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Dialogue: Are More Married Catholic Priests Desirable?

Dialogue: Are More Married Catholic Priests Desirable? January 13, 2022

This was an exchange that I had (primarily) with my friend and fellow Catholic, Theo McManigal, on my Facebook page. His words will be in blue.

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Someone wrote: “One reason I love Eastern Orthodoxy? A Married Priesthood. What a blessing!” I replied: “One reason I love Catholicism is because it retains the notion of heroic, self-sacrificing celibacy in (most of) her priests (not to mention nuns): a quite scriptural thing: extolled by both Jesus and St. Paul.”
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I wrote an article once where I argued that, once the celibacy requirement is ditched, then almost all of the priests get married (probably 90% or more of EC and EO priests do), which is not in sync with what I believe the Bible teaches: that heroic celibacy ought to be upheld as an ideal, too.

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We see related problems in the Protestant world, too, where pastors are 90% married. Their interests are divided: precisely as St. Paul states. When I was Protestant, we used to refer to the “PKs” and “MKs” (pastor’s kids and missionary’s kids).

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Sometimes it can, but it’s very difficult, and St. Paul noted that. I can be in full-time ministry as a married man, but I don’t have a FLOCK to care for: people dying and getting married and confessing their sins and going through all the problems of life. I simply sit and type articles and books and do other sorts of evangelistic outreach at times. So that works much better with being a husband and father. Working at home (which I’ve done for 20 years now) certainly goes well with that.
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I’m a Catholic who loves Eastern Catholicism as well as Western Catholicism. I am not in favor of mandatory celibacy for diocesan priests. I’m certainly a supporter of the vocation to celibacy among monks, religious, bishops, and then whoever may choose it…Jesus and St Paul did recommend celibacy. However, it is my understanding that St Paul was talking to Corinthian lay people and Jesus was referring to the renunciation of marriage in general (and probably with the monastic group in mind called the Essenes). Neither of them were claiming celibacy to be mandatory for the priesthood.
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Also, people will bring up many practical objections in this thread about money and time and practical issues, but those don’t work as well as they think they do…though maybe better in the Roman context than in the Eastern context therefore some adjustment would be needed. All things considered, I’ve come to change my mind on this over time.

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“St Paul was talking to Corinthian lay people.”
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Generally speaking, yes, but he was referring to all callings, which includes the priesthood. And so he wrote, “let every one lead the life which the Lord has assigned to him, and in which God has called him” (1 Cor 7:17, RSV).
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Five chapters later, in talking about spiritual gifts, he wrote: “All these are inspired by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills” (12:11), and then in 12:28-30 he discusses church offices.
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In the whole picture, then, he is discussing the notion of universal vocation. We should all follow that which God has called us to. Some of those offices (by implication) require celibacy or other forms of heroic self-sacrifice, and other ones less so, as a matter of degree and one’s life-situation.
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I agree with everything you said. But then that means he was not referring to clerical celibacy per se but celibacy in general, which the church then places into its understanding of the discipline. This is also the same St Paul though who said that the bishop should be the husband of one wife (1 Timothy 3:2). No that doesn’t mean he must be married but that doesn’t it mean he did not envision an entirely celibate ordained ministry?
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Yeah: the Church applies the general principle to the specific vocation of the priesthood and religious.
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It’s correct that he didn’t seem to hold to an entirely celibate clergy, since he referred to apostles having the right to have wives (1 Cor 9:5). The “one wife” thing (I believe) meant that a married bishop whose wife dies ought to then remain single. But don’t quote me on that. Commentators likely differ.
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But again: which is more biblical: Catholics following the “heroic” and “evangelical counsels” model for priests and religious, or the tacit understanding in Orthodoxy that every priest is expected to get married? Nothing in Scripture says that all priests ought to get married, either.
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We have the model of Jesus, Paul, most disciples being single (and Jesus even talking about leaving wives and family — including temporarily — to be His disciple). Does that count for nothing? What was the reason for that? And how would it apply by analogy to the priesthood today?
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I agree that clerics (whether Always single or widowed) should not marry after ordination.
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The Eastern Catholic Churches that have married priests also do have celibate priests as well as monks and celibate bishops. Further, unfortunately we know little about the marriages of the apostles or if they were…many claims made on both sides. I also agree with you that the model of Jesus and what Jesus says about leaving everything for his sake needs to be applied in the church for all time…and I do not exactly know how besides in religious orders of priests including missionary ones. I am working to walk the line between having celibate vocations in the church and saying it would be good to have more married diocesan priests in the church. I won’t claim to have all the answers on how that gets done if I’m arguing against mandatory celibacy. I would hope we would still have many celibate priests….maybe even the majority as St. Paul’s claim that it is easier to do anything while being unmarried especially serving God would still be true.
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Again, the question is: how many Eastern Catholic priests are celibate? In other words: when the celibacy requirement is removed, how many voluntarily make that choice?

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I think it makes more sense for a parish priest to be single than a monk, since the parish priest has a flock under his care and supervision.
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We recognize those already called to celibacy by God as among the class of people called to be a celibate priest. It’s based on the existing call.
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You’re right about this. This tends to be experienced by many as the acceptance of celibacy being a cover change to be ordained to the priesthood. One question I have is, should this be what being a priest is primarily about? We know it isn’t. It’s about celebrating the sacraments and preaching the gospel and governing. But then to make diocesan priesthood also about being a perfect celibate on top of these things has some problems. Like the culture of secrecy.
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It’s not the very essence of the priesthood, no (otherwise, we couldn’t allow married Eastern Catholics). But it’s the concept of “we want those who have heroically sacrificed the desire to be married, so that they can give sole attention to their flocks as a father.” Hence:
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1 Corinthians 7:32-35 (RSV) I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to please the Lord; [33] but the married man is anxious about worldly affairs, how to please his wife, [34] and his interests are divided. And the unmarried woman or girl is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit; but the married woman is anxious about worldly affairs, how to please her husband. [35] I say this for your own benefit, not to lay any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord.
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So the Catholic Church in effect says: “This is the class of men from which we want to select most of our priests: those committed to an ‘undivided devotion to the Lord’: which is easier to do in an unmarried state.”
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For the life of me, I’ve never understood the objection to this. I don’t see how it can be overcome. Every religious institution (in this case, Catholic Christian) has the prerogative to set up requirements as it sees fit (based on an understanding of scriptural guidance and the models therein: like the celibate Paul and celibate Jesus and mostly celibate original disciples).
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Catholicism, after centuries of reflection, came to see that the rule of celibacy was ideal for most of her priests.
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I am not objecting to this the way most people you have argued with do (Protestants and other non Catholics) because I fully understand that the Church has the right to do this. Catholics can also argue and disagree about the relative value and prudence of certain disciplines and at different times and I would like to see the Roman Church adopt more of the Eastern discipline here. If we could not, then I would not feel free to have this discussion as I believe everything the church teaches on faith and morals, and one of those teachings is that the celibate state is higher. I don’t believe having more married priests in the Roman Church would contradict this dogma if it’s presented properly.
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If the choice is 1) almost all married priests (EO), or 2) 95% celibate priests and 5% married ones (Catholicism, both Western and Eastern), then I think the latter is more scriptural: heroic celibacy and self-sacrifice among those dedicated to serve God vocationally in ministry, as the overwhelming norm, while allowing a smaller class who don’t choose that heroic path, but who are still called to priesthood.
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And even in western Catholicism, we make exceptions: I know / knew two married western Catholic priests: the late Fr. Ray Ryland and Fr. Dwight Longenecker (both former Anglicans).
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How many “exceptions” exist in EO? How many celibate priests exist there? No one has ever told me how many. It must be a very small percentage.
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Do you think there should be a way for there to be exceptions that don’t involve being a convert? Either bringing back simplex priests or having part time married associates while having the pastor be celibate? Some kind of other option that would increase the 5% but still leave celibates in the majority in the Roman Church?
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I wouldn’t be opposed to that, as long as the “norm” or heroic celibacy remains that: the norm. If we already grant some exceptions, conceivably we could grant more.
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It’s Eastern Orthodoxy that doesn’t seem to have room for a category of “heroically celibate priest.” I would say, if they have a category of celibate bishops and nuns, why not also priests? Why are the priests (in effect) almost “required” to be married?
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I am not advocating that the priesthood become something where the man is practically required to be married.
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That’s what I am saying is the case in Orthodoxy, where all the expectation is for the priest to get married (just as is the case for rabbis and Protestant pastors).
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I am aware of this; yes, they want priests to either be married or live in community or not live alone in a rectory or live with some other priests that he’s not really living in community with. It’s a good model. But I see the biblical conflict unless we see the giving up everything verses to be about religious life or traveling missionary service. We agree that we need heroic celibate servants in the church. I’m guessing this level of agreement is more agreement than you often get when discussing this issue. And I hope my admission that I don’t know the best answer within my position is more humility than you tend to get also.
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Yes on both counts!
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I think celibacy as an eschatological sign makes more sense for monks because if celibacy is a sign of the life to come in heaven, then so is community life, since heaven is community.
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I think it makes sense to see why celibacy as availability would make sense for a parish pastor…however, practically speaking, I would say that it gives the impression that the priest is available for everyone but he is not always available to each individual person. Further, a married priest could bring his wife and or kids with him to a sick call…and they can actually be an extension and support of his parish ministry instead of a distraction.
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Interesting. The problem is that a wife and children almost always would have a different calling. It’s not automatic that they have the call to do “deacon-like” activities. And they can’t be forced to. They have to be free to follow whatever calling God gives them.
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Can you explain a bit more your first sentence about wife and kids having a different calling? I agree they can’t be forced to do anything but I don’t understand what that looks like or what anecdotes attest to this.
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According to Paul, God gives every individual a specific calling. It’s hard to imagine a scenario where the family of a married priest are all asked if they have a vocation that would tie into serving the parish. Most would not, just by the law of averages. Everyone is their own person with their calling.
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My wife was called to be a homeschooling mother. One of my sons is a carpenter; another works in customs; my daughter works with horses. Etc.
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The married priest is often not free to be with his family as he should or would desire to. The much needed weekend getaway is wrecked by the crisis of a dying parishioner. The promised “date” with a daughter must be cancelled because another parishioner is suicidal or undergoing a severe crisis of faith and wants to be counseled by the priest.
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It’s extremely difficult to be devoted to a wife and family, alongside an entire parish / flock.
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Now I understand. I was just making the point that there is another possibility than the wife and children of a married priest being only a distraction from his ministry. They could be a support and help him out with things…however often. Further, this is actually key to the practice of married priesthood for Eastern Catholics as I understand it.
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They could theoretically do that, but if it is by social / parish pressure rather than calling from God, it’s ultimately wrong and will cause tension and friction and unhappiness. St. Paul writes about individual callings from God, not family callings.
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Those examples are real and I get that. I’m not under the illusion that there are not tough decisions to be made.
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Fr. Tom Loya [wrote a good article on this topic].
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[He wrote]:
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Married priesthood cannot just be a matter of a woman (particularly a career woman) being married to a man who just happens to be a priest, as though he has his career and she has hers.
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And:
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In these communities the wife of the priest even has titles that imply that she is indeed the spiritual mother of the community.
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One more:
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Except when running errands, sick-calls, and so forth, the married priest is basically a “stay at home Dad.” Rectory life with the priest family is something akin to today’s homeschooling families. Furthermore, “Dad” can always take Mom and/or children along with him to some of “Dad’s” duties—a great way to foster vocations from the priest’s own family! In Eastern Christian parishes the wife and children often become in-house ‘staff,’ and are not a distraction to their priest-father’s ministry but rather share in his ministry and can act as a support system.
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I trust God to call husband and wife in such a way as to be called to their marriage first and to lifestyles that fit well together and he does not call them both in a way that would cause tension between them. We cause the tension!
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I can see a husband-and-wife team who happen to have the same general calling (the “spiritual mother” thing), but not children. They almost always will have a different calling, and can’t be forced to just do what daddy wants them to. In fact, I would say such a scenario would set up many children for serious rebellion.
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I’m in a very happy marriage, where my wife supports my calling 1000% (and I support and highly respect hers as well). But she is not called to the same thing. Homeschooling is vastly different from what I do (oriented mostly to educated adults).
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Again, I can see a married priest with a wife who feels called to deacon-like service in the local parish, and it works for them and she is perfectly content and fulfilled. That’s fine. But all the children? That’s a whole different ballgame. The wife chose her husband, knowing all this and agreeing. But children can’t choose their parents, and parents ought not force them to do things that aren’t required.
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I did not envision all this for all the children. For married priests with younger children, bringing one of them along on a sick call from time to time is, in my mind, different from the kids having the same calling. I tagged along with my dad when I was a bit younger from time to time and I’d never want to do what he does, believe me, and I don’t mean that with disrespect. He is a millwright.
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Further, this is where it may be better that married priests are all men who do not have small children at the time of ordination (or at least parish pastors) similar to most RC permanent deacons who can’t be ordained before 35. I would readily grant this.
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Looks like we largely agree. Perhaps the middle ground would be a 5-10% more married priests “quota” in the Latin Rite / western Church, with also some provision that their children ought to be essentially raised (18+). But then that would require another profession while they were young, which is a bit strange.
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In my life, my Protestant campus ministry collapsed in 1989 (age 31), and I would end up doing totally unrelated work till 2001 when I was able at last to do full-time apologetics at age 43. I sure wouldn’t wish that career trajectory on anyone, but I have at least succeeded once I got here.
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We certainly agree on a lot on this topic (along with just about everything else apart from this topic). We have been able to hear the other side with a pretty open mind, and we recognize that different issues could have different solutions and I would want to think about what my % quota would be for married priests in the west but rest assured I still value celibacy in the church and in at least a significant number of priests. There are also certain jobs that priests can have that would not involve doing full time parish ministry (and in fact many do) like teaching in a high school or university or being a counselor or serving as a hospital chaplain or working for Catholic charities that could accompany certain stages of married life quite well and would be compatible with their priesthood and marriage. Lots of possibilities out there but it does look like we agree on quite a bit here.
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It’s an honor to engage in this dialogue with you! You are after all one of my apologetics heroes!
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It was my pleasure. I always enjoy talking to open-minded and reasonable people, as you clearly are.
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Deacons might fill the needs of many to serve in ministry short of the priesthood, too. They do just about everything a Protestant pastor does, since they can preach homilies.
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[further random thoughts]
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The Catholic Church is against neither sex nor marriage. It is for heroic sacrifice (voluntary grace-enabled denial of good things for oneself) for those called to it.
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I would simply say that there are potentially serious problems with wives and children (of married priests) who aren’t necessarily as “gung-ho”, let alone the vocations issue, too. And that St. Paul correctly and wisely “anticipated” those problems of divided attention . . .
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Photo credit: Ogni (3-10-13).  Eastern Catholic priest from Romania with his family. [Wikimedia Commons /  Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license]
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Summary: Great dialogue, which was different from the usual fare on this topic. We concentrated on the question of whether more married Catholic priests would be a good thing.

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