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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 75 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).

33 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?

    • Instant fix (at least for a while) for the parish priest shortage.
      Hardly. You forget about the additional formation that those Deacons would have to complete prior to being ordained. Considering the poor formation program already in place for the permanent Diaconate, they’d all need several years of study in order to become eligible.

      • I am aware that in some dioceses if a permanent deacon’s wife dies and he wishes to pursue the priesthood he must do all of his studies all over again. In my diocese most permanent deacons do not have even a Master’s in Ministry or Theology. I have mine which makes me more educated than they.

  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.

      • Oh, yes? And somehow the Eastern Church’s insistence that although married men may become priests, priests may not marry, and bishops cannot be married men, doesn’t say otherwise?

  9. What has been left out of the discussion is that deacons are ordained clergy who have already received much of the same theological training as priests. The permanent diaconate has been around since Vatican II, but accepted more in some parts of the world than others. There are minimal age requirements. Most of us are retired from careers, but some are balancing family and jobs. One thing is clear. It is a balancing act that requires cooperation of one’s whole family. It is easier when the kids are grown and out on their own. Most of what priests do, we do except say Mass and offer Absolution. We perform marriages, baptisms, and funerals outside of Mass as well as pastoral counselling abd community service. We also bring a reality check to a parish and a diocese. Our wives also are in touch with the local heartbeat and are quite involved as well. Married ministry is not just “his thing” but a joint venture. There are locales here in the states who also have limited access to priests – mountain and desert areas. The situation is more critical in places like the Amazon and even Alaska and parts of the US and Canadian Rockies. In some places the diaconate has been more supported there to alleviate the situation, but up until now shortages were seen as to be handled at a diocesan level, but now the Church at large us looking into the broad picture. After being in for several years, my wife and I went to Rome to study on our own ticket, having saved money cutting out cable tv and a few nonessentials. We saw dedicated priests there, and we saw some who needed a wake up to reality, and we saw some who are living a high life that many of us deacons would see as contrary to the call to serve. Few, I would say are lining up to serve the most remote places. My wife and I moved from our comfortable metro area to a more rural locale, but it is not remite although I have done some temporary mission spots outside the US. Regardless, the situation is in need of close examination and more so the transition will not be as slow as many think, if contrary people roll up sleeves and help rather than criticize.

    • Ever since the post-Vatican II return of the permanent diaconate, the argument has always been, “Oh, no, this isn’t an attack on priestly celibacy! The two are unrelated!”

      And then posts like yours prove that those who said that it was an attack on priestly celibacy were quite right.

      • I think you misunderstand the roles we deacons are called to serve. I know those who are celibate, and if we survive our wives in life, we then remain celibate.
        In our previous urban setting of over 50 years, I had never met a laicized priest. But currently in our rural/ semiurban diocese, I have met more laicized clergy than ever, four of which are in my parish. By Canon Law they are not permitted to any ministry that accesses liturgical roles. Also, my current diocese was one place in the US where the abuse crisis was particularly intensive. I have also encountered more priests here with addiction problems, albeit a small percentage. Most priests I have met here, across the US, and in my travels to numerous countries in both hemispheres are highly dedicated and successfully carrying on ministry, but the numbers of those who are not have generated major negative impact, and the reduction of clergy in the Church is a growing issue. At one time, going into ministry was a path to an education, but not so today. I had a Bachelor’s, Master’s, and PhD equivalency prior to entering diaconate formation and retiring from a career in Sciences. In our time studying in Rome, I was the only deacon and one of only a few Americans in Bioethics studies, and older than most, both students and instructors. Most of the priests I met were from Africa and Latin America, and my family’s small village in the wilds of Abruzzo is served by a priest who is not a native speaker of Italian. The diaconate is a larger component in the US, Africa, and Latin America, but only starting to gain a foothold in Europe, Ireland, and the UK where fewer ordinations are making an impact on accessibility of clergy to the faithful. There are parishes in the remote areas of the United States where deacons and lay religious men and women are parish administrators due to lack of adequate numbers of qualified priests. Even the urban Archdiocese of Boston has at least one parish being run by a religious sister.
        The shortage and related crises are real and we cannot turn blind eyes to them nor discount any possible solution. But we have to remember that the Church is The People, and if we are not meeting their ministerial and spiritual needs, we are failing as followers of Christ. The last annotation of Canon Law states (sic) that it is the call of the Church to provide the sacraments and spiritual guidance to the faithful. If the faithful do not see the availability of viable leadership, then how can we complain when they walk away from the Church if we haven’t as leadership provided a viable solution? There is no easy answer in these times, given all the factors that exist today that dud not in the past. But those who are closed minded to the situation are yearning idealistically for a Church that never truly existed in the first place and is improbable and imbalanced within today’s global community. I will do what the Lord has called me to as,a deacon, and so will my wife. We entered this with eyes wide open. But being on the front lines and seeing the need We’re also realistic about it. A clise friend from time overseas is a marrued Ukrainian Catholic priest and during the confluct in Crimea, sent his family away forvtheir safety, but they have small children who did not need to be in a combat zone. If it cones to pass that eventually my faculties are extended to say Mass and to provide absolution, it would be a great gift, but it is a decision we will make together and balance together. When I was ordained, my diocese of incardination required a letter from my wife giving her permission and we were encouraged to attend classes together. We are in it as a team. But to make a blanket coverage that a married clergy will not work cones from one who does not have the battle scars to back it up.

        • Your reply does not at all address the point of my comment, which was that posts like yours prove that those who said that the permanent diaconate was an attack on priestly celibacy were quite right.

          “But we have to remember that the Church is The People”

          What a ridiculously limited view. You’re leaving out Jesus. The Church is the Body of Christ, not just some random gathering of people (still less a strangely capitalized “The People”).

          “But we have to remember that the Church is The People, and if we are not meeting their ministerial and spiritual needs, we are failing as followers of Christ.”

          What you’ve just said is “The Church is us, and if we not meeting our own ministerial and spiritual needs, we are failing as followers of Christ.” Or, more likely, you are placing yourself above “The People,” those unwashed hordes, and being condescending.

          The last annotation of Canon Law states (sic) that it is the call of the Church to provide the sacraments and spiritual guidance to the faithful. If the faithful do not see the availability of viable leadership, then how can we complain when they walk away from the Church if we haven’t as leadership provided a viable solution?”

          I was right. You are distancing yourself from us lowly peasants.

          “There is no easy answer in these times, given all the factors that exist today that dud not in the past. But those who are closed minded to the situation are yearning idealistically for a Church that never truly existed in the first place and is improbable and imbalanced within today’s global community.”

          Once again chronological snobbery rears its ugly head. “*Our* time is just so very very special hand has so very very many challenges that nobody in the past 2000+ years has ever faced that we just simply *have* to throw away that outmoded celibacy that is the only thing that is slowing us down. (And never mind that rites whose clergy are not required to be celibate also have problems with a shortage of priests).

          Maybe instead you ought to be calling us to join you in prayer, asking God for more and more and more priestly and religious vocations, and the graces of perseverence and fidelity for those priests and religious we already have.

  10. The first thing that stands out to me is how many insightful and intelligent brothers and sisters I have, seriously. Please consider this: Anything in life has pros and cons. Who was it that said “one cannot step into the same river twice”? The Roman Church decided her position (all male clerics) long ago. Could that change? Perhaps. For example, early on absolution took place after you did your penance, not before. That changed. It seems that some things can change while others must remain the same. Now, imagine for a moment an Anglican or Episcopal (just as apostolic as Roman Catholics) married couple. One day the wife (not the husband) discerns a calling to the ordained priesthood. How would that affect, and I mean this with utmost respect, all of your insightful and intelligent arguments? Peace to all.

    • “The Roman Church decided her position (all male clerics) long ago.”

      The Catholic Church didn’t “decide her position,” She obeyed Jesus, Who established the priesthood as male.

      “Could that change? Perhaps.”

      No, it couldn’t. Pope St. John Paul II said flatly that the Church has no authority to ordain women.

      “It seems that some things can change while others must remain the same.”

      Very true. And one of the things that must remain the same is that the ministerial priesthood is reserved to males.

      “Now, imagine for a moment an Anglican or Episcopal (just as apostolic as Roman Catholics) ”

      No, they are not.

      Your hypothetical case about an Anglican woman who “discerns a calling to the ordained priesthood” is irrelevant. Anglican/Episcopal ordinations are invalid. https://www.papalencyclicals.net/leo13/l13curae.htm

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