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The realities and challenges of the married priesthood: An Eastern Catholic perspective

Seven points of caution for those who support or hope for possible alterations to the requirement of clerical celibacy in the Latin Church.

Pope Francis leads a session of the Synod of Bishops for the Amazon at the Vatican Oct. 8, 2019. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

Christopher Altieri, in his recent Catholic Herald article on possible alterations to the requirement of clerical celibacy in the Latin Church, notes such a change would “be to swap one set of familiar problems for a set of unfamiliar ones, many of which would likely only emerge over time. At worst, it will introduce a host of new problems and resolve none or very few of the old ones.”

I first tried cautioning Latin Catholics about this more than a decade ago in articles in Commonweal and elsewhere, warning that all sorts of new challenges unfamiliar to the Western Church would arise, and that many old and recurring problems were not likely to disappear. More recently, aided by an international cast of scholars and pastors across the Catholic and Orthodox worlds, I have laid out these arguments in detail and at length in Married Catholic Priests: Historical, Theological, and Pastoral Realities, forthcoming next year from the University of Notre Dame Press. Let me simply give a résumé of the book here in seven points because, as St. Robert Bellarmine is reported to have said of Trent’s enumeration of the sacraments, no man can possibly remember a list with more than seven items on it!

Nothing will change quickly. Even if the synod tomorrow recommends, and the pope immediately agrees, to a change on, say, 1 January 2020, everyone alive today will be moldering in their graves long before married priests are anything even approximating a rough majority in the Church. This will proceed very slowly, taking decades to find and train enough men before married priests would be common—if they become common, for such is by no means a guaranteed outcome for some of the reasons noted below.

No marriage for current clergy: In the meantime, it is clear that no currently ordained priest or bishop is going to be allowed to marry. Marriage always precedes ordination, and there can be no exceptions whatsoever to this rule. This is an age-old rule more recently adopted even by some professional societies—lawyers, therapists, physicians, inter alia—that the Church had the wisdom to require first. No pastor should be on the prowl in his parish. That way lies nothing but danger and damage to souls. (Imagine Fr. Frank Handsome, dating his parishioner, Mrs. Wealthy Widow who is also choir director, and you begin to see all kinds of pathological psychodynamics here, not just for the two of them but for the whole parish.)

No plethora of priests: The most serious illusion some entertain about married priests is that relaxation of the celibacy requirement will ipso facto bring in vast numbers of men eager to be ordained. Dream on. The Ukrainian Catholic bishops in this country just two weeks ago published a refreshingly honest and blunt letter on the search for priests today, stating that the “Philadelphia Archeparchy will require about 15 new priests over the next five years to serve its faithful adequately” but that the other three eparchies (dioceses) have their “own pastoral needs, which are enormous.” These are all territories that have ordained married men, as the Church in Ukraine has done from her very foundations. But nowhere is there a huge line of waiting, unemployed priests standing about. There are, obviously, shortages in churches which permit their clergy to marry. Why?

No easy life for priests: In a world in which nearly everyone seems to want a cozy middle-class life in a leafy suburb with as few problems as possible, the priesthood promises none of that. As my hierarchy in the aforementioned pastoral letter noted, again with commendable candor, the priesthood is a difficult sacrificial vocation marked by “sweat, tears and maybe blood. We mean this seriously.” This is no exaggeration. I count many married clergy among my friends and I have seen this up close and often in parishes in Ukraine, Canada, and the United States for nearly two decades now.

No easy life for women and children: Several chapters in my forthcoming book, authored by married priests, their wives, and their children, all testify to the serious challenges women and children face. I have seen clerical marriages undergo severe stress because of the relentless demands of a parish. And I have interviewed my dear friend, the Orthodox priest Bill Mills, about his new memoir reflecting on some of the challenges of pastoral life and some of the intense struggles married clergy face.

For the plain truth here is that the priestly vocation is never an individual thing: the wife must also feel called. That is why Eastern Christians have real titles for such women: presbytera or pani matka or khouria. Their vocation is to support their husband and pray for and seek after the gifts to raise their children in a very challenging environment in which the endless demands on Dad can easily engender resentment against the church on the part of the kids, not least when Billy’s ball game or Sally’s ballet recital gets missed because Dad was too busy anointing Mrs. Ancient Parishioner who had the indecency to start dying at the same time.

No easy life for parishes and bishops: Given the challenges to marriages just noted, no Latin bishop facing the ordination of a married man must do so until and unless that man’s wife consents after lengthy consideration, interview, and paperwork. There is no point conveying one sacrament (orders) if doing so will effectively undermine another (marriage).

In addition, married priests and their family will—we must speak bluntly—require more money in salary, healthcare, and other benefits, rectory space or a housing allowance, and in other ways (e.g., discounts at Catholic schools). These are new and higher expenses that parishes and dioceses alike must be prepared to bear. And bishops have to realize that remote parishes—whether in the Amazon, the Yukon, or the Australian outback—will quite likely remain unfilled as married men and their families often prefer or even need to remain in or near large urban centers for reasons of schooling, healthcare, or because the wife needs to work in her chosen field because parish wages simply do not go far enough.

Pain and gain: There are, to be sure, incredible gains to a married priesthood, not the least of which is that married men are often much more healthily molded and humbled by wife and children, and much less prone to clericalism and the abuses of power and sex we find so often in the Church today—arguments I give at much greater length in the last chapter of Everything Hidden Shall Be Revealed: Ridding the Church of Abuses of Sex and Power. If the Latin Church decides to come on board with a married presbyterate—alongside married priests in the Anglican ordinariates and the Eastern Catholic Churches—then it will gain many gifts, but all such gifts come with costs seldom considered. Caveat emptor.

(Note: The opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, and do not necessarily represent the opinion or position of other CWR contributors or of Ignatius Press.)


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About Dr. Adam A. J. DeVille 73 Articles
Dr. Adam A. J. DeVille is associate professor and chairman of the Department of Theology-Philosophy, University of Saint Francis (Fort Wayne, IN) and author of Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy (University of Notre Dame, 2011).

24 Comments

  1. A reasonable article. I do take issue with one point however.

    Specifically, “In addition, married priests and their family will—we must speak bluntly—require more money in salary, healthcare, and other benefits, rectory space or a housing allowance, and in other ways (e.g., discounts at Catholic schools). These are new and higher expenses that parishes and dioceses alike must be prepared to bear.”

    This all depends on the model of service and the kind of men selected. I would expect that the new priest would not have young children. IMHO, the pool should be “presbyters” That is older men. Think grandfathers. I also believe that these men are not generally replacements for the current population of priests but are auxiliaries who can offer the sacrifice of the mass and provide sacraments. They might hold jobs from Monday through Friday but provide service on the weekends. Some might be simplex priests. All of these options should be investigagted and none should be presupposed.

  2. “Imagine Fr. Frank Handsome, dating his parishioner, Mrs. Wealthy Widow who is also choir director, and you begin to see all kinds of pathological psychodynamics here, not just for the two of them but for the whole parish.)’
    ************

    We actually had a situation quite similar to that going on years ago. Of course it shouldn’t have happened in a Catholic parish, but priests in parts of the rural South can be very isolated. And there are lonely women who become attracted to good looking young priests.

    When these relationships blow up, it’s not only traumatic to the couple involved but to the entire parish. I’ve seen the same thing happen in protestant congregations. The whole church becomes torn apart, each parishoner taking either the side of the erring pastor or the wife/love interest.

    With all the other challenges the Church faces these days, I’m not sure how adding another potential source of drama would improve the situation.

  3. Tell Christopher Altieri he worries too much and instead to get real. The crisis and gravity of current problems far outweigh, FAR OUTWEIGH that of married priesthood. The east can do it. So can the west. Whatever happened to “Don’t be afraid”? Now get married priests, protect our kids, strictly punish and publicly admonish priests with VERY STRICT consequences if they harm our kids, and do these things to gain trust in the pews again and more priests to serve Christ to us. If you want greater respect, trust, pew numbers, and unity, then try humility and do so. Just once I’d like to see the Holy Father show he’s fed up and publicly show he’s furious over his disgust of the scandals and his warning to current and future priests instead of being just so grieved. If this is inflammatory, don’t post, but I’m trying to speak the truth with love. Love feels good at times and Love hurts at times. Pointing out a mistake or truth someone doesn’t want to hear, such as “clean your room because you’re falling into laziness again” is a form of Love because it helps the other identify he is failing in Love. And of course, Love is our highest fulfillment on earth.

      • Agreed. When the Roman Church stuck to its teachings and traditions, it grew to be the largest and most vibrant branch of Christendom. Far outstripping Orthodoxy and Protestantism in its spreading of the Gospel. Even today more than half of all Christians are members of the Catholic Church. In other words, traditional Catholicism (including celibacy) works. It’s just too bad our leaders want to try everything else but traditional Roman Catholicism. And no I don’t want to imitate the East with their ethic enclaves, caesaropapism and full blown schism. BTW Eastern clergy have lots of scandals too.

        • And don’t forget how the Eastern Churches have had so many problems with liturgical abuses and lack of reverence in recent decades, nor all of the problems with Eucharistic heresies over the centuries. Ahem.

          • Please give documented examples, seriously. Your comments are ignorant and false.

            You must be thinking of the Latin Church.

            For over 30 years I have never seen anything but reverence and right worship in Eastern Liturgies.

            And all the Eucharistic heresies came/come from the West. Ahem.

      • An ignorant comment given the fact
        that Pastoral Provision priests and now Ordinariate priests make it work in the West. Do you know of the loneliness, sometimes the selfishness and lack of human love celibate priests face? If you are not a priest I reject your opinion as you may mine.

    • You “speak the truth in love”? What kind within the many, real and unreal, kinds of love? Since when is sex between a man and woman a total, absolute guarantee of impeccable morality? Having worked as a teacher and counselor with inmmates, and even after retirement still researching a variety of criminal cases, the huge majority of pedophiles ALWAYS have a sexual female partner!

      High morality does not automatically live in human gonads. That’s beyond naive and a stealth push to greater immorality. The solution is the holy disciplines, Sacraments and teachings that the Catholic Church has successfuly employed since its beginning, when it encountered the rampant, sword enforced, total sexual depravity of Imperial Rome and it TRIUMPHED!!

    • Dear Dan,
      Well said! I believe married priest with children are the only ones who can effect the change you are calling for. The good Dr.’s whole article is flawed with false assumptions. Of his seven points I only found one that was actually plausible. Take #1, he says we’ll all be dead before we see numerous married priest because of education. I bet there are close to a million men world wide with advanced Theology, Religious Studies, and similar degrees that probably have enough credits to obtain a Masters in Divinity within two years. They are probably already known to the hierarchy because many of them are already working in schools, parishes, and diocese. Because of room I’ll only give another example, DeVille believes there will not be a rush of men asking to be accepted and trained as priest, using the Ukraine Catholic Church as an example, but he fails to mention that for centuries the Eastern Rite Catholic Churches were forbidden from ordaining American men to the priesthood, and a Roman Catholic man is not allowed to “become” Eastern Catholic for the purpose of ordination. The Eastern Churches of America have always been dependent on European and Asian men until recently, which was the true purpose of the linked letter, to invite recently allowed Americans to the clerical state.
      God bless,
      tom

    • I think it is imprudent to conclude that the clerical sexual abuse was directly the outcome of celibacy. The truth is that the crime of abuse has absolutely nothing to do with being unmarried. The greater majority of sexual abuse happen in families. As a priest I hear this in confession from men, (and even women) who are not priests, and happily married. This is sickness pure and simple.
      Today, CNN reported a case of three females who were raped or sexually abused by military officers. One of those women was molested by her own father who was a soldier. And the abuse started when she was 8 or 9. HER OWN FATHER WHO WAS MARRIED TO HER MOTHER!
      Also, the Houston Chronicle reported less than a year ago an account of sexual abuse of thousands of victims within the Southern Baptist Church. You may wish to search and read that report. Do I need to remind you that the Southern Baptist Convention does not require celibacy for its clergy? Yet almost all perpetrators of sexual abuse in the Baptist Church were married. My point is simple:a married Catholic clergy will not make our children safe, as you suggest. We just have to be willing to rid the priesthood of these sick men, not try to mask the problem with marriage.

    • His Beatitude Sviatoslav Shevchuk said (I’m going by memory here) that the Latin Church shouldn’t look for easy solutions to complex problems. A married priesthood will not solve the priest shortage in the Roman Catholic Church.

      “For the plain truth here is that the priestly vocation is never an individual thing: the wife must also feel called.”

      In the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, a man who feels called to the priesthood must first get his wife’s permission. If she says NO, that’s the end of it.

      Years ago, our married Ukrainian Greek Catholic pastor told us this story in his homily:

      When he was in the seminary in Ukraine, a lady with 5 children came to the seminary and asked to see the bishop. The bishop came and asked her what she wanted. She replied that she wanted her husband back. The matter was investigated and he had to leave the seminary because his wife did not give her consent.

      As I’ve posted elsewhere, if the Roman Catholic Church wants a married priesthood, then it should adopt *in toto* ALL the rules & regulations which Eastern Catholic married priests and their wives must follow. Otherwise, DON’T do it!!

      I apologize for shouting but I can’t boldface on my smartphone.

  4. ” not least when Billy’s ball game or Sally’s ballet recital gets missed because Dad was too busy anointing Mrs. Ancient Parishioner who had the indecency to start dying at the same time.”
    Rather snarky way to put it… as the child of a protestant minister, I can vouch that it’s the non-essential stuff that takes up the bulk of the married clergyman’s time. Parish council meetings, finance council meetings, education committee meetings,counselling sessions, being the chaplain for the Ladies’ Guild… get the point?

    • With respect to the practical running of things, the diaconate should be mentioned (if indeed that should be the responsibility of deacons). But that too raises the questions of making sure a deacon and his family have sufficient financial support.

    • And I’d add to my original comment: It’s not the occasional ball game or ballet recital that “gets missed,” it’s being there in general as a responsible parent to raise children. Note that many or most of my examples occur in the evening, to accommodate the laity’s schedules. So, at school all day, then home with mother only in the evening. When exactly is the father able to contribute to parenting his children?

  5. Married clergy is not the cure all. If it were, the Anglicans would be overflowing with vocations and full parishes…they aren’t. Nor are the Orthodox for that matter.

    The vocation crisis is a symptom, not a cause. Vocations to priesthood and religious life are copious when the Faith is taught in its fullness. Celibacy makes no sense if priesthood is simply seen as being a glorified social worker. Evangelize well (like we used to, and we will have many vocations like we used to).

  6. I don’t think it would take decades to get married priests working in parishes. If Rome allowed this, Bishops would soon be figuring out a way to ordain the legions of married permanent deacons to the priesthood. Instant fix (at least for a while) for the parish priest shortage.

    The problem is the Church no longer believes in what it professes and this is why discipline, vocations, theological clarity and Mass attendance are collapsing. What did Our Lord say about a house divided?

  7. The decisive background issue is authoritarian rather than theological. Married clergy will inevitably compromise the authority of bishops in their nearly absolute control over diocesan affairs. For reasons legitimate and otherwise the primacy of family in a Christian ethos will necessarily rule the day. This cannot be mitigated by signed agreements, nor would such agreements have legal merit inasmuch as marriage and the rights of minor children have civil standing also. Any bishop placing his administrative interests ahead of the moral and legal rights of children, for example, would be engaging in the same hypocritically flawed rationale that for decades governed decisions when children were sexually abused by errant priests.

  8. first the american woman has a different concept of marriage than is common in orthodoxy. look at the high number of divorces with protestant ministers. the charism required for the catholic priest is very different from the protestant minister even though they have many of the same problems. next the catholic priesthood is semi monastic. it would revolutionize the catholic priesthood as being married to his people. he becomes more of a parish leader than a father in the faith. western thinking is not the same as eastern or orthodox thinking.

    • You’re right about that.

      The other truth is the East tends to see marriage as something that is profoundly holy but (ideally) also as something that brings a witness of holiness to the parish and the Church in general.

      Yes, a women married to a priest must have a very special and deep love not just for her husband but also for the Church. To be a priest’s wife is always a special vocation.

      The West following St Augustine and others has always seen marital relations as something less than holy, only redeemed somehow by procreation.

      Oh sure,the Latin Church now talks about the holiness of marriage but the mandatory celibacy issue says otherwise.

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