Archbishop of Brussels Speaks Out for Married Priests

Jozef De Kesel, Archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels and primate of Belgium, has spoken in favor of allowing the ordination of married men. In a wide-ranging interview with De Zondag, a Flemish publication, the 68-year old Archbishop was asked whether the Latin Rite should maintain priestly celibacy. He said in reply:

I am not in favor of the abolition of celibacyA single life is not meaningless. I have consciously chosen it: it was also the way of life of Jesus. However, I do not think we can require that of all priests, especially at a time when sexuality plays a big role. I am a supporter of the model of the Eastern Catholic Church. There, married men can enter the priesthood.”

His remarks were also reported in Le Soir, a francophone Belgian publication.

An article in noted that Archbishop De Kezel had made a similar proposal in 2010. He was supported by the bishop of Antwerp, Johan Bonny, and the bishop of Hasselt, Patrick Hoogmartens. The article went on to observe that Mainz Cardinal Karl Lehmann also recently noted signs from Pope Francis of an openness to discussing the question of married priests and perhaps to a limited experiment with “different models of priesthood.”


  1. Bit by bit, one step at a time…
    we are beginning to realise that a fact must be faced.
    The compulsory imposition of celibacy for those who have a vocation to the priesthood is no longer tenable. It just takes a reality check by our bishops to catch up with circumstances as they presently face us.
    Or is that too much to ask?

  2. Let us suppose for the sake of conversation that Francis is in favor of this and would like to proceed. How would that work? E.g.:

    * Francis would decree a change to whatever in canon law currently prohibits it

    * Individual dioceses would then need to work out the details: who to admit; how to prepare them; how to see to the support of families; what assignments are suitable; if parochial assignments, how to work out the living arrangements; etc.

    … ?

  3. … or perhaps Francis would deem this a suitable topic for a synod, rather than make the first move himself?

  4. Jim, let’s turn it round. How about individual bishops’ conferences asking questions within their own communities, how it would work,
    what preparation needs to take place.
    How about setting up a commission of laity and clergy to begin the process. How about that good teaching principle of asking a few questions? And not be afraid of the answers that we might get? Then take it all to a synod if that is deemed necessary.

  5. Chris – I’m sure you’re right that it would make sense for national conferences to consider this question. As a practical matter, I believe it would also require some action and guidance from the Holy See (in a happy typo, I nearly typed “Holy Spirit” :-)).

  6. It is interesting to note that Abp. de Kesel seems to indicate allowing already married men to be ordained, as opposed to allowing already ordained priest to be married. Just a layer to note.

    Because the Church has established the discipline of requiring priestly celibacy, I wonder at the nature of those “vocations” to the priesthood of married men. Would God call certain married men to the priesthood for the sake of changing the discipline of the Church, knowing that the rule will not be changed in their lifetime? Is there a precedent in the history of salvation for God to act in this way, essentially pitting his actions against those of the Church? Perhaps this is not the place to take up this aspect of the discussion, but my first paragraph observation stands.

    1. @Conor Cook:
      I should think God’s motivation in calling married men to priesthood is much like it was with Peter: “Feed my sheep.”

      Many of the saints never saw in their lifetime the flourishing of the plan God called them to put into motion, and many were penalized in their lifetime for their obedience to God’s call which later generations deemed authentic. So I don’t think it’s to be assumed that God would only call people to something they expect to be achievable in their lifetime.

  7. Required celibacy reflects the needed commitment to this vocation. If celibacy was not required you may draw men who do not have that commitment.

    If my information is correct, in the eastern churches, celibate priest of the monasteries play a bigger role in parish life, so the role of the married priest is different than our western priest. Can someone gives us a clearer picture on eastern style?

    1. @Jim Scholene:
      Jim, I am not sure I follow your first paragraph about commitment. Perhaps someone has hard data on this, but anecdotal information suggests that married priests in the Eastern churches and in the Anglican communion are no less committed to their vocation than are Catholic priests. But perhaps you are talking about commitment to celibacy itself? Are you saying that it’s harder to continue in a celibate vocation if your confreres are not celibate too? It’s an interesting point about group dynamics and cohesion. I don’t know the answer, but I would hope a network of support among those called to celibacy would rise to meet the need (much like membership in a religious order sustains religious in a celibate vocation, even when they work in different places) in a more diverse environment.

      As to your other question, in the Orthodox churches almost all the parish priests are married. The bishops, on the other hand, are drawn from monastic communities, and so are all celibate. The two-tiered system contains some in-built tensions, or so I am told, but this has more to do with the gap between parish and monastery rather than the gap between celibacy and marriage. In the Eastern Rite Catholic Churches, there is a different history. Celibacy was imposed, at least in some places, but nowadays there are both celibate and married priests because their more ancient practices are now accepted by Roman authority. I welcome clarifications on this point, but I suspect it’s a mixed demographic. Many are married, but not all. They manage to sort it out.

  8. Chris – we’re preparing to close parishes here in Chicago, too. It’s not all about a lack of priests, but it’s one of the factors.

  9. In my view, it is nothing less than scandalous that discussions about admitting married men to priestly ministry have not yet begun among all the bishops and within dioceses by the people of parishes scheduled for “consolidation” or closure. It’s been two years since Francis first indicated he was open to requests from Bishops with regard to this matter. And its been decades since it first became apparent that the number of men willing freely to acknowledge a call to celibate priesthood would be greatly insufficient. Instead of a program for expanding the number of communities through a vigorous evangelization effort, ddioceses are acting as if they are going out of business even to the point of assessing the monetary value of abandoned “real estate”. What is wrong with us?
    I think it’s because those who actively oppose any change in this direction are unwilling or unable to imagine a church with various models of ministry. Their understanding of liturgical worship seems to be primary. The priest must be one set apart and seen as above the others by virtue of their closeness to the altar. After all, why would a group of people gather regularly to be led in worship if the priest is just “one of us”. Talk about an incredibly limited understanding of incarnation and how it affects ministry. I think its well beyond time for Francis to find a way to stir the pot on this topic. Well regarded attacks on clericalism just doesn’t seem to be cutting it.

  10. So why do married men not become deacons?

    Though I am all for having both married priests and celibate priests, there is something more to this than just being able to get married.

    There is a vocations crisis in the west in many other denominations, why do we think we are special? It may have to do with our way of life more than the privilege of married life.

    Lets pray for vocations and the will of the Father to prevail, whatever that may mean.

    1. @Jonathan Lee Ching:
      There are, it seems to me, at least four probable reasons why ‘married men aren’t becoming deacons’ (though I am both!): firstly, the diaconate is not fully understood or valued in our tradition, unlike the ministry of the priest; secondly, is it culturally very obscure – infact vocations to the diaconate are rarely prayed for (apart from positive examples), Instead the constant cry is for vocations to the priesthood and the Religious life – deacons are in neither intention! Thirdly, deacons are so often treated like second class citizens by priests and people (each for different reasons). Fourthly, if, like me, a younger married man feels called to a “full time” ministry, that is engaged explicitly in his diaconal calling rather than a secular job, it can be very very difficult to do. I have been fortunate as a school chaplain and currently a regular military padre with the RAF. The diaconate has been seen as a vocation for a much older man, nearing or at retirement. I could go on, but the point is there is no getting away from the fact that a far greater response would come from married men in the priesthood than the diaconate. Other traditions are proof on this.

  11. I think the clerical culture factor in all this shouldn’t be underestimated. “Zero tolerance” doesn’t seem to be an exaggerated description of the formal policies that have prevailed toward priests who intend to marry. Priests have been rooted out of the priesthood, sometimes ruthlessly (I’m told). The culture that underlies that hard-line approach may not be easy to change. Despite the courageous statements of this handful of European bishops, I don’t know what the appetite would be among bishops and diocesan officials for this change in discipline. Attitudes and outlooks become embedded, particularly among those who are not so young. It’s not easy to turn on a dime and accept what one has actively fought against for decades. It would be like asking an old cop to start embracing crime on his beat after decades of fighting it. He may get the memo from the boss but may not embrace the spirit of it with an open heart.

  12. Were our bishops, both in the UK and in the US to set up a commission of enquiry into the ordination of married men, taking evidence and looking at the practical questions, it would in itself bring bishops, priests and laypeople together in a shared responsibility for the future sacramental life of the Church. It would need realistic deadlines for both an interim and a final report. Its membership should be broad and balanced, and include bishops, priests and laypeople. Proverbs tells us that “without vision the people will perish”
    In a rapidly changing world, where is that vision? Myopia is no solution, however convenient it might be in the short term Based on the response given by Francis to Bishop Krautler, he is waiting for the bishops to show the initiative of leadership.

  13. Even for those prelates opposed to open consideration of the issue, they underestimate the potentially “conservative” aspects of open consideration.

    The appeal of having the option to ordain married priests is partly due to its abstract purity – because Catholics have not had highly-engaged conversations about what it would mean and look like in practice, it’s both opposed and embraced more as a signifier than for its reality.,

    The reality of married men to the priesthood would, in practical terms only (utterly disregarding the theological issues), be more of a change for Catholic congregations than ordaining unmarried women. That does not mean it should not be considered, but I think Catholics need to move beyond the signifier-abstract stage of thinking about this. And these are not the only possible issues (simplex priests, active ordained service for terms rather than life, revisioning deaneries/vicariates forane, et cet.)

  14. As I recall, Peter was married. Wouldn’t the Church do well to follow the example set by our Lord in calling him to ministry?

  15. I have to smile as I read about the complexity of trying to change the strategy and practice in the Church as it relates to married priests and only a whisper about women priests. Since Francis became Pope I have wanted him to be bold, do more than model a way of life, but take real, bold action to change the antiquated rules, laws, and practices. We need to accept married priests, allow priests to marry, and accept women for ordination. Make the decisions, pass the required laws and give the members of the Church 2-3 years to work out the details of how it will work and have it up and running. Keep it simple and it will re-energize the Church. Bogging it down in analysis by commissions and committees before making the decision will surely doom it. Make the decision (because in out hearts we know it’s the right decision)and then make it work.

    1. @Karl Liam Saur:
      Agreed. I prefer Francis offer the freedom for bishops to take leadership. And for lay people to sit down with their bishops and offer gentle counsel on local matters. That is a key vector of mutual trust that really must be renewed.

      1. @Todd Flowerday:
        Renewed? Invited into being is more like it. Because it’s not been a living thing for ages of ages. And not just vertically but also horizontally. Watching Catholics try to suddenly adopt a congregational culture can reveal how deep the problem goes. It’s so easy for Catholics to passively slip back into old habits.

  16. The Congregation for Eastern Churches published a brief history of celibacy in Eastern Churches when Pope Francis changed the norms in 1914:

    Briefly, celibacy has been the norm where Eastern Catholics have immigrated into Latin rite territories since the late 19th century, early 20th century. ( this means US and Canada, as well as other areas like Argentina?) The Congregation reaffirmed that rule under Benedict XVI, while Francis allowed the hierarchy of the Eastern Churches to decide in 2014. This means most priests in the US have been celibate (which might mean they have been drawn from monastic committees).

    I think this is very characteristic of Francis, putting the decision into the hands of the more local authorities instead of having the Vatican decide everything.

  17. I think that for the men who would have wanted to get married but had to choose between marriage and the priesthood, it would be perceived as very unfair if the rules were changed right after their took their vows.

    To prevent that, I could imagine, in a first phase, limiting access to the priesthood to married men who are, say, over 40 years old (the age limit in JP2’s days for priests who wanted to get married to be allowed to become laicized).

    That could perhaps lead to a small stream of married priests and enable a limited experiment, to see how that changes church dynamics.

    1. @Claire Mathieu:

      “I could imagine, in a first phase, limiting access to the priesthood to married men who are, say, over 40 years old (the age limit in JP2’s days for priests who wanted to get married to be allowed to become laicized).”

      Hi, Claire, using the renewed diaconate as a reference point, your over-40 proposal isn’t far-fetched at all. Relatively few candidates to the diaconate in the US are under 40, not least because of the fact that they tend to be married with children and often don’t want to pursue what is viewed (correctly) as a life change until the children are grown and the nest has emptied. And if the diaconate is viewed as a life change, the priesthood would be a life change on steroids!

      From the other end, the church wants to screen candidates to the diaconate, and it seems that men over 40 have demonstrated the stability, reliability, commitment etc. that are thought to be desirable for the ministry (or, if they haven’t demonstrated these qualities over a long period of time, it seems they are not invited to go forward).

      It strikes me as somewhat ironic that the church, at least in the US, will ordain into the full-time, lifetime ministry of the priesthood a man as young as 25 or 26 who may never have lived anywhere but his parents’ home and the seminary, whereas it favors mature and established men for the diaconate, which from one point of view is a part-time ministry.

  18. Now NCR is reporting that Francis is considering a commission to examine the issues relating to women deacons.
    My, life is moving fast.
    The bishops went to Vatican II, they will take their wives to Vatican III and their husbands to Vatican IV.
    Hey slow down…

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