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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