On married priests

On married priests January 9, 2017

At least since Vatican II there has been discussion about married clergy in the Western Church, with many people advocating for it to address the vocations crisis, and with equal numbers arguing in support of the current discipline.  Often missing from these discussions is the fact that the Church has been quietly experimenting with married clergy in the Latin Church (as opposed to the Greek Churches, which have always had a married clergy).  Beginning under Pope John Paul II, exceptions have been made to allow Episcopal/Anglican and Lutheran clergy who convert to Catholicism to be ordained even though they are married.   This process accelerated slightly under Pope Benedict XVI, who created a mechanism for Episcopalians/Anglicans to be received while maintaining some of their traditional forms of worship.

But recently Fr. Dwight Longenecker, a priest from South Carolina, wrote a column about his personal experiences as a married Roman Catholic priest.    Since it appeared at Crux, which no longer allows comments on its articles, I am going to copy some pieces of the article here to open a discussion on this subject.  I urge you to read the whole piece.    He addresses some concerns, such as time management (can a married man devote enough time to his congregation?) and commitment (what about the conflict between serving God and serving his wife?).  He tackles the financial issues (will Catholics be willing to pay to support a priest and his family?) and touches on divorce and contraception (though I think shallowly).

In the end, despite his status as a married priest, Fr. Longenecker is generally opposed to ending the practice of clerical celibacy, except in limited circumstances:

[T]here is another option. Rather than allowing all priests to marry, the Vatican could delegate to individual bishops’ conferences the authority to consider some older married men for ordination.

As most of us are living longer, active lives, there are many married men who are financially secure and whose children have grown up who could well serve the Church as mature priests.

To lay my cards out on the table:  he raises some good points, but none that are overwhelming or support his argument that they tip the scales (along with the standard theological and historical arguments for a celibate clergy) in favor of maintaining the current discipline.  Rather, his arguments put me in mind of something I believe Chesterton said about Christianity:  It has not been tried and found wanting, but rather was found hard, and so not tried.  Though I do not think it would be a panacea, and would be hard, it is something I think the Church should consider.

Your thoughts are welcome.  Also, I feel like we have discussed this before, but a search of the archives at Vox Nova did not turn anything up.  If anyone can find older posts, please add them to the comments.

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  • D.R.

    Easy for Fr. Longnecker to say since he was ordained a priest and is married, I find this hypocritical. Maybe he should have never petitioned the Church for ordination if he had such concerns. To argue that a married priest could not devote enough time or dedication is simply ridiculous; ask the Orthodox, the polish Catholic priests, Anglican, protestant pastors etc. etc. As a previous mental health supervisor I was constantly on call, and I’m sure I’ve worked more hours than many priests in my area (except for one elderly priest who I deeply respect), and I have a wife and four children. Should I say that a person in my position should not be in this field/postion because I’m married…that’s insane…or that I’m doing my family a disservice???? What above physcisns, police, nurses, mill workers who are mandated to work overtime…what should we do with all of these people and positions.
    I am not opposed to married or celebate priests. My thoughts are that both have a place in the Church. Ordain married men to the priesthood, and have them be sacramental assistants; they can have other positions to supplement income like different Chaplancies that need to be filled (most Dioceses need to fill these positions in prisons, nursing homes, schools, etc) or have them even work a secular positions. Follow the model of permanent Deacons, most get a meager stipend if any or simply volunteer all of their time.
    The Church needs to take a hard look at this. PEOPLE ARE GOING WITHOUT THE SACRAMENTS…and it is going to get much worse. What’s more important, the faithful receiving the sacraments, or the Bishop’s or some the celebate priest’s fears of a married priesthood.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, OFS

      Well, in fairness to Fr. Longenecker, he may not have thought through the consequences of his own ordination completely, or it may be that when he shifted from being a chaplain to being a pastor his perspective changed. And I think he ends up agreeing with you that the “time management issue” is a non-issue, for precisely the reasons you outline. Indeed, I suspect that he is swayed by his own traditionalism to tip the balance against ordination of married men, rather than any of the problems he puts forward.

      And while I am open to a married priesthood, I will say that I do not think it is a magic bullet that will solve the vocations crisis. If you go back through my posts I had a series about vocations where I talked about this some more.

    • mary

      Dear d.r. you couldn’t have written a better comment..i enjoyed reading it. what is this stupid fear of allowing priests to wed? like you said..what about the doctors..police officers..and so on..and what about the orthodox priests that can marry…heck!! they are doing such a great job handling their ministry to God and their family lives. I think these shark bishop attacks are only out for themselves..they don’t care if God forbid it in ten to twenty years..we will all suffer a ”eucharistic famine”. But,,,Pope Francis is on our side..he knows this hypocrisy is all man made…and soon we will have our original roots back..of ”optional celibacy”…just like our first christian priests..the disciples of Jesus..they were married men..including our dear st.peter our first pope. blessings to you…d.r…

  • Being related to some very wealthy priests and having observed their extraordinarily un-Christlike lifestyles, I have always thought that a vow of poverty should be mandated for membership in the Catholic clergy–and not just for the “regular,” but also the “secular” clergy. However, since the vow of poverty is not required of the “secular” clergy, I think that all who are parish priests (not bishops, archbishops, cardinals or popes) SHOULD be allowed to marry, as they are allowed to do in the Orthodox Churches.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, OFS

      If I remember my history correctly, one subtext to the reinforcement on clerical celibacy in the medieval period was dealing with the alienation of Church property: priests children thought that they should inherit the benefices their fathers had.

      • After watching a few episodes of “The Borgias” with Jeremy Irons, I can see more of your point; the obsession with family that the head of that notorious clan demonstrates to the best of his very great acting ability is, indeed, disturbing, I guess that folks like me don’t sufficiently consider how family loyalties might outweigh all other considerations for certain personality types. But I’d ask another question that seems related: doesn’t the modern Catholic obsession with “family values” and the superiority of family and spousal relationships over all other kinds–friendships, chastity as a function of spiritual devotion (as in monasticism), etc.–lead inevitably to these demands on the part of some Catholics for a “married clergy”?

        • David Cruz-Uribe, OFS

          That is a very interesting question: I must admit that I have never probed too deeply under the surface of calls for allowing priests to marry. Thinking off the top of my head, I would say that the change in understanding of marriage and sexuality in the past 50 years has helped to normalize married life as a positive good (as opposed to, say, the medieval notion of it as a negative protection against concupiscence) has made the notions of “holy priest” and “husband and father” seem less at odds. However, I am not sure if I would go so far as to say that family life is regarded as superior to the celibate life. Here in the US, the ubiquitous example of married Protestant clergy has had a normalizing effect as well. I would be interested to know if places that have large Catholic and Orthodox populations intermingled have the same phenomenon. (If such places still exist in our Balkanized world.) These two factors make a married clergy seem like a reasonable solution to the vocations crisis.

  • Chris

    The Catholic Church has always had married priests. Christ choose married men to be apostles and the first Pope, how come we think we know better than Christ himself ?

    Fr Longenecker seems to argue for both celibate and married priests, as the Church has always had.

    God bless

  • Edward Gould Burton

    I served as a Pastoral Associate at a Church without a Priest of its own, and on many occasions was called upon to provide Sunday Services in the format for the Absence of a Priest. While the parishioners were delighted in most part to be able to receive Communion with Hosts from earlier Masses done by a Priest, nevertheless some were hesitant to take Communion possibly not certain it was from a Priestly Mass. I am married with three children and two grandchildren, and now retired (77 years old). So now that Church has occasions when people come to a service only to discover it isn’t happening.

  • Opening the priesthood to married men would end what is essentially a hierarchical good-ole-boys’ club. Pope Francis constantly rails against clericalism; here’s his chance to deal it a mortal blow.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, OFS

      I am very dubious of the notion that a hierarchical good-ole-boy’s club would magically end if we had a married priesthood. Married men in secular contexts have played this game for years. If anything, I could imagine a situation like exists among the fraternities here at the University of Alabama, which are divided between the “Old Row” and “New Row” fraternities (date of founding and location where their house was built). They still come together to form a tight network if challenged from the outside, but internally there are many divisions. I can see the same thing between married and celibate clergy in a worse case scenario. So while I applaud Pope Francis for calling out clericalism, this does not strike me as the way to go.

      • I think your analogy is flawed. Our present good-ole-boys club has something of the ambiance of a tea party. Frat boys would not fit in, just as many of our married deacons have realized they do not fit well into the present clerical culture. I personally see that as a good thing.

        • David Cruz-Uribe, OFS

          Moving past my analogy, the central question is this: will married and celibate priests find they have more in common because they are priests or more differences because one is married and the other not? I really think it could go either way: the addition of marriage as a variable does not, in my mind, automatically change things in a way that ends clericalist culture. With regards to your last thought I have met married deacons who were quite clericalist in their outlook and who as married priests sink into the existing culture without a ripple. Not all of them, of course, but enough to suggest that my position is plausible.