The Truth About Married Priests
Before I begin this essay, allow me to give full disclosure. First, I am not a priest. Second, I am married. Third, I don’t want to be a priest — ever. Fourth, I will probably never be a priest and that’s just fine with me. Truth be told, I enjoy my freedom as a Catholic layman, maybe just a little too much, and I couldn’t see my life any other way. I disclose this because I’m frequently accused of wanting to be a priest when I state my position on this issue. It’s a false presumption that should be dispelled before we begin.
There is much talk in the Church right now about the possibility of Pope Francis opening up the priesthood to married men following the “Pan-Amazon Synod” in Rome later this year (October of 2019). This comes much to the chagrin of many traditional Catholics who don’t want to see the eight-hundred-year-old celibacy mandate changed, and much to the joy of modernists who see this as a step toward women priests and blessing homosexuality.
As for me, I have my position on the matter and it’s been unchanged since I joined the Catholic Church back in 2000. While I see no problem with some married men in the priesthood, the whole issue of mandated priestly celibacy has never been a “deal-breaker” for me, namely because I don’t want to be a priest, and I do believe that most priests really should be celibate. I think the Church benefits when this is the case. Now, let’s talk about priestly celibacy. Namely, what it is and isn’t.
The concept of priestly celibacy is Biblical, and comes straight from the words of Jesus Christ and St. Paul the Apostle. After teaching on marriage and divorce, Jesus said:
Not all men can receive this saying, but those to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who were born that way from their mother’s womb, and there are eunuchs who were made eunuchs by men; and there are eunuchs who made themselves eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven’s sake. He who is able to receive it, let him receive it.
— Matthew 19:11-12
Here, we see that Jesus Christ, who was himself a celibate man, encouraged those entering ministry (for the Kingdom of Heaven’s sake), to follow his example of celibacy, if they are able. Jesus, of course, acknowledges that this is not possible for everyone who wants to enter ministry, but he encourages it as the best possible thing, both for the ministry and the minister himself. This idea was nothing new in Jesus’ time. Many devout and pious Jews refused to marry for the same reason. We see this play out with the Prophet Jeremiah, who was instructed by God not to take a wife (Jeremiah 16:1-2). So the principle laid out in the Old Testament, and by Jesus Christ himself in the New Testament, is that while a married man in ministry is permissible, the best possible scenario is for the minister to remain unmarried and celibate.
We also see that St Paul, the Apostle, was a celibate man, and he indicated this in his own writings (1 Corinthians 7:8). He, like Jesus Christ, recommended that other ministers of the gospel do the same thing, but Paul was a bit more long-winded about it (thankfully), and explained the reason why…
But I desire to have you to be free from cares. He who is unmarried is concerned for the things of the Lord, how he may please the Lord; but he who is married is concerned about the things of the world, how he may please his wife. There is also a difference between a wife and a virgin. The unmarried woman cares about the things of the Lord, that she may be holy both in body and in spirit. But she who is married cares about the things of the world—how she may please her husband. This I say for your own profit; not that I may ensnare you, but for that which is appropriate, and that you may attend to the Lord without distraction. But if any man thinks that he is behaving inappropriately toward his virgin, if she is past the flower of her age, and if need so requires, let him do what he desires. He doesn’t sin. Let them marry.
— 1 Corinthians 7:32-36
This gist of St Paul’s teaching is consistent with the teaching of Jesus Christ, but Paul has elaborated…
- Marriage is good and it’s always okay to be married.
- Married priests (presbyters or ministers) are permitted, but not preferred.
- Celibate priests (presbyters or ministers) are always preferred but not always possible.
- Celibate laymen (monks or religious brothers) are always preferred but not always possible.
- Celibate laywomen (nuns or religious sisters) are always preferred but not always possible.
This is the Biblical foundation for celibacy in the priesthood (ministry), and nobody can deny this. Catholicism often receives great criticism from some Protestants (particularly Evangelicals), for its emphasis on celibacy, but such criticism is misguided and unwarranted. Catholics are standing on solid Biblical ground here and non-Catholics have no right to criticize. Jesus Christ himself, along with St Paul and the Prophet Jeremiah, stand in staunch opposition to anyone who criticizes the Catholic Church on her preference for celibate clergy.
Now, the next thing we need to make a distinction on is the difference between doctrine and discipline. A doctrine is a teaching of the Church, which can never contradict Scripture and can never change. A discipline is a rule of the Church, which can never contradict doctrine, but may go beyond it in a more strict way, and it can be loosened or changed, so long as it doesn’t contradict doctrine. The Catholic Church has both doctrines and disciplines, and this is not unusual. All Christian organizations have them, even the most free-wheeling Evangelical churches. Typically, Evangelical churches might record their doctrines on a page or booklet. While their disciplines are usually encoded in their articles of incorporation, or a booklet of rules and bylaws. The Catholic Church does something similar, but on a much bigger scale, with its doctrines recorded in the Catechism, and its disciplines recorded in the Code of Canon Law.
Remember, doctrines cannot change, but disciplines can change.
In the early years of Christianity, Church discipline held that all clergy (bishops, presbyters and deacons) may be married, but that celibacy was preferred (1 Timothy 3:2, Titus 1:5-6). That discipline was changed rather quickly, probably in less than 100 years, after more celibate men became priests and rose through the hierarchy. It was decided in this early time period, while Christians were still under persecution by the Roman Empire, that only celibate priests may be made bishops, because of the great responsibilities they have, and example they must show. This has been the case in the Catholic Church ever since, and Eastern Orthodox Christians also keep this discipline.
By the fourth century AD, there are examples of regional synods, the equivalent of modern national bishops conferences, forbidding all married men from entering the priesthood and diaconate. By this time in Church history, celibate men were becoming more common and a much more reliable pool to draw upon for ministry. As a result, some regional bishops saw no reason to continue to ordain married men, and as a result they forbade married men from entering the priesthood and diaconate. But these were regional synods (Elvira in AD 305, and Carthage in AD 390). They were not the rule of the entire Catholic Church. It should be noted here that the Synod of Elvira took place in what is now southern Spain, before the ascent of Constantine to the imperial throne, and the bishops who took part were still under Roman persecution of Diocletian. So we have one synod when the Church was still under persecution (Elvira, AD 305) and another when it was well on its way to becoming the state religion (Carthage, AD 390). Both prohibited marital relations between clergy and their wives. In the case of Elvira, marriage for clergy was itself prohibited. While this may have been the case in these local synods, we have no indication of this being the case throughout the entire Catholic Church.
During the middle ages, celibacy gradually became the norm for all clergy in Western Europe. There were exceptions of course, as Scripture permits, but for the most part, the average priest was usually celibate. In Eastern Europe, the Near East and Northern Africa, clerical celibacy took on a different form. In the East, celibacy was required of monastic priests (priests who live in monasteries), while secular priests (priests who lived in parish rectories) could be married. As a result, bishops were usually chosen from among the monastic priests.
In all cases, East and West, when a priest is married, it’s always because he was married before he was ordained. As a general rule, whatever you enter the priesthood as, you remain. If you entered it as a married man, you became a married priest. If you entered it as a single man, you became a celibate priest. There is no significant evidence in antiquity of priests being permitted to marry after being ordained. It was possible for celibate priests to take a wife only after renouncing the clerical state. In such cases, they would need to ask the bishop and the bishop would then relieve them of their clerical responsibilities and status. They could then freely marry, but they would not be allowed to return to the priestly life.
As in the case of most things, rules are usually made because of abuse. The rule of mandated celibacy for all clerics in the Western Europe came about in the early 12th century, during the First Lateran Council (AD 1123) and Second Lateran Council (AD 1139). There were various reasons for this, the chief of which was financial. Under civil law at the time, all property had to have a single owner. The idea of corporate ownership was not well defined at this time. So the parish priest was usually the legal owner of the chapel, rectory and all parish property. Upon his death, he would sometimes will all his earthly possessions to his wife and children. You can imagine what kind of problems this would create. The wife and daughters cannot become priests, and the sons may not want to. Now we have a chapel, rectory and parish property owned and operated by people who are not obligated to the bishop’s authority. Anything can happen to the property. It can be sold, renovated, or rented out. Furthermore, when a bishop assigned a new priest to that parish, he might have no place to live, as the wife and children of the previous priest are still in legal possession of the rectory. Under modern law, these things are easily remedied, and never need become a problem. But under medieval law, such remedies weren’t so simple. The solution of the Lateran councils was to simply bar all clergy from marriage: deacons, presbyters (priests), and bishops.
Now as it turns out, the celibacy mandate came in handy after the discovery of the New World (North and South America) in AD 1492. With thousands of celibate priests in Europe, the Catholic Church was able to throw missionaries at the two new continents with no trouble. Having no wives and children to hold them back, these brave men brought the gospel to the Native American populations of both continents. One of the little known facts of history is that both continents had been largely evangelized by Catholic missionaries long before the Protestant English arrived to the North American East Coast in the 17th century, over a hundred years after the Catholic Spanish, Portuguese and French. The celibacy mandate provided plenty of missionaries, who made all of South and Central America Catholic, as well as parts of North America, which remained Catholic in spite of Protestant-English settlement and expansion. The celibacy mandate also allowed Catholic missionaries to go, unencumbered by family, into Africa, Asia, Oceania and even Japan, well into the 20th century.
So today, as of 2019, the celibacy mandate in the Catholic Church has been in force for 896 years. It has been modified in recent times, and only applies to Catholic men of the Roman Rite (Latin Rite). Catholic men in one of the Eastern rites (Byzantine, Maronite, Coptic, etc.) may be married before ordination, and then serve as married Catholic priests. So there are a number of married Catholic priests, especially in Eastern Catholic rites. We just don’t see them very often in the West. Usually, only two or three Eastern Catholic priests (with their wives and children) can be found in large Western cities. Likewise, Rome has made exception to the celibacy mandate for Protestant clergy (Anglican, Lutheran, Methodist, etc.) who covert to become Catholics and want to serve as Catholic priests. These married men may be ordained to the Catholic priesthood on a case-by-case basis. Currently, quite a number of them now serve in the Ordinariates of English Patrimony.
Again, it should be stressed that no man is a prisoner of the celibate priesthood. Any celibate priest can be relieved of his priestly duties, and be given special permission by the pope, to marry and start a family. I say this because some Evangelicals have misused Scripture to attack the Catholic Church’s discipline on priestly celibacy. The Scripture in question reads as follows…
But the Spirit says expressly that in later times some will fall away from the faith, paying attention to seducing spirits and doctrines of demons, through the hypocrisy of men who speak lies, branded in their own conscience as with a hot iron; forbidding marriage and commanding to abstain from foods which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth.
— 1 Timothy 4:1-3
This reference to “forbidding marriage” is misused as a reference to the celibacy mandate for priests in the Roman Rite (Latin Rite) of the Catholic Church. Such an interpretation is shallow and ignorant. The Catholic Church has not, and never will, forbid marriage. Anyone can be married in the Catholic Church, and the Catholic Church even blesses matrimony as a sacrament. These Evangelicals are suggesting that the Catholic Church has banned one of its own sacraments! Any lay person can get married. A married man can become a deacon under the current code of canon law. A married man can become a priest in the Roman Rite (Latin Rite) by special permission. And a celibate priest can obtain special permission to leave the priesthood and become a married man, if he so desires. Marriage is by no means “forbidden” in the Catholic Church. However, this same verse is also misused to attack the Catholic discipline of abstaining from mammal meat during Lent. Once again, meat is not forbidden. Fish and non-mammal meat is permitted, along with eggs and milk products. This is only done during Lent as a spiritual discipline, and once again, there are exceptions. The word “forbidden” means “forbidden,” which means no exceptions. This Scripture reference is a passage that pertains to some future practice, toward the end of the world, wherein people will simply not be allowed to get married, and vegetarianism will be enforced. We don’t know if this will come in the form of some global cult, or as a result of secular legislation, but this in no way refers to spiritual disciplines in the Catholic Church, wherein nothing but sin is “forbidden.”
The controversy that surrounds us today is what Pope Francis might do following the Pan-Amazon Synod in Rome this coming October of 2019. Regardless of the findings of the synod, the pope usually waits some time before making any changes to canon law. It’s reasonable to assume he may wait until late winter to early summer of 2020 before doing anything, if he does anything at all. What seems to be on the table is the prospect of revoking the celibacy mandate from the current code of canon law.
If Pope Francis should decide to do this, it’s likely to be a very conservative revision. I suspect he will simply allow married men to apply to the priesthood, just as the Church currently allows the same for applicants to the permanent diaconate. I don’t think he will allow celibate priests to marry. Furthermore, I suspect he’s going to turn this over to local bishops conferences to decide if it will be allowed in their countries, and if that is in the affirmative, then it will be decided by each local bishop whether or not to allow it in his own diocese or jurisdiction. In other words, I don’t think Francis is just going to reverse the mandate. I think, instead, if he does anything, he’s just going to allow the matter to be decided at a more local level, as it was in the early centuries of the Church.
I think the primary candidates for married priests will not be young men with small children. I think it’s far more likely that the pope and bishops will prefer to ordain older married men, whose children are grown or near grown, and demonstrate the characteristics of godly people. It’s hard to discern such things when a man has a young wife with young children. It’s much easier to discern them when everyone is older. The word “elder” is translated from the Greek word presbyteros (πρεσβύτερος), which is where we get our word presbyter (the office of priests), often implying an older man.
I left you in Crete for this reason, that you would set in order the things that were lacking, and appoint elders [presbyters] in every city, as I directed you; if anyone is blameless, the husband of one wife, having children who believe, who are not accused of loose or unruly behavior.
— Titus 1:5-6
I don’t have a problem with married priests, but I’m no liberal or modernist either. I simply recognize that this is how the Western Catholic Church did things up until the 12th century, and the Eastern Catholic churches still do it this way today. Even the Western Catholic Church makes exceptions for ministers who convert from other Christian denominations. So if Pope Francis wants to open this up to various bishops conferences, and ultimately to various bishops, at their own discretion, then it’s no skin off my back. I happen to already have a married priest, because I’m a member of the Ordinariate of English Patrimony, and he seems like a fine priest to me. So with the exception of special jurisdictions, like the ordinariates, the ordination of married men into the priesthood should always be the exception to the norm in the Roman Rite. That’s because the preference for celibate priests has always been the norm in the Roman Rite, and there is no good reason why it should be any different. Jesus preferred it. St Paul preferred it. The Roman Rite of the Catholic Church can too.
Many traditional Catholics may object to this, and one of the common reasons given is this. If we allow married men to become priests, what next? Women priests? Blessings for homosexuality? It’s understandable why many traditional Catholics think this way. It’s not because these things have anything in common. They don’t. Rather, it’s because the liberals and modernists in the Church frequently lump these things together too, and they have a history of getting what they want through relentless incremental steps.
The truth, however, is the truth, and no modernist can change it. Married men in the priesthood have always been allowed in the Catholic Church, in one way or another, whereas women priests have never been allowed and homosexual acts are sin. We know what the modernists want. They want total deconstruction of the Catholic faith, and they’re foolish enough to believe that if Rome simply allows what Jesus Christ and St Paul allowed, they can get the other things too. This is illogical and irrational thinking. Yet to modernists, logic and reason are rarely employed. Traditional Catholics shouldn’t fall into the modernist trap. If they can get traditional Catholics to resist something that doesn’t really defy tradition, like married priests for example, then they’ll succeed in making traditionalists look like nothing more than snooty obstructionists. The wiser thing to do is accept the possibility of married priests, in the limited form that is consistent with the Roman Rite and the Biblical text. Then stand firm against those things that the Roman Rite has never allowed and the Bible calls sin. The latter has nothing in common with the former. Women priests have nothing to do with married priests, and none of this has anything to do with homosexual acts. We must point out the fallacy for what it is, a “slippery slope” fallacy. Many traditional Catholics use this fallacy to argue against allowing married priests. It doesn’t work. It’s better to accept the possibility of married priests, in a limited way, and reject the women priests and homosexual acts entirely. This is a much stronger position against the modernists, because it’s based on history, tradition and scripture.
Other Catholics will object to married men in the priesthood based entirely on money. They say wives and children cost money, and we don’t want to have to support a priest’s family in our parishes, so we shouldn’t have married priests.
They don’t want married priests because of… what shall we call it… I don’t know… Maybe… GREED.
Seriously, if a Catholic parish can’t support a single Catholic family, especially one where the father is providing so much service to that parish, then one has to ask where the priorities of that parish are. What’s more important to that parish? Is it the building? Or is it the property? Or is it all the carnivals it puts on every year? I don’t know. My point is that Eastern Catholic parishes have done it for two millennia. While some ordinariate parishes in the West have been doing it for over 30 years. None of these parishes seem to be suffering or struggling for lack of funds, because the children needed braces, and the wife had to buy some extra groceries. In fact, quite the opposite is true. Priests with families often benefit from the generosity of their parishioners all the time. It certainly gives the parishioners more opportunities to be generous. I simply don’t understand the “it’s too expensive” objection, and I think it reflects poorly on those who make it.
The weakest argument against married priests is a fairly common one. It’s the whole “sex is dirty” idea that some uncatechized Catholics take. They falsely believe there is something wrong with married sexual relations, and insist that even when the Church allows priests to be married, she still demands they remain celibate. This is categorically false. While some ancient documents may allude to this in some local areas, or at certain times in history, this is not the case in today’s canon law, and hasn’t been the case as long as anyone can remember. Marital sex is not dirty, and being celibate doesn’t make you more holy. Celibacy is about freeing a person from marital responsibilities, so he/she can have more time to serve God. It doesn’t turn one into an icon of purity. Children are celibate. That doesn’t mean they’re always little angels. The elderly are often celibate as well. That doesn’t mean they’re always saints.
The best possible argument to put forward against married priests is simply the claim that we don’t need them. That may be true in some places. It certainly was true during the Middle Ages, when scores of men and women were willing to forsake marriage for the Kingdom of Heaven. God bless them! Truly, we are the barbarians living in the ruins of a superior civilization. Perhaps someday we’ll get there again. For now, however, I think it’s hit and miss, especially in the West. Certainly, we can find some dioceses that are producing a large number of vocations right now. These dioceses probably don’t need married men in the priesthood. Still yet, other dioceses aren’t doing so well in vocations. They might benefit from some married men for a while, at least until a larger number of unmarried men are willing to step up. At which time the local bishop can then say: “Okay, we don’t need married men anymore, so there will no longer be a need to ordain them in this diocese.” That’s pretty much how the Church has always run throughout history, especially in the West. Use married priests only when you need them, then go back to celibate priests as soon as there are enough to fill all the assignments.
Please note that my opinions on this are strictly my own. They do not reflect the position of the ordinariate, of which I am a member, because the clergy of the ordinariate wish to stay out of this discussion. I’ve been told that in no uncertain terms.
It remains to be seen what Pope Francis will actually do following the Pan-Amazon Synod in Rome later this year. There is nothing we can do but wait and see. We should keep in mind, however, what the truth is about married priests in the Catholic Church. We already have them, we’ve had them for 2,000 years, and if the pope does anything at all, he will only expand what already exists.
We also need to understand that the homosexual lobby in Rome will do what they always do. They’ll make a pitch for accepting homosexuality at the next synod. They never give up. The feminists will demonstrate for female priests outside the Vatican walls, probably topless while making lewd gestures. Again, how can we expect it to be otherwise? Modernists have got to be modernists. They just gotta do what they always do. And we just have to get comfortable with saying “no” to them, over and over again, while resisting every advance they attempt to make within the Church.
The good news is that Pope Francis does not approve of the LGBT message. He’s spoken very forcefully against gender theory and transsexualism, and he’s shown no indication of giving in to the homosexualist agenda. As for women priests; Pope Francis isn’t even entertaining the idea. The best the feminists can hope for is more research on the topic of female deacons, which has not produced the desired result they craved. At best, the so-called female diaconate of ancient times was a lay position, similar to what many religious sisters do for the local parish today. So as much as the advocates for female priests and homosexuality might put themselves on parade at the Pan-Amazon Synod, I don’t see Pope Francis making any extreme changes in this regard. If any changes are going to happen, it’s most likely going to be a revocation of the celibacy mandate in canon law, turning the matter over to the national bishops conferences, and the local bishops. I just don’t think he’ll go any further than that. Maybe I’m wrong, but time will tell, and since there’s nothing I can do but wait and see, that’s what I’ll be doing. I think that’s a reasonable approach. Yes, pray. Pray hard, actually, because we should. Yes, make your opinions known. Our bishops do occasionally read them. But beyond that, all we can do is wait and see.