Cardinal Stella – Ordaining Married Men May be Necessary in Some Parishes

In an interview in the new book Tutti gli Uomini di Francesco (“All Francis’ Men”), Cardinal Beniamino Stella, perfect of the Congregation for Clergy, said that ordaining older men to celebrate the Eucharist in isolated parishes is something that should be discussed.

It is important to realize that, though these men will not be celibate, it does not mean that the Church is currently looking to end celibacy on all levels for priests. This is a response to an extreme lack of clergy in the Amazon and other remote Pacific Islands in what Stella calls a ‘sacramental emergency’ where such few priests cannot accommodate for the needs of the community.

Read Crux’s CNS report here.


  1. There are sacramental emergencies right here in the USA. Parishes are being closed and “clustered” to accommodate the present ordination policy by which only single men willing to remain single need apply. Many, if not most, of the clergy regard being celibate as a sacrifice that entitles them to a status by which they make all the rules and policies. Try asking your pastor why the church doesn’t ordain married men as priests and listen as he explains this as an ancient practice by which priests can be more like Jesus. Aren’t all the baptized called and empowered to live like Jesus whether single or married, Jew or Greek, slave or free person, male or female?

    1. Brilliant response Jack! Nevertheless, I can tell you that as long as our US Bishops’ recruiting campaigns in Africa, India, the Philippines and Latin America continue to produce fruits, they will keep bringing priests from these areas and the key issue will never be addressed. It’s our reality.

  2. View from the pew
    Regarding: “It is important to realize that, though these men will not be celibate, it does not mean that the Church is currently looking to end celibacy on all levels for priests.”
    – In as much as this is a window by which an ancient custom will be restored to the ‘west’, this is a good opening.
    – However the larger issue is that for decades, we , the church, have known that married men are also called to the presbyterate. The institutional churche’s failure to accept that married men are so called is a serious misreading of the spirit by the episcopate and others who maintain that celibate and hopefully chaste presbyters are necessary for the church of the ‘west’.
    – Ordaining women, married or celibate, is also necessary for the same reason: women are being called by the spirit.

    1. Charles, before you cast aspersions on the Church’s longstanding ordination practices as “ancient customs” and a “serious misreading of the spirit,” it is necessary to understand how and why these practices exist in the first place. Believe it or not, both clerical celibacy and male clergy are deeply rooted in the life of Jesus as recorded in Scripture. Celibacy and sacrificing family are regularly brought up in the Gospels, specifically Luke 18:29-30, Matthew 19:12, and Matthew 19:27-30. This isn’t to say that regularized Anglicans or Eastern Catholics are disobeying Jesus’ teachings, but that He gave celibacy a high status, especially when talking about discipleship, and that part of discipleship involves sacrifice on our part.

      I would talk more about women’s ordination, but I think JPII’s letter ‘Ordinatio Sacredotalis’ and Pope Francis’ many writings on this subject do a better job of explaining it than me. Suffice to say, the Church doesn’t believe it even has the ability to ordain women even if it wanted to (ask any canonist).

      None of this is to say recent developments on limited married clergy and maybe women deacons is arbitrary, and I will readily accept whatever our bishops decide. But critiquing the Church’s teachings on Holy Orders needs to respect the millennia of theology and tradition behind them, and not simply writing if off as outdated and anti-Spirit.

  3. View from the pew
    Regarding: “Charles, before you cast aspersions on the Church’s longstanding ordination practices as “ancient customs” and a “serious misreading of the spirit,”…”
    – Yes, the blog format often leaves more muddling than clarity.
    – The phrase, ‘ancient customs’ was meant to evoke the memory of the apostles, and their successors, eventually known as bishops, who were married. Included in this memory are the presbyters, when that ministry developed, who also were married. Deacons too were married. To be sure there were ministers in these offices who were also called by the spirit to a life of chaste celibacy.
    – A call to a chaste celibacy by the spirit is equal to a call by the same spirit to the life of marriage. The sacrifices and graces being equal to both forms of life. Many, if not all, people of faith experience the spirit’s call to chastity as a celibate or as married about the same time that a call to ministry to the church and / or to the world is also heard.
    – As to the ordination of women to the presbyterate and to the episcopate; it seems that JPII letter raises several trajectories for future ecclesiology that will be sure to create serious problems for the whole church. However, as you write, JPII’s letter offers an hold-fast for church praxis today.
    – The spirit is not constrained by the boundaries of the institutional church, or canon law. Discernment and prophecy are gifts by the spirit to the church which stays the same always changing.

    1. “JPII letter raises several trajectories for future ecclesiology that will be sure to create serious problems for the whole church.”

      Can I ask what these problems are? If we see OS, and for that matter Pope Francis, as only delaying an inevitable proliferation of women’s ordination (something the Church has resisted for over half a century at a time when it has received much peer pressure from Protestants and secular society), then yes, OS would surely create problems for future popes. I however don’t see this as a forgone conclusion, and every pope in modern Church history seems to agree. JPII saw OS as authoritatively upholding a long-standing church teaching, and if anything sought to inoculate the Church from any haphazard future attempts to reverse course, and the great amount of controversy that would ensue along the lines of what many Protestant churches experienced. One could say the same thing about Humanae Vitae and the Church’s teachings on life ethics (HV too has a very complex theology behind it). Are these teachings difficult to espouse in this countercultural moment in time? Yes. Are a lot of people people challenged by these teachings? Yes. But the Church has proven to be a very resilient force of theological continuity over the course of history, and I don’t see that changing anytime soon.

  4. Charles Jordan,
    Some of your statements are a bit too absolute. To say, “the apostles were married” is really not accurate. Some were, apparently, others were not. Peter seems, most likely, to have been a widower. John was not, Paul was not. As near as we can tell, there was a mix of celibate and non-celibate clergy. Also, many married men, after ordination practiced continence. The Eastern Orthodox practice is not actually the most ancient one. It dates back to the Council of Trullo in 692.

  5. Define celibate where the husband has had prostate cancer and a radical prostatectomy leaving him impotent. His wife is postmenopausal and her genitals have atrophied making intercourse virtually impossible. Is this married couple celibate because they cannot engage in intercourse?

    Just asking, as I have read of couples, instead of getting remarried, are to live as friends not engaging in marital relationships. What does this mean?

    1. Celibacy has to do with one’s state in life – remaining unmarried. Continence has to do with sexual relations – abstaining from them. The married couple you propose is not celibate (and, by definition, cannot be), but they are continent, albeit in this case without much choice in the matter.

  6. The Church universal is in a clerical biological timebomb, regardless of location. Trent imposed a rock-ribbed celibacy on the diocesan clergy at a time when fifty was a ripe old age. Today men are physically healthy and active well beyond this point. To ask a man to serve forty or fifty years in ministry without companionship is a very tall order indeed. It isn’t shocking that many young men today walk away from seminary when an emotional prison awaits post ordination.

    Stop buying time, Rome.

    1. To ask a man to serve forty or fifty years in ministry without companionship is a very tall order indeed.

      All things are possible with the grace of God.

    2. Jordan is raising an important question about life-companionship, one that cannot be dismissed lightly. Precisely this issue has been at work in the story of a great number of devoted men who left the celibate priesthood to marry. God did not fail them. They did not fail in their ministry. A lifetime of celibacy was just too much to ask. As a result, everyone loses. They are shamed and ostracized. We, the people, are deprived of their service. Then the church turns around and accepts married men for holy orders who have come from other Christian denominations. It’s insane.

    3. Jordan’s language may be a little dramatic :-). But I don’t think he’s wrong that more about human development is understood now than was understood in the 16th century.

      If a priest serves honorably for 20 years, and then makes the anguished decision that he is now being called to marriage, as things stand now he is deemed a failure – as someone who failed his vows, not only from a church-discipline standpoint, but in reality by some, perhaps most, people in the pews.

      Setting aside for the sake of discussion the possibility that a priest could marry and continue on in his presbyteral ministry, I would like to see a more graceful
      way to accommodate a priest’s exit from his ministry and his way of life. A leave-taking from his parish that includes well wishes (and cake and coffee), a note of thanks from his bishop for his years of service, some sort of outplacement support for his transition into a “day job”. These gestures would acknowledge the reality the humans do change and develop. I don’t think they would ameliorate or compromise the reality of lifetime promises that were sincerely made but now, decades later, can’t sincerely be abided by.

    4. In response to Rita and Jim, the Church already allows priests to return to the lay state for the purposes of entering into marriage (two priests close to me did this), and Canon Law actually tends to give priests the benefit of the doubt in most cases. I also know several (older) men who married and started families who later said they felt called to the priesthood throughout their lives but for various reasons didn’t act upon it. I don’t bring this up as an argument against married priests (I’m somewhat neutral on the matter), but to suggest that perhaps a contributing factor to all this is pressure into a particular vocation that people aren’t actually called to, but are nonetheless compelled into, and indeed a lack of effective discernment and prayer. Some people ultimately choose wrong, it happens, and that’s why Canon Law has carveouts for when these situations arise. I once heard a diocesan vocations director say, “there is no crisis of vocations, only a crisis of prayer.”

      I also would like to make a point that companionship need not be romantic or sexual. My archdiocese actually started a priestly fraternity (my pastor is the superior) that is meant to counter the problems of loneliness that you both mention. They’ve been a roaring success, it has over two dozen priests (and about a dozen seminarians in the waiting) and many dioceses have asked them to help start other similar communities. In short, our priests have alternatives to suffering in silence while still faithfully carrying out their vocation.

      1. Patrick – you make a number of interesting points. I would say that in my observation, what is needed is not a change in church law, which as you say already accommodates an exit from the priesthood. Rather, what could be improved is how the exit is handled pastorally.

        In the couple of situations I’ve observed, it all happens with no warning to the people, and with little or no explanation offered. One day, Fr. X is living in the rectory and is on the mass schedule, and the next day he is gone. Either nothing at all is communicated to the people he served; or, in one case I witnessed, a letter from the bishop was read by another priest from the pulpit at the end of mass, the gist of which is, “Fr. X is no longer assigned to St. Axelrod and is suspended from his priestly duties. Sincerely, Bishop Fitznugly.” Audible gasps well up from all corners of the church, and then the organist starts the recessional hymn. After that initial public announcement, in the absence of any sort of send-off or closure or even acknowledgement, the rumor mill fills the vacuum, and people are left to deal on their own with their emotions, which can be surprisingly strong – people form attachments with priests, even when there isn’t a personal relationship.

      2. “what could be improved is how the exit is handled pastorally.”

        Bishops have hard task whenever these situations come up. I think most [rightly] want to avoid a semblance of “celebrating” a priest’s departure from the clerical state, as it can contribute to the incorrect belief that a vocation is temporal (Ideally priests wouldn’t need to leave their ministry). Unfortunately this often leaves the announcement being very basic and legalistic, which not only fails to give adequate closure to congregations, but especially in this era of heightened awareness to sexual abuse, this can easily lead to the infectious spreading of preposterous rumors.

        You’re absolutely right that affected congregations need more pastoral consideration from their bishops. This happened in my diocese last year (for a retired priest) and I was pleasantly surprised that the archbishop gave a press release expressing gratitude for his service and offering the diocese’s prayers. Maybe this a good model to be emulated.

      3. “Bishops have hard task whenever these situations come up. I think most [rightly] want to avoid a semblance of “celebrating” a priest’s departure from the clerical state, as it can contribute to the incorrect belief that a vocation is temporal (Ideally priests wouldn’t need to leave their ministry). ”

        Right. The ideal isn’t always achieved in real life, as canon law in its mercy recognizes.

        There are two sides of the coin: a priest is not abiding by his sacred promises. That is not something to celebrate – although perhaps we could adopt a view of human nature that allows us to see that, while it’s not the ideal, neither is it such a cringeworthy and scandal-ridden thing that we must deal with it in the dark rather than in the light*.

        And the other side of the coin is: the priest gave perhaps many years – perhaps the best years of his life – to priestly ministry in the church, and that is something to celebrate. I think it’s okay to thank him for that, even considering the other circumstances, and I think it’s kind of churlish – maybe even kind of sinful – for the church to not provide a setting for that gratitude to be able to be expressed.

        * Some circumstances could be scandalous. If the priest is leaving the priesthood to run off with a parishioner’s wife, that wouldn’t be something to celebrate.

  7. We had a priest leave the ministry from our parish a few years ago. He was in his early 50s.
    He himself announced it at the end of his final Mass – the main Sunday celebration. He explained that he found he couldn’t cope with the loneliness of celibacy.
    It was one of the bravest things I have ever witnessed. It was greeted with an ovation from the congregation.
    The issue of clerical loneliness will become more glaring as the number of priests declines. 50 years ago all parishes had priests and some had two or three living together. Now priests tend to be miles apart, living alone and travelling between churches so they don’t even have the support of a parish family.
    Are priests now expected to have a vocation to live a solitary life as well as a celibate one?

    1. While this would not be a solution for all areas, in many urban and suburban areas, rectories could be repurposed and clergy residences could be consolidated by deanery.

    2. Some priests in my diocese started a priestly fraternity for this very reason. Most live in community, and the fraternity is growing. There are solutions to the problem of loneliness other than leaving their vocation.

  8. Many priests have responded to the issue of loneliness by compounding it with isolation. Priests are famous for being “lone rangers” by keeping mostly to themselves and by not looking for opportunities to collaborate with nearby parishes. I have been guilty of this myself but have taken steps to change that in recent years. Bishops need to take positive and pro-active steps to reach out to isolating priests before a crisis occurs.
    Nonetheless, action must be take and soon to come to the assistance of parish communities in urban metro areas where faithful Catholics live in dread of losing their church and or their priests. Welcoming mature married men to consider a vocation to the priesthood would certainly be a step that most Catholics would heartily welcome. It may not be the only solution, but it is a step that can be taken.

    1. “Welcoming mature married men to consider a vocation to the priesthood would certainly be a step that most Catholics would heartily welcome. It may not be the only solution, but it is a step that can be taken.”

      Jack, I agree. Importantly, there is no doctrinal barrier. Francis could make the discipline-related obstacles go away with a flick of the pen. And dioceses in the US, most of them anyway, have quite a bit of experience recruiting mature married men and helping them to discern a call to ordained ministry, because of decades of experience with the permanent diaconate.

      1. That said, the practical issues would be more significant than if, arguendo, celibate nuns were ordained.

        The model for diocesan priests is that they can be sent anywhere in a diocese according to the ordinary’s discernment of need. And they are not given diocesan support for a family. That’s not even touching what the Catholic faithful expect from their priests in terms of availability (you might think gratitude for simply having more priests would neatly resolve that, but I am not as sanguine about dislodging longstanding cultural habits.)

        A So-Let-It-Be-Written-So-Let-It-Be-Done approach won’t neatly resolve those issues.

        (And Ed Peters will very loudly raise the canonical matter of continence.)

      2. “The model for diocesan priests is that they can be sent anywhere in a diocese according to the ordinary’s discernment of need. And they are not given diocesan support for a family. ”

        This is probably a good place for our friend Pastor Dave to weigh in :-).

        Regarding new parish assignments: both the family and the church would have to be willing to bend a little. But being relocated for work, often to distances many times farther than the outer edge of the current diocese, is still pretty common in secular employment in the US, so I don’t think it’s an outrageously unfair expectation to have for a priest and his family.

        In Chicago, deacons and their families are exempt from relocation after age 61 (there was some talk of raising that to 65, but I don’t think it’s happened yet). I am not sure they have that policy exactly right – I’d rather not be moved around while my kids are in school, and might be more open to it after the nest empties – but its intentions are humane.

        A living wage for the family is an important issue. The bottom line on that is, the church would have to suck it up and pay considerably more. The church can let that concern be a showstopper – or not. If the church is committed to going down the path of ordaining married husbands and fathers, I’m confident it will find the money.

      3. And the example of how the Church ensures all its lay full-time employees have a true living wage and fully funded pension gives you such confidence?

  9. The possible introduction of non-stipendary priests into the Roman Church would not be a panacea either. While there are men who undoubtedly would seize the chance to minister even without salary, the non-stipendary opportunity would lay bare the already sorry state of the sacraments in parishes. Even with my periodically severe chronic illness, I know better than to ask a priest for the anointing of the sick during an episode. Many sincerely can’t spare even five minutes after the morning Mass to apply chrism to me and say the appointed prayers. I do not fault these priests. Rather, the sacraments have been commodified. Anointing occupies a relatively low place in necessities — hence it is not celebrated as often as it should. Non-stipendary ministry would welcome men whose time is already compressed. This will merely push confession and anointing out of the life of a church, if they haven’t already been forced out.

    The diminution of the sacraments outside Mass is not merely due to unrealistic parishioner expectations. The “value added” model — that all routine sacraments outside of Mass are not to be celebrated often as they are sacerdotally inconvenient — feeds an endless roundabout of parishioner desire and priestly availability. Married priests will hasten the speed of this roundabout, but at least the summit of the Church’s sacraments — Mass — might be more widely celebrated. Is not confession worthy of due attention as well?

  10. I am not opposed to married priests, but an important consideration in changing priestly discipline is to ask how many priests do we actually need, celibate or married? In some areas, the ratio of priest to parishioner has “improved” due to the steep decline in religious involvement among the laity. But these remaining parishioners are spread over a wider geographic area making the pastoral mission much more challenging.

    Two solutions present themselves, the current continued trend to consolidate parishes into mega-parishes and clusters. These would be staffed by professional, salaried clergy and hopefully there will be slight increase in vocations due to the addition of married priests (who will have roughly the same amount of formation we currently expect from present day seminarians).

    The other solution is that we increase priestly numbers through something similar to the priest simplex, with less training and who have occupations outside of active ministry. I am more inclined for option 1 for a number of reasons. Even with salary-less clergy, parishes will still have to be closed due to declining attendance. Furthermore, we shouldn’t have parishes that just getting by because parish communities should contribute financially to the diocese and the poor, which is difficult to accomplish if income just barely covers expenses. Larger parishes can offer better resources for liturgy, education and social ministries. I feel that seminary studies also helps moderate clergy pastorally and doctrinally and keeps them from straying too far from the ecclesiastical center as defined by the Bishops conferences and Popes.

  11. About non-stipendiary married priests ….. my guess is that a considerable proportion of them would be retired. That would certainly reflect the age profile of many parishes.

  12. In several comments the word “continence” comes up, I.e. refraining from sexual relations. It seems to me in all of the discussion swirling around priesthood and ordination, the elephant in the room has been for centuries the notion that somehow having sexual relations with ones’s spouse makes one dirty, impure and rendered unfit to celebrate liturgy. THAT is a notion that needs to disappear! What a mockery of the married state to consider one of the critical roles of it to be somehow dirtying! A priest friend told me that years ago his parents were told they had to go to confession before going to Sunday Mass if they had sexual relations in the previous week. I think some of this is tied up in an ugly weed that, despite all our efforts to do so, has deep seated roots in the life of the church, especially among the clergy, that basically a woman’s body is evil. We evidently don’t have the right herbicide yet to eradicate this evil weed. Until we do, and get our heads out of this
    miasma that sex= dirty, we are going to be chasing our tails. Celibacy and marriage are equally wonderful ways to live ones’s life but it has nothing to do with sexual purity. Choosing the celibate life still seems to be held up as a more worthy and courageous life and that fosters division and clericalism.

    1. Alas, this mindset goes back to the old moral theology manuals which habitually used the adjective turpissima (most ugly) to describe the sexual act. Priests were formed in this way in seminaries before the Council. Though this is no longer the case, the mindset casts a long shadow.

      1. And yet in my seminary years I was taught that intercourse within marriage is the sacramental sign and a source of sacramental grace.
        Though I might have misremembered as it was nearly 50 years ago!

    2. If my memory from reading history serves me accurately, in the period when the Western church’s eucharistic fast encompassed marital relations, there were moralists who advised such abstinence should be three days before and after receiving Communion. Reading things like this is a form of mental Velcro… (If that advice was heeded widely, it may partially explain how rare Communion was – but then again, if that were so, one might encounter more stories about Wednesday nights being an occasion for rejoicing – except they were also fast days…).

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