may be attempting to lay the groundwork for accepting a married priesthood in the West again. It's taking the form of another synod, this time a local one in South America. Here's a snippet of the story...
Just as the Synods "for the Family", in 2014 and 2015, were called basically to find enough ambiguity and semantic confusion to allow the Pope to reach the decision he had already reached (i.e. Eucharistic communion for those in ongoing adulterous relationships), the upcoming Amazon Synod has just one purpose: married priesthood in the Latin Church... 
read more here
As you can see the author of this article is not pleased with the potential of married priests in the Western Catholic Church. While I usually side with my traditionalist brethren in the Church, I'm going to break with many of them on this issue. Namely, because I don't see anything wrong with married men being admitted to the priesthood. I'll explain my position further below, but for now what is needed is a bit of self-disclosure.

I am an Evangelical convert to the Catholic Church through Anglicanism. By that I mean I started out as an Evangelical in my early adulthood, then became Anglican, and finally became Catholic. So my system of understanding Christianity is more heavily rooted in the Bible than in the traditional customs and teachings of Western Catholicism. Consider that a fault if you wish, but that's who I am, and I'm rather unapologetic about it. I converted to Catholicism in the year 2000, and this was a good 12 years before the Ordinariate for former Anglicans was formed in North America. I was eventually accepted into the Ordinariate, and I'm extremely grateful for that, but I think it's important for my readers to know that I've been Catholic a lot longer than many of my brothers and sisters in the Ordinariate. I want to point that out because you see, when it comes to married clergy, I have held this position a lot longer than what some may think. I've held to the position that married men should be admitted to the priesthood since my conversion in April of 2000. This was long before the ordinariates came into existence, and I held to this position as a regular diocesan Catholic. My opinion of this was just as solid in 2000 as it is today in 2017. My opinion remains unchanged. I believe, and have always believed, that married men should be admitted to the priesthood.

Also, in the interest of self-disclosure, I should mention that I myself have no interest in the priesthood. I had seriously contemplated the diaconate for a while, but I've decided against that too, and for very good reasons. I am a layman, and I shall remain a layman. While I remain open to the calling of God, as all Catholic men should be, I have to admit that it would take nothing short of a miracle to get me to commit to a clerical life. I view the ministerial vocation as similar to lifelong military service. It's something I might do if I were called to, in an emergency situation, but for me, it's not a vocation I feel called to at this time. Other men are more suited for this. So, lest some of you think I'm writing this essay for personal bias, secretly wanting to be ordained a priest, you may rest assured that is simply not the case. I am content as a layman, and (unless God calls me supernaturally) I fully intend to stay that way for the rest of my life.

Now that we have all that out of the way, let's get down to the heart of the matter...

There is nothing about celibacy that makes one "more holy" than marriage. Sadly, this is a common misconception among many Catholics. I've run across more than I can count who mistakenly believe a priest is holier than the rest of us precisely because he is celibate. In this error, they confuse celibacy for holiness, and in doing so, they make two more errors. First, they assume that a priest his holy only because he is celibate, thus ignoring other reasons that may be far more important. Second, they assume they can never really be holy themselves because they are married (not celibate). I've even run across more than a few Catholics who have told me that married deacons have to give up all sex in order to be deacons, and the same is true for all married priest. So I wonder where all those children of priests and deacons are coming from.

I recall one cradle Catholic yelling and screaming at me after I told him that Rome was allowing married Anglican clergy into the Church. In a rage, he screamed: "This is bullsh**! The Catholic Church is supposed to be strict Shane! Being Catholic is all about being strict! How can the Church allow married men into the priesthood!" This happened at a time in my life when I was contemplating the diaconate, and this fellow had known about this. It was at that time I realised that he thought I was contemplating giving up marital sex entirely to serve the Church as a deacon. Because you see, that's what he thought married deacons were supposed to do. What I didn't know until that moment was that his unusual respect for my decision was based on his mistaken belief that I was thinking about giving up a normal marriage to be ordained. I think this is why he was so disappointed and angry. I unwittingly and unknowingly popped his proverbial bubble. The whole outburst was really quite embarrassing -- for both of us.

Then another cradle Catholic woman also said the following to me, when I revealed the same thing about Rome letting married Anglican clergy become Catholic priests: "This is disgusting! How could I ever go to confession now, knowing that the priest has been touching a woman! Even if she is his lawful wife! I need a holy priest to confess to!" I would argue here that these cradle Catholics I encountered have some really strong misconceptions, not only about the priesthood but also about holiness, marriage and sex in general. It seems to me that a large number of Catholics are under the impression that sex is always dirty, that marriage only makes it barely acceptable, and that what makes one truly holy is total abstinence. Even marriage itself is considered by many of these Catholics to be something unclean -- a sign of weakness that one should be a little ashamed of. Somehow, in their minds, a married priest having sex with his wife disqualifies him to hear confession or do anything else. I assure you my experiences are legitimate. If this is how a large number of cradle Catholics view sex, marriage and the priesthood, then the Catholic Church has a huge catechises problem on its hands, much bigger than anyone realises.

As a former Evangelical, this kind of misunderstanding is totally foreign to me. I was raised to believe that sex is a good and holy thing when it is done within the context of marriage, and fornication or adultery is such a grave sin precisely because sex is such a good and holy thing. It's meant to be done only within marriage. That is God's plan for it. When it's done outside of marriage, sex is profaned. While originally planned by God to be an act of consummation and communion between a husband and wife, with the prospect of creating a new life in the process, any sexual act outside of marriage turns sex into an idol and mocks God's original intent. Damage is done not only to one's own relationship with God, but the fornicator (or adulterer) is also causing great damage to himself and his family, as well as to the woman he's having illicit sex with, and any children they may accidentally produce. That's what makes sex sinful. It's not the sex itself, but rather the abuse of sex, using it in ways God never intended. When sex is used properly, as God intended, it's a good and holy thing. When it's used in a way God did not intend, that is an abuse, and that is a sin. Only when it's abused is sex considered "dirty," not when it's used properly as God intended. So with this in mind, it is possible for a husband and wife, living in a normal marriage, to become holy and saintly people, even when they're regularly having marital sex with each other. In fact, it is possible for such persons to even be canonised as Saints (capital "S") after their deaths, assuming they've lived lives worthy of such a title. Some examples include...
  • Saints Joachim and Anne
  • Saints Zachary and Elizabeth
  • Saints Gregory the Elder and Nonna
  • Saints Basil the Elder and Macrina 
  • Saints Aquila and Priscilla 
  • Saints Philemon and Appia 
  • Saints Isidore the Farmer and Maria de la Cabeza
  • Saints Louis and Zelie Martin
While raised as Protestant, I would assert that this understanding of sex is far more "Catholic" than what some Catholics believe. It is Biblical too. In fact, the Bible doesn't seem to hold back in describing the kind of intimacy God intends for married couples, getting quite explicit at times...
And God created man to his own image: to the image of God he created him: male and female he created them. And God blessed them, saying: Increase and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it, and rule over the fishes of the sea, and the fowls of the air, and all living creatures that move upon the earth. 
-- Genesis 1:27-28 
Wherefore a man shall leave father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife: and they shall be two in one flesh
-- Genesis 2:24 
But from the beginning of the creation, God made them male and female. For this cause a man shall leave his father and mother; and shall cleave to his wife. And they two shall be in one flesh. Therefore now they are not two, but one flesh. What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder.  
-- Mark 10:6-9 
Marriage honourable in all, and the bed undefiled. For fornicators and adulterers God will judge. 
-- Hebrews 13:4 
Let thy vein be blessed, and rejoice with the wife of thy youth: Let her be thy dearest hind, and most agreeable fawn: let her breasts inebriate thee at all times; be thou delighted continually with her love
-- Proverbs 5:18-19 
How fair and how pleasant art thou, O love, for delights! This thy stature is like to a palm tree, and thy breasts to clusters of grapes. I said, I will go up to the palm tree, I will take hold of the boughs thereof: now also thy breasts shall be as clusters of the vine, and the smell of thy nose like apples; and the roof of thy mouth like the best wine for my beloved, that goeth down sweetly, causing the lips of those that are asleep to speak. 
-- Song of Solomon 7:6-9 
Nevertheless, to avoid fornication, let every man have his own wife, and let every woman have her own husband. Let the husband render unto the wife due benevolence: and likewise also the wife unto the husband. The wife hath not power of her own body, but the husband: and likewise also the husband hath not power of his own body, but the wife. Defraud ye not one the other, except it be with consent for a time, that ye may give yourselves to fasting and prayer; and come together again, that Satan tempt you not for your incontinency. 
-- 1 Corinthians 7:2-5
All of these Biblical passages deal with the sacrament of marriage, and what husbands and wives are expected to do therein. There is nothing dirty about it. There is nothing sinful about it. There is nothing unholy about it. In fact, when husbands and wives make love, it is what God expects of them. Now once we understand what sex is supposed to be about, inside the context of marriage, we need to understand the definition of some terms...
  1. Abstinence: This word means no sex at all. To "abstain" from sex.
  2. Celibacy: This word means committing to a life of abstinence. It means foregoing marriage and all sexual activity for a definite or indefinite period of time.
  3. Chastidy: This word means just keeping sex for marriage. A man who is single is "chaste" when he abstains from all sex and lives in a state of abstinence. However, a man who is married still remains "chaste" even when he is having sex with his wife, because he is keeping sex within marriage. He only becomes unchaste when he commits adultery. This definition applies to both men and women equally. 
Now let's talk about marriage. Within the Catholic Church, marriage is elevated to the level of a sacrament. In fact, it's one of the seven sacraments of the Church, and one of the two sacraments of vocation. This actually puts it on par with the priesthood, which is the other sacrament of vocation. That means, when a couple gets married, they're celebrating a sacrament. Now I want you to think about this. When a couple gets married, in a Catholic Church no less, everybody knows that couple will soon be having sex. In fact, it's actually expected. The purpose of marriage, especially a Catholic marriage, is not only for the husband and wife to share intimacy with each other, but it's expected that children will likely be produced. Of course, this isn't always true for every couple, especially those who have fertility problems, but that isn't their fault. The general assumption is that sex will happen and that children will be produced most of the time. Think of it. There, standing (and kneeling) front and centre for all to see is the couple about to be married. The priest is witnessing the wedding and officiating for the Church. The ceremony is very solemn and reverent. It's about as religious as anything gets. And yet, everyone in that room knows that this couple, who have thus far been presumably celibate as singles, are now going to engage in sexual intimacy, probably beginning that very night. Yet, for some reason, everybody in the chapel seems fine with this. Nobody is trying to hide it. Everybody knows, and they're all smiles, giving their blessing and gifts, showering them with rice (or birdseed) or whatever they use these days. How on earth could sex be considered something dirty in this context? It's not. So it amazes me that some Catholics seem to think that sex is something unholy or nasty, even when its done in the context of marriage. It's even more shocking that some would think that sex within marriage would in any way reduce a Catholic priest's holiness. The point here is that God made sex, and he made it for a holy reason, which is to provide intimacy for married couples, and to create more holy souls (babies) for the Kingdom of God. In short, sex is good, when it's used the way God intended.

Now let's talk about ministry. The first consecrated priesthood established by God in the Bible is the Levitical priesthood of the Old Testament under the Law of Moses. This was the priesthood of the Israelites before the time of Christ. This priesthood consisted mostly of married men, and it was a hereditary priesthood, which means that the office of priest was passed down from father to son(s). So right from the beginning, not only did God allow his priests to be married, but he actually expected it, because the procreation of more male offspring was how the priestly line was maintained.

By the time we get to the New Testament we have a new King of Israel. That would be Jesus of Nazareth, who is the Christ (Messiah or Anointed One). Jesus is more than King, he is also God in the flesh, which means he has authority over the Law of Moses. By fulfilling the Law of Moses on the cross, Jesus inaugurated his reign as the new and everlasting King of Israel, which in turn would have a new priesthood. This new priesthood would not be hereditary in nature, but rather be maintained by those who "felt a calling" to become priests. Thus marriage for priests is no longer absolutely necessary. Priests in the New Israel (The Church) would now be free to remain celibate if they could and spend all of their time and devotion serving Christ and his Church. This new development was nothing short of revolutionary.

The new paradigm took some time getting used to in the early Church. Initially, some of the apostles themselves were married. We know that St Peter was married (Matthew 8:14-15), and Clement of Alexandria wrote that Peter not only had children with her but witnessed his wife's martyrdom in Rome (Clement of Alexandria, Stromata, III, written in AD 202). We can assume that a few of the other apostles must have been married to. When they established churches in various parts of the world, we also know they ordained both married and celibate men. Some of these married men were made priests and a few of them were even made bishops! St Paul addresses this in the Scriptures...
A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, vigilant, sober, of good behaviour, given to hospitality, apt to teach; not given to wine, no striker, not greedy of filthy lucre; but patient, not a brawler, not covetous; one that ruleth well his own house, having his children in subjection with all gravity; (for if a man know not how to rule his own house, how shall he take care of the church of God?) 
-- 1 Timothy 3:2-5
We should note here that this passage does not command a bishop to be married, but rather if he is married, he should only have one wife. Presumably, this means that divorced and remarried men are not only prohibited to the episcopate but also that if a married bishop loses his wife to martyrdom or natural causes, he should not seek to marry another. Also, married men with children were ordained as bishops in the early Church, with the qualification set that if he has children, they should be of good reputation and submissive to their father.

In the following centuries, the Church came to understand that while married men could not be denied access to the priesthood, bishops (on the other hand) should only be chosen from among celibate priests, due to the demanding nature of the episcopal office. Therefore, it became the practice in the medieval Church to select bishops only from celibate priests. The practice was, and remains, universal throughout the Church today, both in the East and the West.

It's quite obvious the Church vexed over the issue of married clergy from the very beginning. There has always been a tendency to gravitate toward celibacy, and rightfully so. Both Jesus and St Paul explicitly said it is preferred, especially when it comes to ministry, but both stopped short of saying it was required.
His disciples say unto him, If the case of the man be so with his wife, it is not good to marry. But he said unto them, All men cannot receive this saying, save they to whom it is given. For there are some eunuchs, which were so born from their mother’s womb: and there are some eunuchs, which were made eunuchs of men: and there be eunuchs, which have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake. He that is able to receive it, let him receive it. 
-- Matthew 19:10-12 
But I speak this by permission, and not of commandment. For I would that all men were even as I myself. But every man hath his proper gift of God, one after this manner, and another after that. I say therefore to the unmarried and widows, It is good for them if they abide even as I. But if they cannot contain, let them marry: for it is better to marry than to burn... But I would have you without carefulness. He that is unmarried careth for the things that belong to the Lord, how he may please the Lord. 
-- 1 Corinthians 7:6-9, 32 
Celibacy has always been the preferred state in Christian ministry, but it is preferred, not commanded. For even Jesus said that only some are able to receive celibacy (becoming a eunuch for the kingdom) as a lifelong vocation. Nevertheless, early on in Church history, we see a shift in the way local regions handled this matter. At the local Synod of Elvira, held in Spain around AD 305, the synod bishops proclaimed:
It is decided that marriage be altogether prohibited to bishops, priests, and deacons, or to all clerics placed in the ministry, and that they keep away from their wives and not beget children; whoever does this shall be deprived of the honor of the clerical office.
It should be noted this was a local synod and not an ecumenical council of the Church. So their decision was only binding on the local dioceses in the Roman province of Spain at the time. Spain was considered frontier territory and highly missionary at this point in history, which helps to explain the reason for this proclamation. This isn't the only controversial canon made at the Synod of Elvira. The synodical bishops also forbade the use of painted or graven images in their churches. The Ecumenical Council of Nicea would be held 20 years later, and it is notable that the bishops at Nicea did not take up the issue of clerical celibacy for the universal Church. Certainly, some bishops who attended Nicea ware present at Elvira. Their silence on this issue at the Council of Nicea, in the wake of their canons at the Synod at Elvira, is telling. Clearly, the majority of Catholic bishops around the world did not agree with the Spanish celibacy mandate in all cases.

The Synod of Carthage, held in North Africa in AD 397, came to a similar conclusion...
It is fitting that the holy bishops and priests of God as well as the Levites, i.e. those who are in the service of the divine sacraments, observe perfect continence, so that they may obtain in all simplicity what they are asking from God; what the Apostles taught and what antiquity itself observed, let us also endeavour to keep.… It pleases us all that bishop, priest and deacon, guardians of purity, abstain from conjugal intercourse with their wives, so that those who serve at the altar may keep a perfect chastity.
Again, however, the issue was ignored at the ecumenical councils of the whole Church. As best as we can tell here, we have at least two local synods making sweeping proclamations, even claiming apostolic authority in them, but the larger ecumenical councils refused to take up the issue. This is not to say the bishops of the ecumenical councils disagreed entirely. It may simply be that they thought of it more as a local matter, to be dealt with by local bishops, each in their own way. Some local synods mandated total celibacy while others did not. As Catholics, we should take note that none of these proclamations carry the weight of infallible teaching. They can be in error. Nevertheless, they do establish a historical precedence. The Church has been struggling with this issue for a very long time.

Then, in AD 1075 we started to see a more universal shift in the West against married men in the priesthood. It began in earnest when Pope Gregory VII issued a decree barring married priests from the ministry. This decision was later formalised by the First Lateran Council in AD 1123 -- an ecumenical council of the entire Church. However, this was a disciplinary decision, rooted in canon law, not doctrine. Therefore it is not official Catholic teaching, but rather a disciplinary practice. Furthermore, it was/is only binding in the Western Church, particularly the Roman Rite, and has no authority over the 23 Eastern Catholic churches. In fact, Eastern Catholic churches, still in communion with Rome, continued to ordain married men to the priesthood. This was not an act of rebellion against the Pope or the Council. Rather, the whole proclamation of the celibacy mandate was never intended to apply to them in the first place. It was only targeted toward the particular Church the Pope had immediate juridic authority over -- the Roman Church -- meaning all those who celebrate the Roman Rite.

In the West, up until AD 1075, married men were ordained to the priesthood together with celibate men. Usually, married men were assigned to diocesan parishes, while celibate men were usually assigned to monasteries. This wasn't always the case, of course, as at that time celibate priests were more numerous and would also find themselves assigned to diocesan parishes as well.

Herein lies part of the reason for why Pope Gregory VII saw the urgent need to forbid married men in the priesthood. He was faced with a bit of a financial crisis. A lot of it had to do with medieval law and property ownership at that time. For various reasons, it was required that local priests hold the deeds to parish property, rather than the bishops as is the current practice today. There was a problem in medieval Europe at that time with married priests. To ensure the general welfare of their wives and children, in the event of the priest's untimely death, the parish property was often willed to the priest's wife or children, rather than a parish deputy to watch over it until a new priest arrived. One can only imagine the legal problems this caused. I suppose the priests who did this probably did it as a way to ensure the local bishop would care for their widows and children. It's kind of like holding the parish property hostage saying: "take care of my widow and children or this parish property will be at their disposal." Remember, this was before the days of life insurance and social security. Of course, the easy solution for the bishop would be to just "buy out" the widow and her children with a handsome price. Think of the problems this would cause for the bishop though. Imagine what it was like during a period of plague when three of four married priests would die within a decade in a given region. That poor bishop would have to re-purchase the same parish properties multiple times in a decade. What a mess! Think about how unfair that would be, not only for the bishop but for the parishioners too, who would certainly have to pay part of the bill. The concept of life insurance and social security wouldn't come about for a long time. The Church, of course, would always provide financial assistance to poor widows, but the whole point of priests' families inheriting the parish property was to ensure that the priest's widow and children would never be poor.

Of course, there were other factors too, not necessarily related to money. One of them was evangelistic in nature. The Western Church, always more of a frontier establishment, was in need of missionary priests who were not tied down to wives and children. The Western Church was also in need of men who could devote more time to ministry in general. So the idea of an all celibate priesthood started to become much more palatable in the Middle Ages.

Once the decision was made to go completely celibate in the West, a whole new spirituality gradually evolved around the priesthood, wherein the priest came to be seen as a man totally detached from everything in this world. This led to the laity thinking of the priest in a more ethereal way, giving him a mystique of otherworldliness. Gradually, perhaps subconsciously, it would seem that many lay Catholics began to equate celibacy with holiness.

To be fair, Christian celibacy (regardless of who practices it) is an eschatological sign. Obviously, it must be, since Christ and St Paul not only spoke so highly of it but exemplified it in their own lives. That means it's a witness of Heaven and the New World to come. In the afterlife, there will be no marriage and no sex (Matthew 22:29-30). We are not expected to understand how this works but are simply to trust that when that time comes, we won't need these things anymore. So when Christians become celibate in this life (be they nuns, monks, priests, bishops or consecrated virgins) they are giving an eschatological sign of the future life that is someday coming for all of us. It's a great testimony of faith for those who choose to live this way, and it's a great reminder of faith for the rest of us, to help lift us up and understand that God has something much bigger and better planned for our future. As good as marriage and family may be in this life, they pale in comparison to the contentment that awaits us in the next. So the spirituality behind priestly celibacy is totally legitimate, as long as we understand what it really is. Celibacy is not some kind of priestly mystique that makes the priest more holy than the rest of us. It is rather an eschatological sign (a living witness) of what we can all expect in the afterlife. Anybody can give us this sign. It doesn't always have to be a priest. It could be a nun, or a monk, or a consecrated virgin. Consecrated virgins are normal, everyday Catholics, who work regular jobs and dress just like everyone else. However, they've chosen to remain celibate as an eschatological sign of the world to come.

Now let's talk about celibacy in particular. Jesus Christ is the ultimate example for all Christians, especially the clergy, and it cannot be denied that he was celibate. So right from the start, we know that celibacy is not only approved by God, but it is even exemplified by him. Any priest (or nun, monk, consecrated virgin, etc.) who is celibate is by definition following the example of Jesus Christ. This cannot be denied either. Some Protestant Fundamentalists scoff at celibacy as if it were anti-Biblical or somehow went against Christ's teachings. One has to wonder what Bible they might be reading. Jesus himself praised those who are able to remain celibate...
His disciples say unto him, If the case of the man be so with his wife, it is not good to marry. But he said unto them, All men cannot receive this saying, save they to whom it is given. For there are some eunuchs, which were so born from their mother’s womb: and there are some eunuchs, which were made eunuchs of men: and there be eunuchs, which have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake. He that is able to receive it, let him receive it. 
-- Matthew 19:10-12 
However, you'll notice something in this passage. There is a subtle admission in Jesus' words. Not everyone in the Kingdom of God can be celibate. In fact, Jesus seems to imply here that this gift is reserved only for the few. To put it bluntly, most people need to have companionship, intimacy, sex and family. Jesus seems to acknowledge that here.

The greatest advocate for celibacy in the New Testament is clearly St Paul. He too was celibate, and he encouraged others to do the same. Yet, even St Paul freely admitted that this simply wasn't God's plan for everyone...
But I speak this by permission, and not of commandment. For I would that all men were even as I myself. But every man hath his proper gift of God, one after this manner, and another after that. I say therefore to the unmarried and widows, It is good for them if they abide even as I. But if they cannot contain, let them marry: for it is better to marry than to burn... But I would have you without carefulness. He that is unmarried careth for the things that belong to the Lord, how he may please the Lord. 
-- 1 Corinthians 7:6-9, 32 
Ultimately, this is what we're facing here. If Jesus Christ himself ordained 12 apostles, some of whom were married, then it really isn't our place to tell people that married men cannot serve in ordained ministry. Christ is our ultimate example here, is he not? Are we to assume that Jesus just didn't know any better? He did ordain some married men as apostles, and one of them served as the first pope! We know that Jesus, and Paul, frankly said that celibacy is preferred for ministry, but neither of them denied married men the chance to serve. We can debate about married men in the episcopacy (bishopric) all we want, and there is a very strong argument to be made for celibacy there, especially considering the rigours of that position. However, if we say that married men cannot serve the priesthood at all, then we're really kind of ignoring both Jesus Christ and St Paul on this issue.

Pope Gregory's order in AD 1075, followed by the First Lateran Council in AD 1123, only established priestly celibacy as a discipline, not a doctrine. Furthermore, it only applied to the Western Roman Rite. Eastern Catholic churches, still in communion with Rome, were not affected by this order.

Some might accuse me of going against Rome's decision by writing this way, and I'm afraid they're right, to a certain degree. I'm not saying this in a rebellious way, but rather as constructive criticism. I think Pope Gregory VII and the First Lateran Council certainly had the canonical authority to make this decision, but I don't think they had the full blessing of God to make it permanent or universal. It seems to me the decision goes way beyond what Christ and his apostles originally sanctioned. Just because Church leaders have the authority to do something doesn't mean they should. In the end, it is the bishops of the Church who have the authority, not me, so I acknowledge their right to make such decisions, I just don't think it was necessarily the right decision to make. So call me a conscientious objector on this one.

For nearly 1,000 years now, only celibate men have been permitted to ordination in the Western Roman Rite of the Catholic Church. (Like I said, the Eastern Catholic churches remain unaffected.) This has had both its pros and cons.

On the positive side, the celibate priesthood made rapid evangelisation in the American continents possible, as many celibate priests (with no ties to wife and children) were able to throw themselves fearlessly into the missionary fields of Native America. Many good men died for the sake of the gospel in those days, and the fruit of their sacrifice is undeniable today. The same goes for sub-Saharan Africa, southeast Asia, and other parts of the world. This is why the Roman Rite is the largest rite in the Catholic Church today. The celibate priesthood made all this possible with massive missionary undertakings, and there is no question that the rapid expansion of Christianity onto two previously unknown continents is largely attributed to the availability fo celibate priests during the last millennium.

On the negative side, the celibate priesthood has unintentionally caused three major problems. The first is the most obvious. The Roman Rite of the Catholic Church is demanding a vocational rigour far above and beyond what Jesus and his Apostles required. Rome imposes this discipline purely on her own authority -- not that of the Apostles. Show me one passage of Scripture where Christ or St Paul specifically said that ALL ministers must be celibate, and I'll stop talking. But if that can't be done, you'll have to admit I have a point, even if you don't agree with it. The second problem is that the celibate priesthood has created an unnatural mystique in the minds of many Catholics. Granted, this isn't the case with well-educated Catholics, but how many Catholics today are well-educated? It seems to me, based on my own run-ins with some devout cradle Catholics, that there are some huge misunderstandings in the Church about sex, celibacy and the priesthood. If a large number of Catholics are thinking that sex inside of marriage is "dirty," and a priest is holy precisely because he is celibate, I would say we have a significant problem here. The third problem is that the celibacy rule is limiting the number of men applying to the priesthood. Now, this last point can be a source of misunderstanding here. I am NOT saying that allowing married men would solve the priest shortage in the Church. I don't believe it would. This is because the number of married men who would apply to the priesthood, if available to them, would be very small, to begin with. Then the seminary vetting process would likely narrow this number down even further. The number of married men who would actually make it to ordination, if available to them, would actually be very small under today's conditions. These would in no way reverse the priest shortage, but they could help control clerical haemorrhaging for a short while until a younger generation of celibate men has time to rise up. So what I'm saying here is the Church is excluding a potentially useful resource with the celibacy rule, even if it's not a cure to the problem.

If the celibacy rule were rescinded, even in just limited places, how might this unfold?

I think the first thing Catholics need to do is take a deep breath and relax. I realise there is a tendency to panic over this issue. Some traditional Catholics think allowing married men access to the priesthood is some kind of a "liberal compromise." Nothing could be further from the truth. Many of the first priests and bishops were married, and married clergymen were permitted in the West until AD 1075, and continue to be permitted in the East to this very day. How could this possibly be considered a "liberal compromise?" I would have to ask: a compromise with what? History? Others will panic with the assumption that we're going to allow priests on the prowl looking for a wife. I want to stress here that nobody is talking about that. This entire discussion is about allowing men who are already married to become priests. Nobody is talking about allowing men who are already priests to go out and get married. When I say nobody is talking about that, I do mean nobody! That's not even on the table for discussion and never was. Of course, other Catholics will panic by saying that a married priest will not have enough time to tend to the parish, and still, others will worry about how the parish can possibly tend to the financial needs of a priest's family.

The thing is, it's not like this is something new. It's not like this has never been done before. We have two major examples of married clergy at our fingertips. One is in the Eastern Catholic churches, and the other is in the form of married Protestant ministers who have converted to Catholicism and have since been ordained as Catholic priests. Of the later, there are now hundreds of such married priests serving in North America today. Many of these are in the Ordinariate for former Anglicans, while many others have actually been incardinated into diocesan life. Now don't bother asking any of them what they think the Church should do in this matter. I haven't met one yet who is willing to share his opinion. For these former Protestant ministers, many of them made great sacrifices to board the Barque of Peter, so the last thing they want to do is rock the boat. My opinions on this blog are uniquely my own, as every married priest I personally know would say "leave me out of it." Out of respect for them, I will. However, by virtue of their very existence, they do serve as an object lesson for how it can (and does) work. I can speak on a purely observational level if nothing more. In parishes where the priest is married, parishioners do step up to the plate financially speaking, and the priest's family also receives help from the diocese as well. Keep in mind that priest's families are not always a drain on the parish, but usually become active participants and helpers. It's not uncommon for the priest's wife (presbytera) to do large volumes of work in the parish office on a volunteer basis. The same goes for some of the priest's children, helping out both in the office and on the Church grounds. All of this saves money for the parish. So when we're talking about finances here, there's a little give and take, where the parish pretty much breaks even in the end. As for availability, I have not seen a married priest any less available than a celibate priest. The celibate priests value their personal time as well. They all take at least one day off per week. There are times in the evening when they can't be reached. I've worked with both celibate and married priests, and quite honestly, the availability factor seems about the same. So that's my observational experience.

I find that many of the concerns Catholics often cite for why we should not allow married men into the priesthood tend to fall flat when we observe married priests in action. It seems that many Western Catholics forget that they've been surrounded by married Catholic priests for centuries in the Eastern Catholic churches. It's not like this is anything new here. It's been going on right under our noses for generations.

Some Catholics fear the idea of letting married men into the priesthood because it seems "new" and "innovative" to them. In this post-conciliar era, filled with all sorts of new innovations, this seems like just another step in that direction. However, what we're really talking about here is not some new innovation, but rather a return to an older tradition. By definition, something cannot be "innovative" if it's a return to an older tradition than the one currently in use. That's what we're talking about here. We're talking about going back to a tradition that was in use in the Western Church up until 1,000 years ago, and still in constant use in the Eastern churches for 2,000 years straight. There is nothing "new" or "innovative" about going back to an older tradition than what is currently used.

So if the Western Church were to return to this older custom, how might it go about it in a reasonable and prudent way? First and foremost, I think the broad imposition of a married priesthood upon the entire Western church, in the same way that celibacy was imposed nearly 1,000 years ago, would be rather draconian. A more gradual and limited approach would probably be more reasonable. For example...
  • The laity must be educated that the Church is not allowing priests to marry, but rather allowing men who are already married to become priests. There is a huge difference.
  • Religious orders should maintain mandatory celibacy for all candidates. Having wives and children in religious orders would be very counterproductive to the mission of such orders.
  • Certain jurisdictions already accustomed to dealing with married clergy should be the first to begin accepting married men into the priesthood. These jurisdictions have experience in this matter and can share their experience with other jurisdictions. 
  • Local bishops should be given autonomy over the decision to ordain married men. This would mean that some bishops might do it, while other bishops might not. Each for his own particular reasons.
  • National and regional bishops conferences should have a say as well, but not one that overrides the autonomy of the local bishops. 
  • The admission of married men to the priesthood should be limited and occasional.
  • The first married priests should definitely be older men who have already raised most or all of their children.
  • Younger married men could be admitted slowly over time, but only after they have proved themselves in marriage and fatherhood for a number of years.
  • The wives of candidates for the priesthood should be equally enthusiastic about supporting their husbands in ministry. If that support isn't there, ordination should be denied. 
  • Dioceses and other jurisdictions should work toward implementing a ratio, of celibate to married priests, that works well for that jurisdiction, with the understanding that each jurisdiction is a little different of course. Some dioceses may want a 10:1 (10%) ratio, with ten celibate priests per one married priest. Others might be able to tolerate more of a 1:1 (50%) ratio. It all depends on the diocese or jurisdiction. What should be avoided (in most cases) is a situation where there are more married priests than celibate priests. There are very few jurisdictions equipped to handle that right now. I happen to be under one that is equipped, but like I said, that is rare in this day and age. 
  • There must be an exception made for some dioceses/jurisdictions that may not be able to handle any married priests at all. I'm speaking of remote missionary jurisdictions in particular. 
I think we should look at this in a way that is similar to the early Christians and early Medieval Church. In areas where there is large missionary work to be done, it only makes sense to limit the number of married priests. While in other areas that have already been firmly established with a strong Catholic presence, the ordination of married men might be more permissible on a limited basis. 

I think this is a practical way to look at it, and I think if the Church were to implement some kind of plan that resembles this in some way, we could expect a smooth transition in the West from an all celibate priesthood, to a more mixed priesthood of married and celibate men. What we must avoid is the typical panic that often accompanies any change these days. There is nothing about a married priesthood that is new, innovative or heretical. It is rather, just a very old tradition that the Church may be thinking about reviving in the not-too-distant future if the rumours turn out to be true.


Shane Schaetzel is an author of Catholic books and a columnist for Christian print magazines and online publications. He is a freelance writer and the creator of '' Your support is what makes essays like this possible. This essay and all of Shane's Internet resources come to you (ad-free) thanks to the generosity of benefactors. Please consider becoming a benefactor.

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Anil Wang said…
While it is allowable for priests to be married, there are several reasons why the West has wisely chosen to restrict it and why in the East (Catholics or Orthodox), married bishops have not been allowed since at least the council of Nicea:

(1) As St. Paul points out, a priest who has a family is divided and cannot serve his parish as well. He will either ignore his family or ignore his parish. As an Evangelical you must know about PKs and how often they rebel precisely because of this. In Eastern parishes, the concept of a daily mass is virtually non-existent. Note that because there is fasting on sexual relations before mass for priests that has been in place since the time of Moses (Exodus 19, 1 Samuel 21, etc), there is pressure against daily masses on top of the usual family pressues.

(2) A priest who upholds the teachings of the Church will either live as brother and sister with his wife (in which cases marriage is not necessary) or will have a large family. A large family will require that more of the parishes donations go to supporting that family rather than the support of the Church. Catholic schools used to be much more affordable precisely because they were dominated by celebate religious. Now they are pricier precisely because lay people have to support their families.

(3) Relating to point (2), one of the reasons the Lambeth Anglican Synod loosened the restrictions on contraception is precisely because families are so expensive and the synod wanted to ease the economic burden. Celebate priests already have been soft on contraception because of external pressures. They don't need internal pressures within their family to cave further, especially during this Papacy.

(4) It would lend credence to the false narrative that child abuse by priests happened because "celibacy is not realistic". Not only does this narrative destroy Catholic morality, it is also false since the rate of child abuse is higher outside the Catholic Church. Not only that, if someone is willing abandon/cheat his vows priesthood vows, he'd almost certainly abandon/cheat in marriage. Furthermore, if someone is willing to abandon/cheat is the most immoral way with children, marriage would not stop them. Again, allowing married priests during this Papacy would be the death blow to Catholic morality.

If societal sexual morality becomes more restrained and sane, the question of married priests as anything other than an exception could be opened up. But now, it would be a disaster.
Tom B. said…
"There is nothing about a married priesthood that is new, innovative or heretical."

True, but as Anil Wang points out, context is critical. There is also nothing "new, innovative or heretical" about receiving the Eucharist standing in a line as is the Byzantine custom, as opposed to kneeling at an altar rail.

However, the Byzantines can claim that to be their immemorial custom, whereas we Latins were explicitly told in the '70s and '80s that the reason we "no longer kneel" is because we are "a mature Resurrection People now," and no longer live in the terrible, horrible, no-good pre-Vatican II Dark Ages. Very different context.
Gaius said…
I agree in principle with the idea of having married priests, largely because, coming from an Anglican background, I think that the priest's wife and family can play an important role in the parish, but like the other posters I don't think you're giving enough weight to the "compromise with liberalism" argument. Whilst supporting the ordination of married men isn't per se heretical, most of the people presently supporting it do quite clearly see it as a stepping-stone to heretical ideas like ordaining women or doing away with the Church's teachings on fornication and contraception. If the Church were to start ordaining married men, it would look like a victory for these sorts of heresies, with obvious (and obviously negative) effects for the Church's witness.
Ed Knauf said…
It is simply erroneous to conclude that an ecumenical council "refused" to take up the issue of clerical celibacy when certain regional synods explicitly addressed it. Such councils tended to be called to address a specific theological controversy, so it couldn't be expected to address other, or all, extant questions.

Celibacy has never been more important. Priests and bishops give their entire lives for the sake of the Kingdom, and are a vital witness in a sex-crazed secular world that posits that no man can "live without it." Theirs is a vital witness pointing to the world to come. I dearly hope this pontiff, in his quest to change much of what came before him, leaves the discipline of celibacy intact.