Now, about all those married Catholic priests…

The New York Times takes a closer look at how the new ordinariate will be  impacting one facet of Catholic life in particular, with more married priests:

Most Americans, perhaps most American Catholics, do not know that the church allows married priests. But there have always been married priests in the non-Latin rites, like Ukrainian Catholicism or Maronite Catholicism. These churches are fully Catholic, obedient to the pope, but they ordain married men, although they do not allow unmarried priests to get married.

There were always some married priests in Roman Catholicism, too, until the First Lateran Council, in 1123, banned the practice. And there have been married Roman Catholic priests again since 1980, when the church said that Protestant clergymen who became Catholic priests could stay married to their wives.

There are about 80 such Catholic priests in America, says the Rev. D. Paul Sullins, a sociologist at Catholic University in Washington. Once an Episcopal priest himself, now a married Catholic priest, Father Sullins has interviewed over 70 married priests, and many of their wives, for a book he is writing. He says the vast majority of the priests are former Episcopalians, although some came from other Protestant denominations.

The small cohort of married priests raises several questions. First, are they doing as good a job as other priests? If the church has decided that celibacy confers certain gifts on priests, does it follow that married priests are worse at serving their congregations? Second, wouldn’t celibate priests be a little resentful of colleagues who get to serve the church and have sex too? And third, if the married priests are doing a good job, and not provoking envy, why keep the celibacy rule for priests in general?

Read on for some answers.


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46 responses to “Now, about all those married Catholic priests…”

  1. This brings up the question of clerical continence for these priests, much the same as married deacons. I wonder when the Church is going to address this issue of married clerics.

  2. Isn’t the last paragraph incorrect (and misleading), based on the fact that no priest, even if Pope Benedict removed the celibacy rule tomorrow, can EVER (for theological reasons), marry once he is ordained?

    Consequently, if priest left, it wasn’t because of the celibacy ruling because it wouldn’t have applied to them anyway.

    Someone please correct me if I am wrong, but I’m pretty sure that is the case; bishops and the already ordained can never marry, under any circumstances.

  3. I’m beginning to think the eastern rites and Orthodox may have had it right all along, and about more than just celibacy. Perhaps there are fewer scandals of all kinds because the clerical vocation has not been such a lofty one with all of the attendant problems of pride and power we sometimes find in the Latin Church.

    I remember the 60 minutes special last year on the Greek Orthodox Patriarche Bartholomew in Istanbul, the east’s equivalent of the pope. He not only seemed a very humble man but he lived humbly as well amidst persecution from the muslim gov’t. The pomp and power and priviledge of Rome may be just too tempting, especially for those who set themselves on the clerical career ladder which tends to select for CEO personalities.

  4. Oregon Catholic,
    You’re beginning to see the picture. When one looks at history, it’s pretty clear that Rome moved, the East didn’t.
    The Ecumenical Patriarch really isn’t the equivalent of the East’s Pope for many reasons, and i don’t think you’ll find an Orthodox who would agree with your statement. He doesn’t claim the jurisdiction or the perogatives that the Pope does.

  5. I remember being at History Club and this girl was really arguing for a celibate priesthood. I was really agreeing with her at first then someone gave me a look. It turned out she was the daughter of a Catholic priest who had been Episcopalian.

    I’m skeptical Eastern Orthodoxy or Eastern-rite Catholics have no scandals. If it’s true it’s not simply a matter of celibacy as their bishops, I’m pretty sure, are celibate. Also the Anglicans have had sex scandals since the Victorian age at least, some of the abuse in Australian schools was Anglican plus “Vicar and Tart” parties I’d guess started with something, and their priests aren’t celibate.

  6. That being said I’m not that against married men being allowed to be priest, but I’ve certainly seen difficulties with it in the one example I know. So I think this article is presenting an unduly rosy picture of it because it’s what the writer desires. Neither that rosy experience nor my more negative one proves much, but I’d think an advocate for change would need more than rosy anecdotes. There’s not much in the way of evidence though except “hey look at this married priest, he’s alright” which isn’t any different than what I did. (Possibly the article does support the idea the priest should have a secretary or assistant, even if that wasn’t the intent) I was sort-of thinking this would actually have answers, but it’s just opinion. An opinion that might be correct, but might not be.

  7. You are correct, Klaire.

    A married man can become a priest. But a priest cannot become a married man. It is that way in the Eastern Church, and in the diaconate, as well — though in the latter, there have been exceptions in which widowed deacons with young children have been permitted to remarry. But they are rare.

    Dcn. G.

  8. I think you’re right, but I think the thinking might be that either

    A) If this group of men had thought they could marry and then become priests they would have done that. Instead they decided “I will sacrifice a desire for marriage because a priest is my true calling” only to discover they still wanted to marry so left and did so.


    B) This group would have been numerically overwhelmed by the number of married men who would have become priest if that were allowed.

    Although I largely believe in a celibate priesthood, from what I know the difficulties of being a married Catholic priest can be way more real than this article acknowledges (it’s kind of an advocacy piece), I do think it’s not precisely necessary. Also that maybe it does attract a disproportionately “weird” (not abusive understand, just maybe excessively shy or offputtingly eccentric or sometimes same-sex attracted) group of guys.

  9. Commitment is entirely up to individuals. A calling is also individual rather than collective. There are many people who feel called to give up everything and are happy doing so. Secular thinking tends to look down on these people anyway.

    There are those who also come in with lists and throw a fit when things do not go their way.

    It’s like joining the army, where nobody knows what the outcome will be.

    It’s not about one being better than the other, but about what enables a person to stay more committed.

    The media seems to be under the impression that a religious vocation is like a career that anybody can pursue, without understanding it.

  10. I just dont understand how a married priest can be a priest 100%.. How can he split his life between 2 families and care for The Lords flock if he has his own worries about his own family on his mind? Maybe I”m wrong, but then maybe I”m not.. What do others think?

  11. Hi Deacon Gregg: I’m an avid reader especially on Catholicism. One day I called a Maronite priest to confirm my surprise to learn in the eastern rites in union with the Magisterium, Maronite priests have married and their sons usually became priests. I also asked, “Once ordained a Maronite priest, can a priest get married? To my surprise he answered, ”Yes” and told me he knows a local Maronite priest who just got married after his ordination. He confirmed the priest was not an convert Anglican priest in the Maronite Rite. I was very surprised to hear his answers ..

  12. I follow your blog closely and am usually edified by the stories and find them encouraging. I am a little confused and offended at this article being held out as somehow a good treatment of the marriage question. Saying that celibate priests are often walled up in the rectory while a married priest would answer the phone is commentary not evidence. I am a priest who is available to his people 24 hrs a day and do so. The commentary is hurtful to me and my countless brothers who try to serve faithfully.
    I am not against married priests and certainly understand theological and practical arguments on both sides. To promote this article, however, is hurtful.
    Pax, David

  13. Fr. David…

    If you follow my blog, you know that I don’t agree with everything I post, or consider all the opinions in the articles to be in line with my own. I’m not holding up this article as “somehow a good treatment of the marriage question.” Nor am I promoting the opinions it contains.

    I post things that I come across that I find interesting. I’m posting it for education and information, so that readers can see how the mainstream media is treating this subject, and gain additional insight from the people interviewed for the article. Informed readers can then make their own judgments and decisions, and seek further information elsewhere.

    It’s a big church. There are a lot of conflicting ideas and opinions about this subject, and many others. This article is just one of many. I found the interview subjects interesting and their take on this valuable. The comment that offended you was made by one of your brother priests. It’s obviously his own opinion. While it may not reflect your experience, it obviously reflects his.

    FWIW: having experienced what it’s like to be a married member of clergy, I have serious misgivings personally about a married priesthood. But since many of my readers are, like me, married and in Holy Orders, I thought it valuable to post something on the topic, for their information and edification. I do think it adds something to the discussion (and it’s a discussion that won’t be ending any time soon).

    Dcn. G.

  14. Fr. David:

    My wife and I were married in 1966, I was ordained a deacon in 1978 and thus was in formation from 1975-78. A good bit of my formation was under the MSC Fathers and one of the things they encouraged us to do was to dream about our ministry and the impact it would have on the wider church of the “distant” future, say after the roll-over of the Second Millenia in 2000.

    I remember one of those “Brainstorming” sessions rather vividly. It was a consensus of my class of 25 (from three different dioceses, by the way) that there would be married men ordained to the Priesthood in the Western/Latin Rite by 1990 and there would be women called to the diaconate and ordained in that “order” by 2000.

    In fact, we were told by our priest-advisors-theologians that whenever married men would be permitted into priestly orders, the applicants would come from within the pool of experienced married deacons. That made perfect sense to them.

    Well, you can just see how different things have turned out. (1) What everyone assumed would be a logical step from being a married deacon to becoming a married priest is now not at all on anyone’s mind. (2) Instead, we have been seeing (almost since that 1975-1978 era), more and more already married former Lutheran Pastors and Episcopal Priests becoming married Western/Latin Catholic priests. AND (3) The subject of ordaining women to the diaconate has been opened up for widespread scholarly discussion while the idea of ordaining women to the presbyterate remains a closed topic.

    Do I think my points #1 and #3 are connected — sure do!

  15. I’m not qualified to discuss the theology or discipline but what about the economics of married priests? Permanent deacons must support themselves but priests rely on their order or diocese. Priests do not earn much cash – they do get accommodation and healthcare – but how much extra would it cost to fund married priests with children? I suppose the San Gabriel region of Los Angeles could cost that pretty accurately in light of recent events at an even nigher level but, seriously, how do eastern Catholics afford it? What do they pay their priests compared to the rest of us.
    Different point but doesn’t fact that married priests are coming from the ordinariate rather than the diaconate show how the diaconate really is a calling in its own right and not just a stepping stone to the presbyterate.

  16. I don’t know that healthy priests are 100% priests. In religious life, they are part of a community, and have community responsibilities apart from their vocation as a cleric. Having 100% priests may also foster 0% laity in the sense that if people rely on the clergy for every big and little thing, they may not be developing their own spiritual gifts to offer the Church.

    I’d like to think that marriage and a child have helped me mature as a person. It could be just that I’m older, but I’m sure my wife and daughter help me be a better minister in the Church.

  17. I’m aware of the historical, cultural, and theological reasons for how East and West handle marriage and holy orders. But I wonder if it doesn’t short-circuit honest local discernment with a bishop and candidates for ministry. As an exception to the rule, I wouldn’t see a problem with a well-discerned situation of a priest or deacon marrying. The simple truth is that bishops are not trusted to the degree they were in apostolic and patristic times.

    As for mandatory celibacy for diocesan clergy, I have grave misgivings about the insistence of holding men to what amounts to a monastic discipline in a situation where so many parish priests are living essentially an eremitic life. Monastics will severely test for a vocation to be a hermit. And yet Roman Catholicism treats it as almost a given.

    Too bad the climate is so polluted that we can’t even have an honest discussion and open discernment about it. That’s probably the most serious crime/sin in the whole situation.

  18. I am stunned and a bit sceptical of the number 25,000 men who have left the formation process since 1970. But even if the number would be 12,500 – that is something to think about.

  19. Todd:

    You are “right-on” but probably in ways you do not suspect. Within a monastic setting, where there are lots of celibate men living in community with the support of guys that they have known for years, that is one VERY different environment.

    Now compare that with what was likely the case way back in the “pre-Vatican” church. Most parish houses had several priests in attendance. For instance, the parish house at my local parish — designed in the mid 1960’s and renovated in the 1970’s — has suites for FOUR priests. In 1975, there were three priests living there. As late as 2002, there were two priests living there. Now there is one.

    You are absolutely correct. Instead of a mini-monastery we now have a hermitage.

  20. What I found fascinating was the throwaway comment at the end of the article, pointing out that the US has 25,000 resigned priests and only 40,000 active priests. At what point does the pressure for priests get strong enough that we go mining there?

    I actually hope not… The bottom line is that priests who resigned made incredibly solemn vows and then tossed them aside. And if you read the SNAP or BishopsAccountability sites, it looks like a disproportionate number of child-abusing priests are among the “resigned” cadre. (And in some of the more lurid cases, continued on their merry child-abusing ways as married laymen.) Probably some bishops saw “letting the perp resign” as a “way out” and we have no way of knowing what is hiding in the 25,000. But anyway, just on the “keeps his promises” criteria alone, I think that married deacons, like married protestant ministers, are a much better applicant pool.

  21. I think you oversimplify what those priests who left the ministry to get married went through before they left. I don’t think that any of them just casually tossed aside their vocation. Something they encountered woke in them the call to marriage. I don’t think it was simple or casual. Those men probably should not have been ordained in the first place, pointing to a problem in the formation/discernment process. Having read some articles from some of these men what they went through was not simple, nor did they just toss aside their vow. And married clergy doesn’t prevent problems. Having seen first hand what divorce of a minister does to a protestant congregation, I wouldn’t be so quick to think married Catholic priests will solve all our problems. You will still have some molestation problems, plus you could add in domestic violence issues, divorce issues, infidelity issues for both parties. Talking to some Eastern Orthodox friends they are seeing problems with the number of men in their seminaries too.

  22. I’m not sure we disagree — having been to a bunch of ordinations, it seems to me that something would have to be seriously lacking if the ordinand somehow didn’t figure out that this was an extraordinary commitment. I’ve seen this attitude that I think I was seeing at the end of the Times article before. It goes something like, “we’ve been ordained; we have an ontological sign; when they get desperate enough, they’ll come crawling back begging us to take up the priesthood again!” I was just responding with what I think most grown-up humans would respond, “yeah, true, ordination is permanent, but that doesn’t mean that we are obligated to let you anywhere near the active ministry again.”

  23. “Those men probably should not have been ordained in the first place, pointing to a problem in the formation/discernment process.”

    Having known several priests who left the priesthood to marry and having observed their ministries, I have come to the conclusion that in many cases, those men should not have been ordained to a CELIBATE priesthood.

  24. Maybe I just miss the days when you could walk into a church anytime of the day or night and there was the priest.. I miss the days when the priest played a HUGE part in ones life in all area’s.. To me I think thats what is missing for the laity. Maybe if it were like that again things in the world would be much better.. Sorry, I am having a hard time finding the words I need to get my point across..

  25. Cath what I was commenting was not the article but your choice of words that they tossed their vows away. It implies that it was done lightly and without any thought or consideration. As for the attitude that when things get bad they will be sought out to be priests again, I have heard that often, but not from the men who left the priesthood, but from those seeking a quick fix to the lower number of priests. The funny thing is that when polled while people seem to be in favor of a married priesthood, there don’t seem to be a whole lot of married men waiting for that to happen. And converting us married permanent deacons isn’t the answer either, because our vows at ordination are permanent, not transitional, something I take very seriously.

  26. Steve: you said:

    “And converting us married permanent deacons isn’t the answer either, because our vows at ordination are permanent, not transitional, something I take very seriously.”

    I think I know what you meant but you are giving the impression that the ceremony and ritual of diaconal ordination is DIFFERENT between a permanently ordained deacon and a transitory one ordained as a deacon on his way to the priesthood.

    Let me tell our audience that the ritual and the words are the same.

    The one difference they might note is that the “oath to celibacy” is always administered in the rite to ordain a transitory deacon but only administered in the rite for a permanently ordained deacon IF there is a non-married candidate being called to orders.

  27. I’d like to know more about those 25,000 priests who left the Church. If they asked for laicization, was it granted? If not, has it meant that they and their families are estranged from the Church? Really – would like more info. I know one such priest and have never asked anything about the circumstances.

  28. My understanding is that the major difference is in the intent. The transitional deacons will not be permanent deacons if they do not go on to ordination to the priesthood. They are laicized and released canonically so they are free to marry. There is a difference between the permanent deacons and the transitional deacons from that standpoint. A permanent deacon cannot be ordained as a priest without first being released from his obligations as a permanent deacon and later being ordained as a transitional deacon then ordained as a priest if I remember correctly. This is not the norm, nor should it as the calling to permanent deaconate is different from the calling to the priesthood.

  29. Deacon Steve, you said “…A permanent deacon cannot be ordained as a priest without first being released from his obligations as a permanent deacon and later being ordained as a transitional deacon then ordained as a priest…”
    That’s new to me. A man in my formation class, who was ordained a permanent deacon with me, was later ordained a priest. Since he was already a deacon, he was not reordained a transitional deacon. After about 2 years of seminary, he was orained to the priesthood.

  30. Check again. I’ve been told that if a permanent deacon enters the seminary, he is still treated as a deacon and exercises his liturgical ministry as a deacon. Since diaconal ordination is permanent (even if one is laicized), to re-ordain a permanent deacon into transitional diaconate would be to simulate a sacrament.

    The thing is, there are not two different diaconates. Whether the expectation is that one will soon be ordained a priest or that one will never be ordained a priest, the actual diaconate one receives is the same.

    And priestly ordination does not terminate the diaconate. I’ve been told that Pope Paul VI wanted to enthrone the gospel at a session of Vatican II. He was told that he couldn’t because it was the work of the deacons. He wrote in his journal, “But I’m a deacon too.”

  31. You are correct, naturgesetz…a priest is always a deacon. So is a bishop. So is a cardinal. So is the pope. It’s not uncommon for a bishop to wear a dalmatic under his vestments for diaconate ordinations. A few years ago, in fact, the pope was photographed on Holy Thursday performing the washing of the feet, and he was wearing a dalmatic.

  32. I do think some or many of those who left would probably not have been good priests anyway. Still I kind of think you might be a bit too harsh.

    I know a former friar, I think he was a priest, who quit after he was paralyzed on a mission. He felt he couldn’t do his job anymore, would be a burden, reflected on his life, etc. He’s been married for many years now and from all I know he’s still a really good Catholic. It’s not like he was just flippantly “I’m tired of this I want to party” or something.

  33. Deacon Steve:
    Hate to tell you but your insights here are simply incorrect. (1) There is no difference in the ritual (as “f” said). In fact, in one diocese in the Midwest they actually for a while had one diaconal ordination ceremony a year combining both the class of transitory deacons and the class of permanent deacons in one big pool. Have no idea if that idea ever caught on but it certainly made a very big impression about the unity of orders. (2) Movement from the Permanent Diaconate into the priesthood is very rare but that idea of becoming “un-ordained” as a Permanent Deacon so that one could be ordained as a transitory one is absolutely not part of the process. I knew two men that followed that track, one was a widower and the other had never been married. Finally (3) A very good friend of mine who was a permanently ordained deacon became a widower. Within two years after his wife’s death, he had been contacted by no less than a dozen bishops and religious communities begging him to move on into the priesthood. He chose each time not to.

  34. I agree with Fr. David. This discussion is disturbing. Judging by the responses there are quite a few who hope the vow of celibacy will lifted. The Church has beautifully sound reasons for this. Deacon, this is the first I’ve read your blog and it would have been helpful if you would have mentioned you didn’t agree with the original article. I was beginning to believe you were like some other deacons I know who are less than orthodox. I’m happy to learn this is not the case.
    Anyway, this is just the opinion of a newcomer who’s first impression of your blog was not great.
    I may or may not be back, but either way, I wish you all the best for your ministry in the new year.

  35. Don’t forget, too, that the Orthodox Church was historically subservient to the Byzantine Emperor in many respects. I’m not sure that that would be better.

  36. Why would discussing the possibility of the celibacy requirement being lifted mean that one was less than orthodox, since it is a matter of discipline and not dogma?

  37. OC
    We have no equivalent to the Pope. H.A.H. Bartholomew I Patriarch of Constantinople and New Rome is the First Hierarch of the Church and First Among Equals. But he is not even remotely an “Orthodox Pope.” Indeed the very term is an oxymoron. When the occupant of the First Throne speaks all Orthodox have a moral duty to give serious attention and consideration to what he says. But he has almost no canonical authority outside his own local church and see.

  38. I used a poor choice of words which ended up saying the opposite of the point I was making about the difference in the clergy. What I meant to say is that His All Holiness holds the highest position in the Ecumenical OC – like the pope in Rome – not that his role is the same as the pope.

  39. Fair enough. A Baptist friend who I was trying to explain his role to responded by describing him as the “chairman of the board.” A bit colorful but not too far off the mark.

  40. So basically, all celibate monks are weird, all celibate nuns are weird, and all celibate single persons are weird. Everybody is weird until the day they marry. (Unless, of course, they have unmarried sex every five minutes, which is why all prostitutes of both sexes are perfectly normal.)

    Wow, I’m so overcome with the normality of all married people in the US today. Their normalcy just overwhelms me like a tidal wave. You watch Judge Judy or a reality TV show, and the normality is so obvious and pure.


  41. What I see here is a lot of disrespect for men who discern properly in the seminary and follow their own vocation away from the priesthood or into it, and either way keep their vows. I see a lot of respect for men who didn’t get the discernment done right, or who broke their vows. It’s fair to say that a lot of men were pressured to stay in, especially back in the day; and certainly it’s better that men leave honorably rather than pretend while catting around, like that LA auxiliary bishop.

    But this sort of one-size-fits-all stuff really torques me off. Nobody demands that a Franciscan morph into a Dominican, or claims that a bad Franciscan would automatically be good if the Franciscans abandoned their rule to become Benedictines. But everybody’s so darned sure that bad priests and pedophiles would suddenly become saints if they joined the Eastern Rite!

    I’m pretty sure the Eastern Rite doesn’t go around saying, “Hmm, let’s recruit a bunch of pedophiles and womanizers to be our priests! Perfect!” I bet Eastern Rite women aren’t dying to marry some seminarian who wants kids only for their bodies, either. And gosh, I wonder why they don’t. Maybe they would rather demand a lot of holy life out of their priests and monks and bishops, just like the Western Rite is supposed to do.

  42. Ceile De:
    “Permanent deacons must support themselves.”
    Not exactly true. Nothing in Canon Law says that at all. What is true is that here in the United States, most permanently ordained deacons are either in secular employment or are retired from secular employment. That is not true in other areas of the world. There are Permanently Ordained Deacons — other than the United States — that assume the Church will support them financially until they die.

    I am RETIRED from my secular employment; but my retirement income is maybe double that of what a priest in my diocese actually gets. But, then again, they are allowed a housing allowance (if no housing is available in the parish of assignment) and a car allowance — both of which I have to pay for out of my own retirement income.

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