Abberant Priests, an Abberant Blogger


My more socially responsible friends tell me that part of a soldier’s first general order is to quit his post only when properly relieved. Elizabeth, the once and future Anchoress, has asked me to remain on duty for a little while longer. Her arrival home has found her under the weather. I’m sure it’s nothing major — just one of those bugs a traveller’s bound to pick up when consorting with new and exotic germs. The last time I was in Rome, I came down with a wicked case of Pio Nono’s Revenge, probably from some bad veal, which serves me right.

All the same, I shall presume to solicit your prayers on her behalf.

Okay, first in the lineup: married priests. Cardinal Bertone has just announced that married priests have no longterm future in the Church:

Married priests will be only a temporary aberration within the Anglican Ordinariate, says Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican’s secretary of state. Speaking in an interview in the Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, and in recently published extracts from his forthcoming book, A Great Heart: Homage to John Paul II, Bertone said that although already married Anglican priests will be acceptable under the ordinariate, “the enduring value of celibacy will be reaffirmed, necessitating that for the future, unmarried priests will be the norm in such ordinariates.” Until then, the procedures developed by Pope John Paul II for the reception of already married Anglican clergy will apply.

Mandatory celibacy has already been debated from every angle. I’m not sure there’s anything left to say. For what they’re worth, here are my two cents:

Some in favor of changing the discipline like to argue that married clergy will be better able to plug the Church’s line on birth control, etc., to married couples. Maybe — but only if the married couples are receptive. Once, several years before entering the Church, I attended a “Victorious Christian Living” seminar at a nearby Baptist church. (I was wingman for my buddy, who went at the insistence of his girlfriend, who brought him at the insistence of her grandmother.) At the podium we found a pastor and his wife standing in front of a whiteboard. They were both wearing acid-washed denim that had gone out of style around the time of the Velvet Revolution. On the whiteboard, someone had sketched a pyramid. One end of the base was marked: “PASTOR RON”; the other, “HIS WIFE”; the peak, “GOD.”

Pastor Ron began by pointing at his wife: “I despise her flesh,” he told us.

The pastor’s wife pointed back at her husband. “And I despise his flesh,” she said, smiling demurely.

I can’t really tell you what happened after that, since I quickly jammed half my fingers in my ears and the remaining ones in my eyes.

Another time, a good friend of mine, the wife of an Episcopalian priest, told me, “We use condoms.” I’m fairly sure the “we” referred to Episcopalians, or even Protestants, in general. But the possibility that it meant, “Me and hub,” remote though it might have been, sufficed to skeeve me out. If my clergy have a sex life, I‘d prefer not to hear the faintest whisper of it, which just goes to prove that I do regard them with a properly filial attitude.

At a very recent point in my life, I was underemployed and for that reason, under equipped to search for love. Knowing that my pastor, a mendicant friar, went home to board with three other priests and maybe a cat made me confident he’d be able to relate to my feelings of marginality. If he’d had a still-lovely wife and a passel of tow-headed kids, I’d probably have written him off as a smug creep. Unfair of me, yes, but there it is.

As it happened, I found my pastor to be sympathetic even when my luck changed. “You’ll never guess what happened to me at the vocational discernment retreat, Father,” I told him. “Go on, try.”

“You’re right, I can’t,” he said. “What.”

“I met a girl!” I crowed. “How do you like that, huh? Who else does that happen to?”

He shrugged. “It happens.”

Just goes to show you celibacy and hipness can march hand-in-hand.

Oh, and in a final aside, doesn’t Cardinal Bertone look just like Sam the Eagle from the Muppet Show? Shut up; he does, too.

Update: Here’s Elizabeth’s latest First Things column, “Finding the Silence of the Romans.” Apparently, during a beatification, Roman silence can’t be found; it must be compelled — with a Swiss halberd:

Shortly before the solemn procession, a debate broke out in the stands. An exchange between two Italians became heated enough to turn heads, and when another voice rang out, “si, bellissimo!” in agreement with one gladiator, a few gentlemen in authority intervened.

Within moments a Swiss Guard appeared at the corner of our rows, where he remained throughout, his back turned away from the holy pageant taking place directly below. His attention was wholly trained on our stand, which his eyes scanned over and over again, while his body remained motionless, resisting even the shifts of muscle fatigue. A handsome, fit young man in medieval dress stood sentry, ready to respond to rashness or rage. He made his purpose clear in a perfect Swiss-Roman silence of stillness, and he was heard and understood.

At the pronouncement of the new beato and the unveiling of John Paul’s portrait, a shout of jubilation arose from the square, but in the loggia, the joy was low-key. The pope’s youthful image drew an appreciative gasp from the Italians, who nodded and murmured “vabene,” among themselves. From the Poles, not even that. They wiped their tears and crossed themselves and simply gazed in reverent awe, remembering a beloved countryman in palpable and soundless pride.

About Elizabeth Duffy
  • Yeoman

    1st General Order
    “I will guard everything within the limits of my post and quit my post only when properly relieved.”

    2nd General Order
    “I will obey my special orders and perform all of my duties in a military manner.”

    3rd General Order
    “I will report violations of my special orders, emergencies, and anything not covered in my instructions, to the commander of the relief.”

  • Yeoman

    Perhaps I can use this post to try to clear up a question I’ve had, and never can seem to find a straight answer to.

    I’ve read it suggested that married priests in the Eastern Rite (and presumably also in the Orthodox Churches) must be celibate.

    That is, they can be married, but upon becoming priests, cannot have sex.

    I can’t imagine that this is actually correct. That’d be a much harder discipline than simply not being married at all.

    I’ve also recently read that some are debating if married deacons must be celibate. Likewise, I can’t imagine that would actually be the rule.

    What are the actual rules on these questions?

  • Mandy P.

    I’m a new convert (just confirmed on May 1). The church I left to become Catholic was a Southern Baptist congregation where the pastor and his wife did not believe in birth control. They had seven children with an eighth on the way. The pastor gave a sermon at least once a year on the commandment to be fruitful and multiply. And the response every single time was a collective grumbling under the breath of the vast majority of the congregation that they were responsible for the financial support of that ever-expanding family.

    And I can’t imagine the problems he had with his wife and children over it all. He was expected to be at everything- births, deaths, hospitals, visiting the sick at home, evangelizing door to door, and at the church every time the doors were open. If his kids were sick and he missed something, the grumbling would start all over again. They had the kids in private school until the complaints got rather loud. So they put them in public school, which scandalized many in the congregation that the pastor would subject his children to secular education. So then they pulled them out to home school. But that meant that the pastor’s wife literally had no time to spare and then the complaints about her being aloof and out of touch began.

    I could go on for a week about all the grumbling that congregation I’d about the pastor’s big family.

    In other words, the people were vicious and that poor pastor and his family could never do anything to please them. After watching that mess for several years, having a celibate priest whose sole responsibility is to tend to the flock is a relief!

  • Max Lindenman

    Yeoman: I don’t think that’s true. When would that give Father time to have kids? In the seminary, when he has no visible means of support?

    Mandy: I have to say, one of the best priests I’ve ever known was a convert Episcopalian with five kids (one of them adopted). I missed the chance to go on a retreat he was leading, which was too bad, because I’d have liked to ask how he managed it all. The parish he served had its own school, which kids kids must have attended free. And of course, his wife must have been a genius when it came to organization.

  • Rhinestone Suderman

    I am Orthodox, and, yes, married Orthodox priests can have sex with their wives, and they often have large families. The wife is usually as involved in the parish as her husband is.

    The married priests I’ve met in both the
    Episcopal and Orthodox church have seemed as dedicated, faithful and hard working as celibate Catholic priests.

  • jkm

    Yeoman, I just ran into that interesting canonical opinion, too, and decided not to mention it to my former-Episcopal-rector friend who has jumped the Tiber and is hoping to continue in ordained ministry with his wife and children. The actual condition you’re describing is not celibacy (the state of remaining unmarried) but continence (abstention from sexual relations). My understanding is that Orthodox clergy who are married observe a period of ritual continence in preparation for the celebration of the liturgy (a tradition as old as the Levitical priesthood); perhaps Eastern-rite Catholic clergy who are married follow the same practice. The cranky canonist who is proposing that perpetual continence applies to permanent deacons (and now, by extension, married priests) says that bishops have simply decided to ignore this teaching to boost recruitment and skipped over it in the rite, but now that we have a superfluity of deaconage it’s time to get strict. He also says he assumes most deacons’ wives are old enough that they’d be relieved to give up All That Stuff anyway, and the younger ones would certainly wish to sacrifice their own selfish gratification for the sake of their spouse’s holier vocation. (He has been disabused of these latter assumptions by deacon’s wives wielding comboxes in no uncertain terms.) This intriguing byway aside, I have spent time in the Episcopal Church in my 30-year self-imposed exile, and I found neither married clergy nor admission of women to priesthood to be the solutions popular opinion believes them to be–not so much because of the distractions of family or the inappropriateness of gender as because Christianity as a whole still has a long way to go in elaborating and practicing a real theology of sexuality and how it plays out in real human relationships. I don’t mean by that, in any sense, a caving to popular culture–I mean we don’t do as good a job as we could of articulating what we know to be true, or celibacy, marriage, and chaste single life would be seen as the courageous choices to cooperate with grace that they are, and not outdated impossibilities (on the one hand) or a hierarchy of virtue that puts sex, particular as this gift of God is embodied by women, irredeemably far from holiness (on the other).

  • jkm

    And re Elizabeth’s column on the silencers of Rome: I dearly wish there could be a way to impose prayerful silence in the Sistine Chapel that doesn’t involve Vatican Museum guards shouting “Silencio! No foto! Silencio! No foto!” at the top of their lungs non-stop the whole time one is in the chapel. I suppose staring fiercely while holding a halberd is above their pay grade.

  • dymphna

    You got diarrhea from veal?

  • Max Lindenman

    That’s the only cause that fits into my stuffy little moral universe. Really, it could have been from anything.

  • Elizabeth Scalia

    Thanks, Max, for standing guard another day or so. I have so much to say and am a bit too under the weather to say it, but I won’t try your patience much longer.

    I just wanted to say that yes, Bertone really does look like Sam the Eagle!

  • Jim Hicks

    I’ll add another voice to the confirmation that Eastern Orthodox priests can be married. But they must be married before being ordained deacon. It is amazing how many weddings take place a week before ordination!

    And marital relations occure post-ordination. The fact that they have kids kinda suggests that fact. However, their career ladder is limited. To be on the bishop track, no wife and no kids.

    That violates several thoughts from St. Paul. Timothy 3:2 states the bishop shall be the husband of one wife. Yes, he means no second, third, etc. wives. But that is not the only thought. Paul also advises observing how a bishop/priest raises his children If he cannot raise them properly, how can he be a father to the flock?

    Am I saying that both Eastern and Western Catholic traditions are wrong? Certainly not. I only suggest that we remember the Church’s teaching is not supported by Holy Scripture. It was not introduced until priests started owning property and leaving it to their family.

  • Max Lindenman


    I’ve heard that Eastern Orthodox churches make a sharp distinction between the white, or secular, clergy; and the black, or monastic, clergy. Members of the former can marry, members of the latter can’t. Black clergymen occupy all the episcopal and metropolitan seats, and generally promote from within.

    Is it true that, very occasionally, an especially able “white” clergyman will be invited to renounce his wife and take monastic vows so that he can be made a bishop? I heard this many years ago, in a class on Balkan history, but I’ve never been able to confirm it since.

  • Manny

    I’ve enjoyed reading your blogs Max. You write with lots of personality, and I mean that in a positive way since I guess it can be delivered with a sarcastic tone. I think you’ve done a fine job. It’s taken me a little while to get used to your sense of humor. This had me laughing:

    “Another time, a good friend of mine, the wife of an Episcopalian priest, told me, “We use condoms.” I’m fairly sure the “we” referred to Episcopalians, or even Protestants, in general. But the possibility that it meant, “Me and hub,” remote though it might have been, sufficed to skeeve me out. If my clergy have a sex life, I‘d prefer not to hear the faintest whisper of it, which just goes to prove that I do regard them with a properly filial attitude.”


  • Will

    Perhaps in 50 or 100 years there will be married priests in the Roman Catholic Church.

  • Yeoman

    Thanks for all the very interesting responses to my questions.

  • Occasional Reader

    I’m a Latterday Saint (Mormon) and married priests are so normalized that it is not even an issue. Sex in marriage for children or intimacy is normalized, too. In fact someone can’t even serve a calling such as bishop without being married.

    They even purposefully put retired married couples and dedicate them as missionaries (the husband is a priest) for 18 months-2 yrs in missions where their experience is an enhancement, such as to university students. These people don’t try to be hip or cool since they are grandparents and past attempting that. But it shows “This is a couple with XX years of marriage. This is an example on how to lovingly behave.” The general view among my university aged peers was “I can’t wait to have that special someone and look forward to serving with them when the time came.”

    I had a grandfather who contemplated the Catholic Priesthood in his youth. As the family joke went “He never became a Father, instead he became a father of nine!” Still very pious in his retirement with my grandmother. How blessed the Catholic faith would be if a person could lay aside their earthly possessions and dedicate their time to their faith as a priest, while maintaining the love and companionship of their spouse.

    With the advances in longevity and the passion of older catholics a type of order could be formed, either as a second profession or a measured tour of duty. No problem with property/children since they should settle those matters before they serve. Celibacy/continence is blocking good men and their good wives from serving.

  • Max Lindenman

    Hey, Occasional Reader, what’ll it take to make you a regular?

    The way I always understood it, in the Church of Jesus-Christ of Latter-Day Saints, every male past a certain age holds the priesthood — provided he’s in good standing. In that case, yes, I can definitely see why married priests wouldn’t seem strange at all.

    I remember reading that there is, or at any rate was, a Hindu traditoin of householders — married men with children — leaving home after their children are grown and taking to the roads as mendicants. At certain points in history, the practice became so popular that rulers had to ban it. Your grandparents’ mission soundsa lot more doable, at least by my Western lights.