Should the Catholic Church have married priests? Many people are surprised to find that the Catholic Church already has, and I’m one of them.
In the early 1980s, Pope St. John Paul II established the Pastoral Provision, allowing married men who had been ordained in the Anglican or Lutheran churches (and were subsequently received into full communion with the Catholic Church) to receive a dispensation from the vow of celibacy allowing them to be ordained as Catholic priests.
The dispensation from the vow of celibacy is permitted because celibacy for priests is a discipline of the Church, not a doctrine. Doctrines cannot be altered. Disciplines can.
I received my dispensation from Pope Benedict XVI and, with my wife Alison and our four children in attendance, was ordained in 2006. I served first as a high school chaplain and assistant priest in a parish. I was then asked to be the administrator of a small parish.
After ten years serving as a married Catholic priest, I can report on the practical pros and cons.
There are historical and theological reasons to retain the discipline of celibacy for priests, and there are historical and theological reasons to change this discipline. This article is not about those arguments either way. It is simply a report on the practicalities.
What Alison and I have learned is that for every practical reason for married priests, there is a counter balancing reason not to have married priests.
The first area of concern is time management. “How can a married man also be a priest?” people ask. “Our priests are available 24-7 to serve God and his church.”
Not really. Priests take vacations and days off. Although they are available for emergencies, most priests work relatively set hours.
My work as a Catholic priest is no more demanding time-wise than many other men who work irregular hours. Doctors, nurses, fire fighters, policemen, truck drivers, soldiers and many more are away from home and family with more difficult schedules than I have. Hard-working priests are busy, but no more than other professionals in demanding jobs.
There are other concerns that involve not just time management, but commitment.
St. Paul said that men should remain single like he was because a celibate man can be concerned about pleasing God only, but a married man has to please his wife. Therefore, what about stresses on the marriage because of the priest’s commitment to serving God? Doesn’t the wife feel like she takes second place?
I remember hearing an Anglican priest’s wife complain that her husband loves God more than he loves her.
“I could compete with another woman” she cried, “But I can’t compete with Almighty God!”
It takes a strong, independently-minded woman to be a priest’s wife.
Furthermore, the close pastoral relationships that develop between a priest and his people can lead to jealousy, extramarital affairs and divorce. Those who advocate for married priests had better be prepared for unhappy priests’ wives, marriage breakdown and how to provide for priests and their wives when the marriage ends in divorce.
They must also consider how to provide for priests’ widows and dependent children. The typical diocesan infrastructure has no way to cope with such needs.
While these difficulties are real, it is also true that his wife is the priest’s greatest supporter and help. When the marriage is strong and faith binds them together, the married priest and his wife and family provide a shining example of Christian marriage. The priest’s wife is by his side as a sounding board, a critic and a helper.
Very often, when I come home after a long day, I thank God for the blessing of a wife as my friend and companion and I offer a prayer for my fellow priests who have accepted the discipline of celibacy and return to an empty home. They have made a great sacrifice and I have a huge respect for them.
When most Catholics hear I am married they say, “Its about time. I think all our priests should be married.” That’s when I remind them that a married man with a family will require not only a large house, but school fees, orthodontics, college and other expenses.
“You want married priests? Are you willing to pay an extra twenty five dollars a week to help support him?”
It’s amazing how suddenly their enthusiasm for married priests evaporates!
Finances are a real concern for married priests. Rome stipulates that before a married man is accepted for ordination, he is guaranteed an adequate income to support his family. My first post was as a school chaplain. The school provided me with a teacher-level salary.
Now that I’m in the parish, I do not take more than the diocesan guidelines allow for parish priests.
Money can be tight. However, on the plus side, once the children are grown up, the priest’s wife can get a job to contribute to the family income, and although the priest’s salary might not be very much, most priests in developed countries will receive housing, utilities, health insurance and benefit from having job security and retirement benefits.
Is the salary low? Yes, but I can think of a good number of married men and their families who would be very happy to work for a lower salary if they had housing, job security, a rewarding job, and the other fringe benefits most dioceses provide.
Finally, what about children? Many people seem to forget that a priest and his wife will be faithful to the church’s teaching. That means they will not be using artificial contraception. If they are young and fertile, is the parish ready to accept the responsibility of feeding and housing a dozen clergy kids?
Many parishes would find it difficult, and a large family would put further strain on the priest, his wife and his parish.
On the other hand, what a fantastic opportunity for a parish to remember the teachings of the Church and witness the blessing of children! A young priest with a large family would be a source of life and energy for the parish, and the whole community would learn to live by faith and give more generously to support the gift of children and life.
A rectory full of clergy kids could be a source of abundant blessing. Perhaps more couples would see the priest’s example and be open to larger families. Parish schools would be full again, and there would be more vocations to the priesthood and religious life.
I’m aware that my experiences are those of just one priest in affluent America. The situation would be very different in other parts of the world. I don’t pretend that our experiences offer the last word on the subject.
So should we have married priests? For every “pro” there’s a “con,” and when you weigh up the historical and theological reasons for the discipline of celibacy, I think it’s better to maintain the status quo.
In saying that, there 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.
But that’s just my opinion. The decision itself is above my pay grade.