And the leading contender for Clueless, Oafish Op-Ed of 2012…

…. is “For Priests’ Wives, a Word of Caution”, by Sara Ritchey, assistant professor of medieval European history at the University of Louisiana, Lafayette, which appeared in yesterday’s edition of the award-winning journal of religious thought and Church history, The New York Times. It’s difficult to do justice to Ritchey’s historical hit piece in a single sentence, but it is easy to bluntly identify what she gets right: almost nothing. Dan Brown would be proud if he weren’t so jealous.

Okay, enough praise; let’s look at a few of the low lights. The piece opens: “What will life be like for the wives of Roman Catholic priests?”

By “Roman Catholic” I take she refers to “Catholic”, as is the common practice. The problem is at least two-fold:

1) she is more accurately referring to Catholic priests of the Latin Church, one of several rites within the Catholic Church;

2) the majority of those rites have married clergy—and have had them for centuries. The Catechism identifies the Latin (which includes the Roman and Ambrosian rites), as well as Byzantine, Alexandrian or Coptic, Syriac, Armenian, Maronite and Chaldean (par 1203). The Byzantine, the largest of the Eastern rites, contains the Ukrainian, Ruthenian, and other rites.

The Catechism explains:

All the ordained ministers of the Latin Church, with the exception of permanent deacons, are normally chosen from among men of faith who live a celibate life and who intend to remain celibate “for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.” Called to consecrate themselves with undivided heart to the Lord and to “the affairs of the Lord,” they give themselves entirely to God and to men. Celibacy is a sign of this new life to the service of which the Church’s minister is consecrated; accepted with a joyous heart celibacy radiantly proclaims the Reign of God.

In the Eastern Churches a different discipline has been in force for many centuries: while bishops are chosen solely from among celibates, married men can be ordained as deacons and priests. This practice has long been considered legitimate; these priests exercise a fruitful ministry within their communities.  Moreover, priestly celibacy is held in great honor in the Eastern Churches and many priests have freely chosen it for the sake of the Kingdom of God. In the East as in the West a man who has already received the sacrament of Holy Orders can no longer marry. (pars 1579-80)

The significance of all this is obvious: if the Catholic Church has had married clergy for, well, two thousand years, Ritchey’s question surely should be put to the wives of some of those married priests. It also reveals how misleading is this statement by Ritchey: “The Vatican has stressed that the allowance for married priests is merely an exception (like similar dispensations made in the past by the Vatican) and by no means a permanent condition of the priesthood.” This might be acceptable and understandable if she used more precise and accurate language within the larger context—theologically and historically—but, alas, the point of the op-ed is not to illuminate or educate, but to disparage the Church for not treating priest’s wives with sufficient respect.

Now as then, the church’s critics and defenders are rehashing arguments about the implications of having married priests in an institution that is otherwise wary of them. But in the midst of these debates, we should pause to ponder the environment that the priests’ wives might expect to encounter. After all, the status of the priest’s wife is perhaps even more strange and unsettling than that of her ordained Catholic husband.

That is a mighty big and broad claim, isn’t it? How, exactly, is the status of a priest’s wife strange? And unsettling? How so? To whom? Surely not to Eastern Catholics (and Eastern Orthodox); and probably not even to the Catholics who attend St. Mary Catholic Church here in Eugene, Oregon, whose associate pastor is married, as he is a former Episcopalian who was ordained a Catholic priest a few years ago. Does Ritchey interview any of these wives? No, she goes right to the heart of the matter: the First Lateran Council, held in 1123 (warning: don’t read this while eating or drinking):

While the early Christian church praised priestly chastity, it did not promulgate decisive legislation mandating priestly celibacy until the reform movement of the 11th century. At that point, the foremost purpose of priestly celibacy was to clearly distinguish and separate the priests from the laity, to elevate the status of the clergy. In this scheme, the mere presence of the priest’s wife confounded that goal, and thus she incurred the suspicion, and quite often the loathing, of parishioners and church reformers. You can’t help wondering what feelings she will inspire today.

By the time of the First Lateran Council, the priest’s wife had become a symbol of wantonness and defilement. The reason was that during this period the nature of the host consecrated at Mass received greater theological scrutiny. Medieval theologians were in the process of determining that bread and wine, at the moment of consecration in the hands of an ordained priest at the altar, truly became the body and blood of Jesus Christ. The priest who handled the body and blood of Christ should therefore be uncontaminated lest he defile the sacred corpus.

The priest’s wife was an obvious danger. Her wanton desire, suggested the 11th-century monk Peter Damian, threatened the efficacy of consecration. He chastised priests’ wives as “furious vipers who out of ardor of impatient lust decapitate Christ, the head of clerics,” with their lovers. According to the historian Dyan Elliott, priests’ wives were perceived as raping the altar, a perpetration not only of the priest but also of the whole Christian community.

Whoa, whoa, whoa. Hold on. As Paul Moses writes on the Commonweal blog: “I wouldn’t have expected an argument like this from an academic historian; it takes the ascetic Peter Damian’s advocacy of clerical celibacy in the 11th century totally out of its historical context, and inserts it without qualification into a vastly different time.” And the context, as always, is pretty darned important.


Phiip Hughes, in The Church in Crisis: A History of the General Councils, 325-1870 (Image, 1964), states that the “most flagrant, universally visible evils that afflicted religious life” at the time of the Council “were simony and clerical immorality.” He outlines the problem in detail, noting that while priests in “the Latin church (though not in the East)” could not be married, many priests at the time were either living with concubines (or, in modern terms, “life partners” or “significant others”), or had “married” after receiving Holy Orders. This was, as we might imagine, quite scandalous, although some Catholics apparently accepted this sinful and illicit practice to be fairly normal. (Ah, for the good old days when Catholics were good Catholics!)


In this light, the disingenuousness employed by Ritchey is readily apparent. To say, as she does, “the priest’s wife had become a symbol of wantonness and defilement”, is to misrepresent the fact that those wives, so to speak, should never have been married to the priests in question. Those priests, in other words, were the Alberto Cutiés of their day. This is why the Council, in its third canon, stated:

We absolutely forbid priests, deacons, and subdeacons to associate with concubines and women, or to live with women other than such as the Nicene Council (canon 3) for reasons of necessity permitted, namely, the mother, sister, or aunt, or any such person concerning whom no suspicion could arise.

I think most people with any basic understanding of Catholic teaching, vows, and morality will understand the problem: priests were committing the sin of fornication and living with women who were not their wives, and were thus rejecting the discipline of the Church, which they had freely accepted. (They, of course, did not cash in with a book deal, but their sins were big enough as they were.) That these sins were so strongly condemned might sound harsh and strange to our modern and ever-so-enlightened ears, but I suspect it has more to do with our society’s widespread of acceptance of nearly any and every sexual sin, coupled with a disdain for anything resembling self-control, holiness, and obedience.

Ritchey’s leaps of mispresentation grow even larger when she, in most bizarre fashion, writes that “Medieval theologians were in the process of determining that bread and wine, at the moment of consecration in the hands of an ordained priest at the altar, truly became the body and blood of Jesus Christ.” Is she really saying that until the twelfth century, no one really believed that the Eucharist was the true Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Jesus Christ? Really? Quite the opposite: all Christians—Catholic, Orthodox, Ancient Oriental—accepted this belief; it was not even seriously questioned in the West until the decades immediately prior to the Protestant Revolution; it was never doubted in the East. At best, Ritchey is guilty of extreme sloppiness; at worse, she is guilty of embarrassing ignorance.

However, the most bizarre part of Ritchey’s op-ed is how she tries to apply these historical lessons (wrongly obtained and falsely construed) to the situation of women married to Catholic priests today:

Given this history, I caution the clerical wife to be on guard as she enters her role as a sacerdotal attaché. Her position is an anomalous one and, as the Vatican has repeatedly insisted, one that will not receive permanent welcome in the church. That said, for the time being, it will be prudent for the Vatican to honor the dignity of the wives and children of its freshly ordained married priests. And here, I suggest, a real conversation about the continuation of priestly celibacy might begin.

Until then, priests’ wives should beware a religious tradition that views them, in the words of Damian, as “the clerics’ charmers, devil’s choice tidbits, expellers from paradise, virus of minds, sword of soul, wolfbane to drinkers, poison to companions, material of sinning, occasion of death … the female chambers of the ancient enemy, of hoopoes, of screech owls, of night owls, of she-wolves, of blood suckers.”

Considering that St. Peter Damian (a Doctor of the Church, by the way), was referring to concubines and “wives”, Ritchey’s advice is both hollow and condescending. Does she think that most Catholics are so stupid as to not recognize the difference between a legimately married priest and one running around and sinning with a hussy? Does she, to return to my opening point, even consider that the wives of Catholic priests (of whatever rite) might, in fact, love their husbands and their vocation? And spare us the patronizing silliness about “a real conversation” about priestly celibacy; give us a call when you get your facts straight.

Finally, is it not strange that the Catholic Church is criticized and damned for allegedly not allowing married men to be priests, but that when it is finally recognized (to a flawed degree) that the Church, in fact, does allow for married priests, the Church is then criticized and damned for it? One would almost conclude that folks such as Ritchey have an axe to grind. One only wishes such critics would work as hard at sharpening their knowledge of both Church history and discipline.

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About Carl E. Olson 1200 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.