Married Priests?

Pope Francis made unsurprising headlines as a result of a recent airborne press conference, this time on January 27, on his way back from World Youth Day (see the full text here at Zenit). This subject is one that has picked a bit of steam as of late, and this often happens in the wake of revelations of sexual abuse by priests (as an aside, Peter Steinfels recent essay, “The PA Grand-Jury Report: Not What It Seems” is well worth reading, as it complexifies the seemingly simplistic charges leveled in broad brush strokes against the Catholic Church in the much-publicized grand jury report from last year). One argument that is put forward is that if men could discern a vocation to celibacy separately from discerning a vocation to the priesthood, there would be a lower rate of sexual abuse and sexual immorality amongst priests. The Pope’s thoughts on the subject of married priests in the Latin rite (and they are clearly no more than thoughts off the top of his head in response to a question) seem to lean toward an openness to ordaining older, married men in remote places where there is limited access to the sacraments.

A few things are worth considering here. First, news leads such as, “Pope Francis closed the door Jan. 27 on his making celibacy optional for all Catholic priests” are misleading. Obviously, nothing the pope says in such a context is official or binding (I’m tempted to add “irreformable,” but that would lend a kind of officialness to these comments that is entirely unwarranted). The electronic accessibility to every comments the pope makes in almost every moment of his life has the unfortunately consequence of elevating his every thought to “papal teaching” or “what the Catholic Church teaches.” And this is true for those both inside and outside the Church. Reporters frequently treats such comments as if they carry official weight. In an odd turn of events, more progressive Catholics find themselves engaging in their own form of ultramontanism, the kind that so often infuriated them about those on the right when they latched on to a letter or comment of Saint John Paul II or Benedict XVI. Thus, “who am I to judge” turns into an about-face by the Catholic Church and the Pope about homosexuality. While the Pope can amend canon law and thus change this practice, it is also true that the Pope’s comments on the subject are simply, as the Pope himself put it, “only my personal thought” (think of Benedict’s comments in the preface to his first book in the Jesus of Nazareth series about how we was giving his own opinion, not offering official teaching).

Second, the fact that Catholics priests in the various Eastern rites are able to marry (though this is complicated in the US) before being ordained (as well as when exceptions are made for former Anglican priests) highlights a key point: this question about married priests is one of discipline or “law” at the Pope put it in the press conference, not doctrine (or at least central doctrine). While there are doctrinal issues connected to celibacy, the fact that Eastern rite Catholics can have married priests, and the Eastern churches have maintained this practice and it has not been questioned in Rome’s dialogue with them, indicates that this is neither a matter of Faith nor Order.

But what this fact does highlight is a key sociological factor: the longer you have an enormous group of people who has done something in a certain way for a very long time, the harder it is to change. This is not to say that there are not good reasons to want to preserve the presence of celibate clergy. But I think the history of Eastern Christians indicates that this fear is probably not warranted. The sentence Pope Francis positively attributes to Saint Paul VI is telling on this point: “I prefer to give my life before changing the law on celibacy.” He goes on: “My decision is: optional celibacy before the diaconate: no. It’s something personal of mine; I wouldn’t do it. And this remains clear. It’s only my personal thought. Am I closed, perhaps? I don’t see putting myself before God with this decision…I don’t say it should be done, because I haven’t reflected on it, I haven’t prayed sufficiently about this. However, the theologians must study it.”

Third, an openness to married priests would allow for a new kind of discernment to the ordained ministry. Given that the Catholic Church does not teach that celibacy is constitutive of the priesthood, it seems wise to ask why is de facto constitutive of the priesthood for the majority of priests in communion with the Holy See (see the helpful summary of the position in the Catholic Catechism in par. 1579-80 ).

As a priest who serves in the Episcopal Church, I would humbly suggest that bishops and even the Holy Father might talk to married priests and learn more about what it is like to serve the Lord in this way. One of the things that any married priest would say, and any honest married person, for that matter, is that marriage is not the solution to errant sexual desires. As my ethics professor, Stanley Hauerwas, puts it in his provocatively titled essay, “Sex in Public: How Adventurous Christians are Doing It,” Christian marriage is, among other things, a public sexual discipline. You stand up in front of your mom, and your uncle, and your grandmother, and your eighth grade English teacher, and you tell them all that that person right over there is your exclusive sexual partner. Marriage is itself a sexual discipline, for who has only ever had erotic desire for a single person? Which is one of the reasons why engaging in sexual discipline before marriage is a preparation for the sexual discipline within marriage. Further, married priests had a difficult set of loyalties to work out and that negotiation is never simple.

Let me end with a few lines from a recent essay by a colleague Joey Royal over at Covenant, “Celibacy, Abuse, and the formation of Desire:”

Would marriage help a celibate person avoid sexual sin? Perhaps. But that is not its purpose. Anyone who entered marriage with the expectation of satisfied sexual desires will likely be disappointed. After all, how can anyone satisfy ever-changing desires, which are often as mysterious to us as they are to our spouse?

No, the purpose of marriage is ultimately the same as the purpose of parenthood, which is also ultimately the purpose of the priesthood: to manifest the love of God in Christ by giving ourselves sacrificially to others. After all, we are all priests in a certain sense by virtue of our being God’s creatures, and our ultimate vocation as creatures is to give back to God what properly belongs to him. That process inevitably involves sacrifice — not sacrifice as destruction, but sacrifice as union with God through love, expressed in charity to our neighbor.


  1. Vastly inadequate access to the Mass and the sacraments is not at all limited to “far, far off places”. It is experienced here in the US as thousands of parishes and missions are closed because of the shortage of priests. Were it not for the importing of so many international priests, the situation would be far worse. In this context it is important to note that “vir probati” does not refer to young men in seminary. It refers to older individuals whose marriages have met the test of time and who may discern a call to serve the church as priests so as to celebrate the sacraments which form and nourish the faith of the community. Movement in that direction would not require parishes to have to come up with potentially unavailable compensation. But let no one be misled by those who suggest that problem. Most parishes in urban and suburban areas as well as larger parishes in rural areas would have no difficulty raising whatever funds would be required. Are Catholics not as well off as our Protestant brethren? But initially the “vir probati” would be men like so many of our married deacons who have the time and energy to serve the church without overtaxing the resources of fellow parishioners. Why don’t the bishops, including the Holy Father, ask the people to weigh in on this possibility? I can tell you that most older priests would welcome such a step.

    1. Just as an aside, the archdiocesan territory in which I reside recently closed and consolidated over half of the parishes. There could always be more priests I suppose, but this first round of closings was due more to lack of faithful. There just weren’t enough people in the pews to pay the bills and keep the lights on in many of these parishes and it was taxing the clergy to keep so many open. Even some of the revised parishes units will probably be closed in the promised next round of closings in a couple of years after they see how things shake out.

      1. Finances are killing the American church, not lack of clergy.

        The American Conference of Catholic Bishops has espoused the liberal Democratic
        cause for so long that the people have finally accepted it as well and have moved on, with their wallets.

        There will be beautiful condo buildings across the nation while new church construction should focus on congregations of 200 or less as finances continue to plummet across our fair land.

    2. I agree very much with what Jack has said here. Without the influx of international priests — and this is a morally questionable strategy because we are draining them from their (poorer) home countries — we would be in a desperate condition.

      The pinch is felt not so much in the more concentrated dioceses, where parishioners can go to another nearby parish if theirs closes, but in the rural areas where priests are now trying to minister to two, three, or four communities far separated. They spend hours driving from one to another — time that would be better spent doing their actual ministry.

      This is happening right now in our country. I’ve spoken to priests who are stretched thin, and there is no end in sight. It’s one thing to valorize the circuit riders of the rural past — it’s another to refuse to solve a problem that is related not to growth or to the expanding frontier but to shrinkage and a failure of ecclesial imagination.

      It’s not just a matter of scheduling a communion service in the absence of Eucharist, either. Because anointing of the sick is limited to priests, the availability of this sacrament to the dying is also being undermined by the priest shortage. How can we neglect this, in good conscience, merely in order to maintain the discipline of celibacy?

  2. My understanding from reading studies is that lots of married men are child abusers. Married clergy can be unfaithful to their vows as celibate clergy can.

    1. The problem is happiness within, not vocation without.

      There are good and bad in everything and no, a married clergy is not the answer. Finding a degree of inner happiness in difficult times and circumstances is the answer. When you eliminate the sexual problems, the alcoholics and the obese, you are left with mighty few, and THAT is the problem.

  3. Why do so many look at the prospect of ordaining some married men within the contexts a cure for pedophilia or the answer to priest shortages. I submit it is an injustice to continue to exclude mature married men as candidates for priestly ministry. An injustice for individuals who may have a vocation and to the people who would eagerly welcome their service.

  4. I also agree with Jack about the question of salary. In my experience the church insists on paying married priests far more than they pay celibates and far more than they ever paid lay employees! If that’s why they say “we can’t afford it” they should revisit their assumptions. The married, permanent deacons work without pay. If we are so worried about a drain on the budget, try married priests on the same basis! They may not give as many hours in such an arrangement, because they have to be breadwinners in another way, but they could be planted in communities so that someone is there to minister on Sunday at least.

    1. Why not simply optional celibacy for ALL?
      The mandatory celibacy requirement for most Catholic priests is a church discipline.
      Celibacy is a means to an end, not an end in itself.
      A change has been long due.
      Let people decide for themselves.

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