Home > General > The Fallacy of an Ordinary Married Priesthood

The Fallacy of an Ordinary Married Priesthood

Of late, due to the increasing revelations of sexual abuse scandals involving Catholic clergy, it has been suggested that perhaps allowing priests in the Roman Rite to be married, as an ordinary practice rather than the exception it is today, would solve the problem.  People, the argument goes, simply cannot go without sex.  A lack of it prompts inhumane action.  Strictly speaking, this is true; man is not capable of celibacy by his own strength.  Neither, for that matter, is he capable of being monogamous by his own strength; he cannot be a father by his own strength.  All that a man accomplishes, he accomplishes through the grace of God, and any proposal—particular from the prevailingly secularist world—which insists upon compromise of that belief for the sake of apparent benefit, is to be rejected outright.  Naturally, this line of argumentation begs further development… but this audience does not need convincing in that regard.

What is of issue, however, is the notion that an ordinary married priesthood would solve the shortage of priests—more priests means that the sacraments would be more frequently administered, priests would not be so overworked, and people would have more access to the truly transcendent aspects of the faith.  Priests such as Fr. Longenecker—a once-Anglican minister, married with children, who converted and was ordained a Catholic priest—or those of the Eastern rites are pointed to as exemplars for the married priesthood.  If they can be effective in their ministry and simultaneously be married, if they can have spiritual children and matrimonial children coincidentally, why cannot others?

Allowing married men to be ordained priests or priests to marry after being ordained would undoubtedly bring in more men to the seminary and quite likely more to the full priesthood.  What it would not do, however, is solve the priest shortage nor would it revitalize the Church; it would be a stopgap solution at best.  Certainly, the priests of today face difficulties—loneliness, isolation, mistrust—that fifty, sixty years ago could not be imagined by men of the cloth.  Yet is this really the reason that the Church today lacks priests?  And has ever the Church been served by relaxing Her purposeful disciplines in order to accommodate an externally problematic situation?  There is a time for a gentle pastoral touch, fulfilling the needs of the people; but there is never a time for pusillanimous compromise to a vain and selfish culture.  The lack of priests is caused not merely by the times being different, by the world having changed, by the faithful having dwindled in number and decreased in ardor; for though these ephemeral conditions no doubt contribute to contemporary complications, they themselves are mere symptoms of a more devastating malaise.  Indeed, the eternal priesthood is not weakened because priests live intolerably difficult lives; rather, the priesthood is intolerably difficult for men who are weak.

Fr. Longenecker, in April of 2009, outlined many of these things found difficult today, though he did not say married priests are the solution; he stated that he does not know the solution.  Though Fr. Longenecker, for many reasons, deserves great respect—not the least of which being the collar around his neck—this is a false posturing of the problem.  He connects the difficulties faced by priests today with the lack of vocations, and posits, indirectly, that a solution needs to be found.  Is there a solution?  Is there something wrong with the priesthood itself?  Is there something wrong with mandatory celibacy?  In broader terms, are difficulty and struggle problematic?  Is discomfort something that needs to be fixed?  Are there solutions to the difficulties and struggles of married life?  What, exactly, was the solution to Christ’s scourging?  What was the solution to His crown of thorns?

The voice of the therapy-session society would have everyone believe that every situation is one which can be made better—and by better is meant easier, less troublesome, less difficult, more immediately, tangibly fruitful; and that struggle itself can be eliminated from human life.  The voice of the therapy-session society is the voice of unreason, the voice of deception, the same malignant voice that says “Everyone uses contraception,” the seductive whisper of “Just this once” for any number of eternal sins.  Difficulty and struggle—not in their particular manifestations, but as universals—are inexorable from human life, irremovable from the world.  They are the result of man’s fallen nature, and yet it is the glory of God’s creation that its fallenness is part of the means to its sanctification; for it is only through overcoming difficulties and struggles, by virtue and grace, that a man can accept the redemption offered him.  If men are not joining the seminary, are not receiving Holy Orders because they find the thought of a life lived alone and mistrusted too unbearably difficult—good; the last thing the Church needs is more self-serving, self-interested, emasculated men unwilling to sacrifice for their faith.  What then, precisely, does She need?

G.K. Chesterton wrote that the true ideal of progress must be fixed, it must be composite, and it must be ever vigilant against the right thing being turned into the wrong.  Fully explicating the fixed ideal of the priesthood is not possible in a necessarily brief article on the internet, especially one addressing a more particular issue.  More specifically, then, why is celibacy perfecting for the priesthood?

In the pragmatic sphere of things, a priest ought to dedicate a lot of time to his ministry—which means not merely actively performing it, not merely preaching from the pulpit and administering the sacraments, but perfecting himself as spiritual father and exemplar for his congregation. It is incumbent upon the priest, as it is on all men, to constantly study, pray, and work, to better himself in faith and reason and deeds—in a way different and in a way less reserved than the layman.   It is the duty of the priest to do what he may for the sanctification of the laity; he must do all he can to lead them to heaven; his spiritual fatherhood cannot be a passive, weekend hobby—unless the priest act always as a father, as a pastor, as one trying to give better to those under his care, he is fulfilling neither obligation nor vocation.

What the priest is—as he who by means of which the Infinite becomes manifest in the Finite—the essence of the priesthood, entails a disconnection from this world and the things within it.  How much care for others can any one man give?  It is often said that the priest’s bride is the Church; but whereas a man’s relationship to an earthly bride finds sustenance in the immanent and unification in the spiritual, whereas a marriage is built of the physical things of the world and mortared by the spirit, the priesthood is built of the spiritual and adorned by the beauty of the world.  It is the duty of the priest to care for the good of the Church, the spiritual good of his flock; can he be focused truly upon that if he is simultaneously consumed by care for the physical, mental, emotional, intellectual and, with a more profound intensity, spiritual good of his own immediate family, his wife and children?  The priest best pulls us up towards heaven if he himself is not bound on and by the earth.

Yet comprehension of the ideal of the priesthood cannot be grasped without some conception of the whole of the Church; and this is indeed precisely what Chesterton means by the ideal of progress being composite.  Everything about the word “composite”—its various definitions, its common usage, its etymology—point towards a unity and a unification through the whole being made of distinct, distinguishable parts, each playing its role towards the functioning of the whole.  What is the role of the priest?  Again, too broad a question; but answered summarily, it is to mediate between man and God, as alter Christus, in the sacrifice of the Mass, in the confessional; and his role as mediator should not be compromised in any way.  Likewise there are roles for the laity, for religious; husbands and wives, nuns and brothers.  As Chesterton states, the world, and like it the Church, are put together artistically.  The Church is not the dialectical synthesis of Hegel by which all being merges with non-being into a perpetual becoming, but rather an elaborate, intricate design, like a medieval cathedral: each unique, purposeful part supporting the other, each part itself frail, but collectively of impeccable strength.  Were the faith, the Church utterly homogenous, it would be overawing it its magnitude, but no more truthfully transcendent or elevating of man’s nature than the pyramids.

Significantly ordered parts forming a symbolic whole (Reims)

It is important then, that the distinction between clergy and laity be upheld; balance and beauty are threatened by any blurring of these distinctions.  Some claim that celibacy is not an essential distinction to the priesthood, East or West; that it is a mere discipline which fit a time and a place.  It is with an eye to this sort of perversion that Chesterton says true progress must be ever vigilant against the turning of the right into the wrong.  Celibacy is not nor has it ever been a merely conventional discipline, nor is it considered perfective because it is a discipline.  Rather it has been and remains a discipline because it is perfective.  Obedience in the Church is never for the mere sake of obedience (or ought not to be—another matter for another time), but always to some perfection of the person within their obedience; marital fidelity no less than priestly celibacy.

It is with such a final parallel that this brief consideration should be brought to a conclusion.  Monogamy within the Catholic marriage is recognized as fitting and good.  The unity of the heart manifests itself in a unity of the body, for the good of the spouses and of the children, for the sake of edifying all in the truth of his own personhood, individually and communally, as part and whole, as men, women, boys, girls, and a family in the image and likeness of God.  So too must the unity of the heart of the priest and the Church manifest itself in a purity of body, so that the Mystical Body, the spiritual family of the One True Faith, may be made accessible without compromise.

“Thou art true to thy name, Abraham, for thou also art the father of many: but because thou hast no wife as Abraham had Sara, behold thy flock is thy spouse. Bring up its children in thy truth; may they become to thee children of the spirit and sons of the promise that makes them heirs to Eden. O sweet fruit of chastity, in which the priesthood finds its delights . . . the horn of plenty flowed over and anointed thee, a hand rested on thee and chose thee out, the Church desired thee and held thee dear.”
-St. Ephrem, 4th century A.D.

Recommended Reading:
Ad Catholici Sacerdotii Pius XI
Disclaimer: In no way is this a post against Fr. Longenecker or the priests of the Eastern Rites.  As for the East, no claim is being made; the author professes ignorance of their tradition and simply states his perspective on the Western practice of the priesthood.  Fr. Longenecker, and others like him who have fallen under the pastoral provisions for married Anglican clergy, are validly ordained ministers who exercise their office through extraordinary circumstances.

  1. June 14, 2010 at 10:59 pm

    You are too quick to equate a married priesthood with capitulation to some sort of agenda — to making things easier. A married priesthood wouldn’t do that, and I think that misconstrues the argument of many who favor a married clergy.

    While you claim that your post isn’t directed towards married ministers, the implications of your post remain. Is a married priest merely fulfilling a “…a passive, weekend hobby…” in your eyes? Does a married clergy contribute to what you think is a blurring between “…the distinction between clergy and laity…”, and if so, why?

    You seem to be looking at things from a purely Roman perspective, and failing to consider the Church as a whole. Your post requires some clarification.

    • June 15, 2010 at 7:34 am

      Read more closely; I am not saying that it would be making things easier. I am saying that a lot of people think it would make it easier, or that it would at least alleviate some problems. This is part of the therapy-session society’s lies, the notion that suffering and difficulty can be obliterated from our lives. At no point do I say it would be a capitulation to some agenda; you are reading into my statements.

      “Is a married priest merely fulfilling a ‘…a passive, weekend hobby…’ in your eyes?”

      Not necessarily; some may, some may not. Many more unmarried priests undoubtedly do treat it as a passive, weekend hobby, and for such, the failing is far greater, for they have no excuse of a family to look after, to divert their attention from priestly duties. But it is precisely that diversion, that division, that, while a married priest may not look at his office as a hobby in the least, nonetheless does have a constant pull away from his priestly vocation. A family demands a lot of attention–and so does the priesthood. Do married priests suddenly have 30 hours in their day? I, for one, am neither married nor ordained, and I often find myself four or five hours short of accomplishing all I feel I ought to in a single day.

      “Does a married clergy contribute to what you think is a blurring between ‘…the distinction between clergy and laity…’, and if so, why?”

      Were it to become the ordinary practice of the Roman Catholic Church, absolutely. “To be sacred” means “to be set apart.” The office of the priesthood is inarguably sacred. If the office is continually coexisting in the same individual with a second vocation to marriage, it no longer appears set apart. The life of the priest should most closely match that sacredness, that being set apart, as is humanly possible. Being tied to the concerns of the world, indivisible from marriage, certainly does diminish the possibility for such sacredness. I will explain further, later this evening.

  2. June 14, 2010 at 11:11 pm

    Also, are married priests merely “…self-serving, self-interested, emasculated men unwilling to sacrifice for their faith…” to you?

    • June 15, 2010 at 7:21 am

      You’re taking my comment out of context; of course not. Men who are unwilling to become priests without giving up marriage, however, are self-serving, self-interested, and disgustingly emasculated–if one cannot sacrifice for the sake of the Church, he is not a real man.

      • June 15, 2010 at 1:54 pm

        I disagree. Men who are legitimately called to both vocations should have the option to pursue both in the Latin church.

  3. Shelby
    June 15, 2010 at 12:31 am

    The fact remains that mandatory celibacy is a discipline, not a dogma, perfecting or no. The priesthood and the married life cannot, by doctrine, be mutually exclusive because they happen, unlike the ordination of women which cannot happen. To say that to support a married clergy is to support making some universal truth untrue, to make a right into a wrong, because it is inconvenient, as the world undeniably does do, is indeed to misconstrue the argument of those in favor of a change of DISCIPLINE.

    • June 15, 2010 at 7:25 am

      I never said that they are mutually exclusive; I said that marriage for the clergy should never be the ordinary practice of the Roman Catholic Church. If celibacy is perfecting, and you argue for a change of that discipline, then you are arguing for a change away from that which is perfecting; you are moving away from the fixed ideal.

      My point is that it is only a discipline because it is perfecting–by removing it, you are reducing the impetus towards perfection in the priest.

      • Shelby
        June 15, 2010 at 12:40 pm

        Changing the discipline will not reduce the number of celibate priests, nor will it change the number of men who are called to the celibate life. It will, however, provide an answer to those who are called to both the priesthood and marriage besides a change of rites. If men can be called to both, the discipline should reflect that.

        These two goods should be optionally separated, not mandatorily. No one is questioning that celibacy is the higher calling of the two, even the East which is full of married priests. But the married priesthood is an acceptable alternative, and the works and lives of married priests still laudable, sometimes greater even than your average unmarried priest. If the two goods are not mutually exclusive, then the discipline should not force them to seem so.

    • June 15, 2010 at 9:03 pm

      “Changing the discipline will not reduce the number of celibate priests, nor will it change the number of men who are called to the celibate life.”

      I fail to see this as valid reasoning. Allowing gay marriage would not reduce the number of straight couples–an exaggerated example, but hopefully you get my point.

      What does the vocation of the priesthood entail? What does the vocation of marriage entail? What is, properly speaking, the essence of vocation? I believe that it is necessary to answer these questions first.

  4. Thomas
    June 15, 2010 at 4:11 pm

    The fact is that married priests within the Latin rite, although I am sure many are exceptionally holy and perform their sacred duties well, come from outside the Latin Rite. The Roman Catholic Church has made merciful exceptions for these men to enter into the latin Rite while not putting asunder their marital vows. The existence of holy married priests within the Roman Catholic Church or even those from the East is not a good reason to change what has been a tradition since the very beginnings of the Catholic Church. Shelby, a priest is not more holy because he is married or unmarried. Just like laymen, married or unmarried, some are more holy than others. Celibacy is a tool for holiness (like fasting) that the Roman Catholic Church requires of her priests in order to give them a tool with which they can earn grace and grow in holiness. This tool is so valuable that many religious and lay-members wield it as well.

    • June 15, 2010 at 4:39 pm

      Exactly. Celibacy is a tool for holiness, a tool which some are called to use and others are not. A tool which is not intrinsic to the character or nature of the priesthood, but is an ascetic discipline.

      No one is disputing the virtue of the celibate life. But mandatory celibacy for the clergy has not been a, “tradition since the very beginnings of the Catholic Church”

      The fact that some things are presently extraordinary in the Latin Church — like the 1962 liturgical books — shouldn’t invalidate their importance or minimize their influence.

      If celibacy for candidates to holy orders were optional, those who would benefit from the practice could adopt it. Others needn’t. No one here is advocating the abolishment of celibacy, but are rather suggesting that mandatory celibacy be reexamined in the context of history and the practice of the entire Church.

      • June 15, 2010 at 8:55 pm

        This is a false parallelism, based on semantic connection; just because the Extraordinary Form is called “Extraordinary” does not mean that it is comparable to the extraordinary condition of marriage of the clergy in the Roman Church.

        As for Fr. Deacon Daniel’s commentary, he fails to provide citations of any Magisterial documents; while I do not dispute that he is drawing upon valid sources, I must insist upon the presentation of the documents themselves, for I have found many that state or suggest to the contrary, particularly that “There is no intrinsic connection between the office of presbyter and the ascetical discipline of celibacy.”

        Most poignant is this quotation from St. Paul:

        “But I have you to be without solicitude. He that is without a wife, is solicitous for the things that belong to the Lord, how he may please God.
        “But he that is with a wife, is solicitous for the things of the world, how he may please his wife: and he is divided.
        “And the unmarried woman and the virgin thinketh on the things of the Lord, that she may be holy both in body and spirit. But she that is married thinketh on the things of the world, how she may please her husband.
        “And I speak for your profit: not to cast a snare upon you, but for that which is decent, and which may give you power, to attend upon the Lord, without impediment.” (1 Cor. 7:32-35)

        I feel that this article deserves a follow-up post… also because I dislike typing in these little boxes…

  5. Fr. Deacon Daniel
    June 16, 2010 at 7:42 am


    Here are some of the magisterial citations you requested. It is part of some notes that I posted on my Facebook page.

    God bless!


    I woke up this morning to read the following article from Zenit:

    Married Priests Will Always Be an Exception


    It is an interview with theologian Fr. Laurent Touze of the Pontifical Univerity of the Holy Cross, a university sponsored by Opus Dei which is an organization for which I generally have the highest regard especially in their commitment to encouraging the holiness of the laity through sanctifying ordinary work. He had just given a talk on this topic to a two day conference on “Priestly Celibacy: Theology and Life,” which was sponsored by the Congregation for the Clergy as an event for the Year for Priests.

    For what it is worth, here is my response:

    Fr. Laurent Touze’s commentary here is extremely disrespectful of the traditions of the Eastern Churches, both Catholic and Orthodox.

    If his peculiar mindset and faulty reading of Church history is given official sanction today in any way by ecclesiastical authorities, the Apostolic See should save its time and energy resources on dialog with our Orthodox brethren since fraternal unity will only come about when the Latin Church – while the largest in population is just one of 22 Churches that make up the communion of the Catholic Church – openly respects the legitimacy of the Eastern practice as affirmed by the Magisterium, even while maintaining its own traditions and disciplines. Comments like these from a highly placed theologian in an event sponsored by a Congregation of the Vatican which purports to serve all Catholic clergy universally (married and celibate) is a great discouragment to Christian unity, and a sad reminder of efforts in the past borne out of a similarly narrow mindset and reading of history which imposed such disciplines as mandatory celibacy upon Eastern Catholics. It would be beneficial to note that these efforts simply drove a multitude of our faithful and clergy into Orthodox jurisdictions, especially since they directly contravened the previously agreed upon articles and spirit of ecclesial reunion.

    Vatican II, which I can only presume Fr. Touze’s regards as possessing ecumenical authority and is thus binding magisterially, sought to demonstrate how highly the Council Fathers regarded the Eastern traditions, which are distinct from the West:

    “…the Churches of the East, as much as those of the West, have a full right and are in duty bound to rule themselves, each in accordance with its own established disciplines, since all these are praiseworthy by reason of their venerable antiquity, more harmonious with the character of their faithful and more suited to the promotion of the good of souls,” (Orientalium Ecclesiarum, no. 5)

    The Council Fathers also indicated that celibacy is NOT intrinsic to the priesthood, as evidenced by “the practice of the early Church and the traditions of the Eastern Churches.” (Decree on Priestly Life and Ministry, 16)

    In the same decree, the Council Fathers went even further stating that the venerable traditions of the East regarding a married priesthood are “legitimate”:

    “This holy synod, while it commends ecclesiastical celibacy, in no way intends to alter that different discipline which legitimately flourishes in the Eastern Churches. It permanently exhorts all those who have received the priesthood and marriage to persevere in their holy vocation so that they may fully and generously continue to expend themselves for the sake of the flock commended to them.” (Decree on Priestly Life and Ministry, 16)

    The Eastern discipline of a married presbyterate – which exists alongside the discipline of a celibate presbyterate in the East – was also codified in the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches, promulgated by His Holiness, the soon to be Blessed Pope John Paul II of happy memory:

    “Clerical celibacy chosen for the sake of the kingdom of heaven and suited to the priesthood is to be greatly esteemed everywhere, as supported by the tradition of the whole Church; likewise, the hallowed practice of married clerics in the primitive Church and in the tradition of the Eastern Churches throughout the ages is to be held in honor.” (Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches, 373)

    Finally, the Council Fathers sought to ensure that those who interact with the Eastern Churches who are not themselves Eastern should be respectful of the different practices and even hold them as venerable:

    “Those who, by reason of their office or apostolic ministries, are in frequent communication with the Eastern Churches or their faithful should be instructed according as their office demands in the knowledge and veneration of the rites, discipline, doctrine, history and character of the members of the Eastern rites.” (ORIENTALIUM ECCLESIARUM, 6)

    One should think that this practice might extend in spirit if not in letter to a priest and a professor of spiritual theology at a Pontifical University.

    You will note here in these magisterial sources that I have cited no reference to “corrupt texts” and misreadings of Church history. No magisterial document here treats in such a dismissive fashion the Eastern discipline of a married priesthood, as Father Touze seems to do. Rather, the Eastern discipline as taught by the Council Fathers and Popes is to be regarded as venerable, legitimate, praiseworthy, harmonious with the life of their faithful, representative of Early Christianity, and held in honor.

    Simply put, Father Touze’s comments are as disheartening as they are misrepresentative of the Catholic Church’s official magisterial teaching.

    • June 17, 2010 at 9:30 pm

      Fr. Deacon Daniel,

      I have been considering how to reply to this for some time; the more I think on it, the more I realize that there are things to be said. One phrase, from Orientalium Ecclesarium (I read both Vatican II decrees you cited), has in particular been milling about my mind: that the Eastern churches should “preserve their liturgical rite and their established way of life, and that these may not be altered except to obtain for themselves an organic improvement.” What is an organic improvement? From what does it improve? How does it improve? Towards what does it improve? How should this, specifically, be interpreted with regards to the priesthood? Is there room for the practice of priests to organically improve insofar as it better fulfills that vocation as established by Christ and given in the Deposit of Faith? These are rhetorical questions, and I do not expect an answer. I will, however, try to give my own understanding of this, insofar as I have studied the history of the Church as within a hermeneutic continuity.

  6. S. Petersen
    June 16, 2010 at 9:39 am

    Your arguing pro-celibacy will invoke some of the same reparative discipline as celibacy itself. We all, fallen, want to deny the value of sacrifice to excuse our weakness and our compromise with the world. Celibacy is the chastity required for the state of Priests (with the exceptions you note). Marriage is chaste for other states as is abstinence for still others. The chastity they share is the untainted mind, the pure heart and the chaste body. It is one outward sign of the engagement with the world for the sake the Kingdom of God.

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