Many people wish to make a case for or against married clergy from a utilitarian argument. In other words, “celibate clergy have more time for their people and are more easily deployed where the bishop needs them.” or “married clergy are better because they understand marriage and sex and children problems more and they won’t be child molesters.”
All utilitarian arguments are interesting, but specious. They are specious because as soon as you make one you find five cases that contradict your point. Are celibate priests more self sacrificial, more available for their people and more easily deployed? I can show you umpteen selfish, egotistical celibate priests who are lazy and will not be shifted from their comfortable parishes without a small explosive charge. Are married priests better at marriage etc? Let’s look at the countless marriage and family nightmares amongst our married Protestant brethren.
So the argument lies elsewhere. Shall we stand alone on the historical argument? This is stronger, but both sides can produce their books and their scholars. Yes, the earliest evidence shows mandatory celibacy to be a later discipline, but other early evidence shows that, although it wasn’t mandatory, it was from the beginning an ideal to be aimed for, and that attempts to make it mandatory were early. From history alone both sides can make a case.
It’s better if we consider the reason for the discipline, and then the fact of the discipline. The reason for the discipline is not utilitarian, but theological. Celibacy conforms the person more fully to the image of Christ and his mother, but more importantly, celibacy of the clergy and religious picture for us the marriage between Christ and his Church. As C.S.Lewis has said, “in this way all of us are feminine because all of us are called to be the bride of Christ.” The celibate priest, nun or monk shows all of us the relationship that we are called to spiritually, and will one day have in Christ in glory where “there is not giving and taking in marriage” How can this be when heaven is “the marriage supper of the Lamb?” Because there we are all married to the Lamb.
The celibate pictures this for the Church, while the married picture what this mystical marriage is all about. The two are complimentary and both are necessary.
Is it necessary that all priests are celibate? No, otherwise Eastern orders are invalid and exceptions like my own cannot be made. It is a discipline of the church, not a dogma. Can that discipline be altered? Yes. Should it be altered? Arguments go both ways. Some people think that the Eastern discipline is best, in which celibacy is still honored and kept by monks and nuns, but secular clergy may be chosen from among the married men. For many good reasons, Rome has decided to maintain the present discipline.
To those who have problems with the discipline, the church says, “Don’t kick against the church in rebellion, but neither should you conform as a mindless robot without a struggle. Live with the tension. Ask your questions. Enter the struggle. Try to understand. Seek to go deeper into the mystery. Do so with curiosity, confusion, fear and anger too if you must, but do so with love and wonder and passion for God and his holy Church.”
If others are asking the questions–even if they seem to be asking in a contentious spirit–it is not up to us to scold them and whip them into submission. Instead, we should encourage the questions, take them seriously, and seek to reply in charity.
If we do this we can’t go far wrong.