Would a married priesthood solve problems, or cause them?

Would a married priesthood solve problems, or cause them? January 26, 2011

After we’ve all torn our hair out over the canonical question of continence, now might be a good time to reflect on the issue of a married clergy in general — and the priesthood, in particular.

I’ve lost count of the number of times people have asked me, “Wouldn’t you like to be a priest?,” a question that is usually followed by a laundry list of qualifications that people seem to think would be ideal for a priest.  Usually one of the first that’s mentioned is the fact that I’m married.   There is much to be gained, the argument goes, from having men who are married be priests.

The esteemed Fr. Dwight Longenecker — a convert, and a husband — takes a look at all this and raises some good points, both pro and con:

Having married priests would certainly help the vocations crisis, and they may relate better to married people etc. However, believing that married priests are the answer assumes that they are mature, happily married men. Errr, I’m afraid marriage does not automatically make a man mature, self giving and happy. In my experience of married clergy in both the Evangelical Churches and the Anglican Church it is not the magic bullet. Having married clergy will not necessarily solve the vocations crisis, nor will it necessarily improve the priestly ministry, and it certainly won’t be the solution to the priestly sex abuse problem.

Remember married men are not perfect. Married clergymen are workaholics. Married clergymen are immature. Married clergymen have affairs. Married clergymen have drink problems. Married clergymen struggle with porn and same sex attraction and abuse children. When a clergy marriage breaks down it is usually disastrous and scandalous and the hurt and pain ripple right through the whole church. I don’t mean to paint a horrible picture of married clergy–just reminding people that it’s not all quite as happy and wonderful as they seem to think.

There are other practical problems. Catholics say they want married clergy, but do they want to pay for them? I can get by because I work two jobs–parish priest and school chaplain. In addition to this I speak and write and Mrs Longenecker works. Not all married priests and their families can do this. Furthermore, remember that a married priest and his wife will be living by all the teachings of the Catholic Church. If they’re young and fertile they will have a large family. Do Catholics really want to provide a rectory and the income for a family of 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11 or 12? It’s not really cheaper by the dozen.

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21 responses to “Would a married priesthood solve problems, or cause them?”

  1. It’s a slippery slope, and one I’m glad the Church is not on, and pray it never will be.

    Where would we draw the line? What if the Priest who is married decides to get a divorce. What then if a Priest who is married, but decides to divorce, decides he wants to re-marry?

    Aside from the few convert Priests who are already married, I strongly feel that the current situation of not having married Priests serves the Church best.

  2. Father L makes excellent points. It remains an enigma to me why the masses seem to think that married priests are the end all solution. That said, I feel that the few that we do have, like Father L, are special gifts and appropiate for the times.

    Father Corapi once made an interesting comment in regards to married priesst. He asked if we could imagine, in these times and culture, how difficult it would be if most priesst were married with children. His biggest concern was the potential (and likely), threat against the kids, given the hateful attacks by many on the anti-Catholic bandwagon.

    Could any of us even imagine if a priest had to chose between his kids and God ?

    I think it’s just about right the way it is; marriage allowed for the converts, but not the norm.

  3. Glad to see Fr. Longenecker point out some of the things that need to be considered and faced when people propose a married priesthood as some pie-in-the-sky sort of solution.

    Balancing that, of course, should be a close examination of the married priesthood in the Eastern Churches, and how they have accommodated that tradition for centuries.

    Certainly not an overnight sort of change, if it should be pursued at all!

  4. On the other hand there are hundreds of mature, holy, very capable men who would love to serve as a married priest and they feel a genuine call to do that! Of course it would not be perfect or “the answer” to shortages and other problems, but why would we not include incredible talent and genuine priestly gifts in men just because they have received the Sacrament of Marriage? It seems ludicrous that a sacrament can be an impediment to another sacrament! In my ministry, both secular and with my parish, I find that my wife “fills in the blanks” with gifts and talents I do not have, and vise versa. Together we form a wonderful team that truly honors God’s work. The priest and parish gain a partner, not a burden!

    Financial support? Yes a consideration. But I know of many rual parishes with very large rectories and one person living in them — not very cost effective.

    Finally, lets’ look to the incredible success of the married permanent diaconate and hundreds of convert married priests who are faithfully serving! Do not these men with families attest to the validity and efficacy of a married priesthood?

  5. I don’t think having married men ordained to the priesthood in greater numbers will directly do anything much to solve the current problems in the priesthood due to poor and mis-guided vocational discernment. In fact, where the discernment and formation problems have been addressed it appears to me that the problem of not enough good priests is being solved. The only trouble is a potential gap between when the current older priests retire and the ordination of the new groups of seminarians being formed.

    That said, the church did not start with the Son of God selecting all un-married men as apostles, nor with the selection of an un-married man as pope. The right reason to allow more married men to be ordained is out of faithfulness to the example of our Savior, who chose married men for a number of His disciples, including Peter. The current keeper of the keys has the authority to change this, and I trust that God guides him in these matters, regardless of what I feel is best for the Church.

  6. “Having married clergy will not necessarily solve the vocations crisis”

    no, but it would help decrease some numbers, you know?

    “nor will it necessarily improve the priestly ministry”

    No, but some married people would feel identified with married priests.Some need that sense of identification, that their spiritual counselor not only listens and counsels, but also KNOWS first hand what they’re going through.

    “and it certainly won’t be the solution to the priestly sex abuse problem.”

    ABSOLUTELY NOT!!! it’s immature and ignorant to think that a married man cannot abuse your children

    “There are other practical problems. Catholics say they want married clergy, but do they want to pay for them?”

    1 solution for that is to start creating a culture of tithing in the Church. Start preaching about giving much more, and even tithing.

    Married priests will have other problems. Not greater but different. Problems the Church can solve. “Everything in life has a solution, except death”

  7. Marriage isn’t just allowed for the converts – many eastern rites of the Church allow married men to become priests. Looking at at how it works with Maronite Catholics and Melkite Catholics would probably give a good preview of how it would work with Roman Catholics as well.

  8. It is an interesting discussion with excellent points on both sides, however…
    lost in this is an understanding of the point of celibacy in the first place. It is not about practical matters…it is about a witness of faith in God.
    Pope Benedict spoke of it last summer in answer to a priests question:
    “The meaning of celibacy as an anticipation of the future is to open these doors, to make the world greater, to show the reality of the future that should be lived by us already as present. Living, then, as a testimony of faith: we truly believe that God exists, that God enters into my life, and that I can found my life on Christ, on the future life.
    And now we know the worldly criticism of which you spoke. It is true that for the agnostic world, the world in which God does not enter, celibacy is a great scandal, because it shows exactly that God is considered and experienced as reality. With the eschatological dimension of celibacy, the future world of God enters into the reality of our time. And should this disappear!?


  9. Thanks Deacon Greg for raising the financial point.
    It has always fascinated me that those who advocate for married clergy are surprised when it is pointed out how much it will take to put their money where their mouth is.
    Anglican communities traditionally tend to be small – with a strong pastoral relationship with their priest. This comes at a real financial cost. Off the top of my head – about 5 times RC giving rates, but others might have better estimates.
    The Episcopal Church has tithing as its official norm for giving.
    I know what the RC clergy income is here in NZ & also the Anglican one.
    I don’t know what the RC clergy income is in USA – do you?
    But only today I saw that TEC clergy average is around $70,000
    That seems a lot from NZ perspective
    but may give some point for real concrete reflection:
    If you want a married priesthood – this is what it will cost you.
    Maybe a further reflection might be – why do RCs give so little? Unless, of course, that is not the case & it’s a NZ aberration 🙂

  10. **now might be a good time to reflect on the issue of a married clergy in general**


    How many times must we have this “conversation”? About as many times as we are cursed to have the “women priests” conversation as well, I suppose.

    All that this goes to show is to confirm what many have been saying for a while — the state of catechesis in this country is atrocious.

  11. **there are hundreds of mature, holy, very capable men who would love to serve as a married priest and they feel a genuine call to do that**

    If the Church has said “no” to ordaining married men to the priesthood, and if Jesus Himself has given the Church absolute authority with respect to the sacraments, and that mature, holy, and very capable man is married, then it is not a genuine call.

    The Holy Spirit does not call us to do things that the Church does not approve of.

  12. Some reflection on similar discussions held almost 35 years ago now.

    I was in diaconal formation from 1975 – 1978 and was ordained the same year we had three popes — not doubt an auspicious one!

    At that time, my classmates (from three different diocese, by the way) were convinced that we would have women ordained as deacons/deaconesses by 1980 and married priests in the Latin rite by 1990. Of course, none of that became true but what was far more fascinating was the insight of the priest who was the director of our program.

    He was absolutely convinced that at whatever time the Latin Rite allowed married men to become priests, they would be selected from the pool of married men who were already experienced deacons. Priestly ordination was still then considered as a vertical “promotion” from the diaconate and that flow was very natural to him.

    There was never any doubt that they wives of these men would have to be “actively” cooperative and thus would be given “right of first refusal.” AND there was never any notion that their approval would be automatic.

    By inference, and I’m not sure our priest/director ever thought in those terms, the newly ordained priests who were married deacons would be in their fifties and sixties (given that less than 5% of the local men are ordained to the diaconate under 40). Thus having to support families was not as big an issue as Fr. L. has currently suggested.

    In another blog, there was an interesting stream talking about how many better education and more professional (and thus economically more stable) men are being currently ordained as deacons. No one, that I am aware of, has ever commented about the retirement plans that many of these same men are qualified for. I already know of several cases where deacon’s retirement income from their secular career is far and away higher than any amount any church office could ever provide.

    I thank Fr. L. for bring all this up but I have never heard of anyone in the Latin Rite suggesting we adopt the model of the Eastern Rites where men in the seminary (up to their ordination as deacons) are allowed to date, get married and continue in their track as young married priests..

  13. I have never heard of anyone in the Latin Rite suggesting we adopt the model of the Eastern Rites

    Then you haven’t been listening, unless you don’t count laity as “anyone.”

  14. I continue to be astounded by the likes of Dwight Longnecker speaking of the value of the celibate priesthood as he was allowed to become a priest although married.

    But the rules don’t apply to everyone, as married male converts who were ministers in other churches may become priests but married male cradle Catholics may not.

    A puzzling inconsistency from a church that, for example, would rather let both mother and in-utero child die (who would not survive outside the womb) rather than save one, on the altar of consistency.

  15. Mike:

    Let me comment on your entry #13 by using the text of an e-mail I sent Deacon Greg “off-blog” over a year ago:

    “One might be tempted to cite Orthodox and Byzantine priests marriages as models (for potential Latin-rite priest marriages) but they are not. Some time back, the Adult Faith Formation Team of my parish arranged for a speaker to talk about Eastern Byzantine Christianity and, during this lady’s talk, she did mention that their priests often are married. The audience noted it but the discussion was all rather superficial. As I was helping her pack-up, I asked if there had ever been any real study about just how a Byzantine/Orthodox priestly marriage really works. It was not four weeks later that she sent me a paperback Presbytera: The Life, Mission and Service of the Priest’s Wife by Athanasia Papademetriou (ISBN 0-972466-14-2). Some of the important things I learned from this book, and they are STARK difference between the marriages of those clergy and us, are the following:

    –It is presumed that all young seminarians will be engaged before they start their seminary graduate work;

    –Their marriages are celebrated sometime before their ordination to the diaconate;

    –Most importantly — the young ladies themselves who are marrying these seminarians have often been mentored by their own mothers! Clerical marriages in these Eastern Christian traditions are trans-generational and it is quite often that girls who are daughters of clerical marriages become “presbyteras” themselves.”

    That’s my perspective. I still do not think adopting the Eastern tradition here is a wise one and I think Fr. “L” post covers a great deal of the issues involved.

    On fact, on Sunday Jan 30,2011 I am giving the presentation at a neighboring deanery’s multi-parish RCIA on the topic “Sacraments of Commitment: Marriage and Holy Orders.”

    This question about married priests in the Latin Rite always comes up. My very first response is “Be careful what you wish for!”

  16. I think the church leadership has determined there are great benefits that far outweigh the negatives with a married priesthood. The church is accepting large numbers of married Anglician clergy into the Roman Catholic Church. In fact the ordinations have been “fast-tracked” based on news reports from the past three weeks (see: http://www.catholicherald.co.uk/commentandblogs/2011/01/05/the-ordinariate-is-happening-at-an-unprecedented-pace/ ). Married clergy have a place in the catholic church. I don’t think the issues presented in the article, Magic Bullet, swayed the pope, so “is the author more catholic than the pope?”

    Overall Fr. L. presents a pessimistic view of the married priesthood. The barriers abound in the article.

    I thank the author for stimulating discussion. I doubt that I would choose to be ordained to the priesthood after many wonderful years of marriage but I am on my way to ordination as a married deacon. I support both the married and unmarried state for deacons, priests, and bishops (and popes?).

  17. Bender:

    “How many times must we have this ‘conversation’ [about married clergy]? About as many times as we are cursed to have the ‘women priests’ conversation as well, I suppose.”

    Well, unlike women priests, married men becoming priests is both a legitimate option for Eastern Catholics and for Western Christians joining the fold. It also has origins in the practice of Jesus Christ himself selecting married men into the apostolic college. This is also the blog of a married cleric. Looks like, given those reasons, we may be having this conversation for a long time.

  18. From the Bender post: “If the Church has said “no” to ordaining married men to the priesthood, and if Jesus Himself has given the Church absolute authority with respect to the sacraments, and that mature, holy, and very capable man is married, then it is not a genuine call.”

    Tell Jesus he goofed. Peter was married as were other apostles. Perhaps the man made rules of the church are amiss? The church has the authority to change this discipline.

  19. Unless the Church can provide good theological reasons why God calls convert married men to the priesthood, but not cradle Catholic married men, then I fear that we are on the slippery slope already.

    People will soon be questioning why they are being deprived of the Mass simply because John Smith wasn’t baptised in an heretical sect. We may not like the question, but it seems inherently reasonable to pose it.

    As soon as Dr. Peters’ thesis started making its rounds again, another “discussion of priestly celibacy” was inevitable. Imagine how the discussion will go if perfect continence becomes obligatory for married deacons. People will very quickly ask: “Well if they are going to be continent anyway, why can’t we ordain married men as priests?”

    As the principle has already been conceded in Anglicanorum Coetibus that married priests can provide for their families by secular employment, that would also shoot down the objections of cost.

    I don’t know if the clerical continence debate was opened up again with the intent of trying to head off large numbers of married priests coming into the Catholic Church, but if it was, it could backfire in ways that its proponents never imagined.

  20. If an when we have a stabilized married priesthood, it will certainly evolve out of the “permanent” diaconate. That way we will avoid as many problems with married clergy as possible:

    Middle age men with established records of stability /faithfullness
    Few if any young children so less problems with “preachers kids”
    Most will be more financial secure or established to reduce cost
    Does not disrupt the canonical tradition, deacons marry only one

  21. over on the America blog I found B16 wrote:

    A report from The Catholic Herald in the UK.

    As a young priest, Pope Benedict put his name to a document calling for the Church to seriously investigate the obligation to priestly celibacy. Joseph Ratzinger was one of the signatories of a 1970 document calling for an examination of priestly celibacy which was signed by nine theologians. The memorandum was drawn up in the face of a shortage of priests and other signatories included Karl Rahner and the future cardinals Karl Lehmann and Walter Kasper. The German newspaper Die Sueddeutsche reported about the document today.

    The memorandum, which was sent to the German bishops reads: “Our considerations regard the necessity of a serious investigation and a differentiated inspection of the law of celibacy of the Latin Church for Germany and the whole of the universal Church.” According to the Sueddeutsche, the document said if there were no such investigation, the bishops’ conference would “awaken the impression that it did not believe in the strength of the Gospel recommendation of a celibate life for the sake of heaven, but rather only in the power of a formal authority”. If there weren’t enough priests, the document said, then the “Church quite simply has a responsibility to take up certain modifications”.

    The signatories who had drawn up the document acted as consultors to the German bishops’ conference in a commission for questions of Faith and Morals.

    The document’s release coincides with a renewed debate on priestly celibacy after prominent German politicians called for the Church to change the teaching on priestly celibacy in the face of a serious lack of priests.

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