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.
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.
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.