Sunday, October 23, 2005

Married Priests? Big deal...

Not surprisingly, the discussion at the Synod of Bishops, in Rome, about possibly ordaining married men--viri probati ("proven men") to the priesthood gets folks all excited and interested.

Also not surprisingly, the bishops judged this was not the setting in which to launch such a change, as reported here and elsewhere.

This sort of thing can be useful, if it gets people discussing the subject seriously. Unfortunately, too often folks just say things like, "if only they ordained (pick one): married men/women/extraterrestrials/etc., and we wouldn't have a priest shortage..."

Herewith some thoughts about this...

1. If Rome said yes, this would NOT mean a change in doctrine, but rather in discipline. The Roman Catholic Church has always recognized that married men may validly receive holy orders, but has, for many reasons, and for most of her history, limited the priesthood and episcopacy to celibate men.

2. Many Protestant bodies presently ordaining not only married men, but also women -- and not expecting a lifetime commitment, and paying far better -- also have a shortage of clergy.

3. Per ancient and universal tradition, for an ordained man to be married, he must be married prior to ordination -- and if widowed, may not marry again. This would, it seems to me, cause men thinking about a priestly vocation to postpone such a decision -- perhaps for many years indeed. I.e., first he'd want to court and marry the right woman; then start a family; then have to build his career and savings. You're not likely to see such married men enter the seminary in their 20s--more likely in their 40s or 50s. (Update: a married man also would have to consider his wife's career, as well.)

4. The sacrifices entailed in entering the seminary after being established on your own -- giving up a career, selling a house, rearranging ones life -- aren't easy and are real. But when it's just yourself, that's one thing; when you have a wife and family, how much harder must that be? Hard to imagine men entering the seminary (as we know it) while they need to support any children.

5. Married priests would hardly live in existing rectories with their families, on existing priests' salaries. Many parishes would be in for sticker-shock; and what if a parish said, "no thanks--we want a cheaper (i.e., celibate) priest"?

6. Married priests would not easily relocate from parish to parish; they would likely be less available.

7. Divorce is sadly very common among married clergy. It would be only a matter of time before we'd have divorced priests.

8. In Protestant congregations with married clergy, the spouse of the pastor has a curious, sometimes vague, sometimes defined, role. Like it or not, the pastor's wife--or husband--can become a power-center. This will affect parish life in unexpected ways. Are we ready for parishes to have a "first lady"? Would a pastor be free to put her on staff? Remember nepotism?

9. The effect of having some substantial share of priests be married, while others are celibate, on the collegiality of the priesthood, is unknown. There will be frictions, have no doubt, beginning whenever a celibate priest calls a brother priest, asking him for help on this or that, only to be told: "I can't, because of my family." The "we're all in this together" comradery of the priesthood would suffer as each group, said of the other, "they don't understand what it's like." I suspect we'd have, unofficially, two priesthoods. The effects on morale, for either group, are unknown, but could be seriously negative.

10. Once celibacy became optional, I suspect the result would be active discouragement of celibacy. After all, what inference might be drawn about men who nonetheless embraced celibacy prior to the priesthood? I suspect most men would be encouraged to wait and see, since "this is your only chance to marry"--i.e., beforehand. Unfavorable suggestions would be made, a little more directly, about men who embraced celibacy anyway: "they must be gay."

11. The seminary system would change, perhaps totally. Common life among seminarians would be very hard to achieve; they'd hardly move in and live full-time in the seminary with their wives and families! Accountability and scrutiny would be harder; seminary faculty would be shaping, not one person's life, but the lives of several people, the rest of whom aren't fully consenting to that reshaping, as the candidate for orders does.

None of this is to deny arguments for ordaining married men. I merely offer these thoughts as food for thought.


Anonymous said...

Quite possibly the most spot on analisis of the situation at hand that I have ever read. You should pursue publication of this in a wider venue.

Todd said...

2. Agreed. If we were to ordain married men, it should be because the Church underwent some serious discernment, not as a reaction to a perceived shortage.

3. "This would, it seems to me, cause men thinking about a priestly vocation to postpone such a decision"


4 & 11. I'm not convinced the seminary system is ideal for current clergy or the Church at large.

5. It might be that marginal parishes, with a choice between a married priest or none in residence would opt for the former rather than have the spectre of closing hanging over their heads.

8. Depends. A woman with a theology degree is a potential boon for a parish if she's not on staff. My diocese has a policy against family members being in a supervisory role, so it would be irrelevant in KC.

9. Morale is an issue, to be sure. It couldn't be worse than the effect of the current crop of bishops on morale, though.

10. Not sure. It would depend on the bishops.

11. "Common life among seminarians would be very hard to achieve ..."

Priests rarely experience a common life once assigned to a pastorate.

"... they'd hardly move in and live full-time in the seminary with their wives and families!"

They might have to do what protestant clergy do: live off campus.

But I agree with Dan. Having the insightful input of clergy is essential to any serious discernment on this issue.

Fr Martin Fox said...


My point in no. 11 was about seminary common life, not priestly common life, although they are related.

I'm well aware that priests don't often live together; my point is that seminarians do, and I think this is very valuable. It is part of the comradery, the fraternity that priests experience.

I won't claim the seminary system is "ideal" -- but I think it works pretty well. I chafed against some things, and found other things frustrating, but overall it was positive.

Paul, just this guy, you know? said...

Excellent post, Father.

My only question about the "viri probati" was, where are all these married men so anxious to serve the church in ordained ministry? Aren't they already deacons?

mrsdarwin said...

Great post, thoughtful analysis. I've linked to you.

Mari said...

Could you elaborate on #2?

Fr Martin Fox said...


Here are some snippets...

From Fr. John Pecoraro, Associate Pastor of St. Louis Parish, Diocese of Memphis, September 11, 2003:

In a study done for the Missouri Synod Lutheran Board for Higher Education in 1999 titled Clergy Shortage Study, it clearly shows that they are in the midst of a vocation crisis themselves. Some of the comments by the Lutheran pastors and their families in the study were heartbreaking, expressing the stress and the demands of ministry placed on them. For example, one pastor said about himself "[I have] been a weak husband and father." Another said "[I] do not see my kids much." The wives and children of Lutheran pastors are hurting as well. One pastor's wife said, "I can't count on my husband to be available to me when I need him," and the child of a pastor commented, "People blame things on our dads, but take it out on us", and "Dad never made it to any school special events." (See whole article here.)

Here's an article about the Orthodox Church's difficulties.

here is an article referencing several denominations.

I think if you type "clergy shortage" into a search box, and perhaps refine it for a particular Church or denomination, you'll find many such items.

DP said...

This doesn't even touch on the blessings and value of the celibate life though. The celibate life can be a beautiful thing and a blessing. I don't mean that it's not a sacrifice, but there's a real beauty found in the celibate life if we understand it in the context of our relationship to Christ and His Church (this is particularly well explained in the Theology of the Body by JPII).

Anonymous said...

Just saw this over at Rich Leonardi blog site.

At an Athenaeum confab for diocesan catechists and Catholic school administrators a year or so ago, a participant reportedly hectored Cincinnati Auxilliary Bishop Carl Moedell about all the "conservative" seminarians at Mount St. Mary's of the West.

The Bishop's response was, "you should see the ones we turn away." Funny thing is, I have learned of two current seminarians who were first "turned away" during the Mount St. Mary's pre-renaissance era.

Once again clearly shows that there was a bias against conservatives coming into this archdicese by those with an agenda to have women priests and do away with celebacy.

Bernard Brandt said...

Dear Fr. Fox:

Thank you for your comments regarding a married priesthood. I would rather agree with you that changing the discipline regarding celibacy for RC priests for the sake of convenience (e.g., more candidates, etc.) is both fallacious and dangerous.

As an eastern Catholic, though, and as one who has observed Orthodoxy in North America and Europe for the past 20 years, I note that the article you post in your comments here regarding difficulties of Orthodoxy does not take into consideration the fact that it has undergone a great number of conversions from paganism or from protestantism into Orthodoxy, and at rates similar (on the basis of population, at any rate) to those of Evangelical Christians. Similarly, the rate of those converts entering into the priesthood or lay monasticism is impressively high.

I would be far more impressed with those calling for a married priesthood if they did so on the basis of wishing to return to an apostolic tradition, and if they also moved towards the reestablishment of lay monasticism as well.

By the bye, I will be linking to your weblog: anyone who could write such a thoughtful posting as this, who could quote at length one of my favorite passages from A Man For All Seasons, who could put up one of my most favorite of devotional paintings by Salvador Dali (a copy of which hangs to the right of the icons my wife and I have of Our Blessed Lady and Our Lord), and who writes so intelligently of the right to bear arms, while he probably deserves better, also deserves no less.

Fr Martin Fox said...


Thanks for your comments.

I offered the article regarding the Orthodox for no other purpose than to give another poster further info about clergy shortages being reported for other churches and denominations.

Rich Leonardi said...

joe h et al.,

Just to be clear, the point of my anecdote about MSM of the West is that the environment there is -- thank God -- much more hospitable to good men than it reportedly once was.

Anonymous said...

I note that in the post Rich L. had on his site on the quote from Modell was "you should have seen the ones 'WE' turned away" which to me makes it clear that the current leadership was in sink with the turning away of orthodox in the past.

Fr Martin Fox said...


It's well nigh impossible to prove the absence of something sinister, when others insist it's there, secretly, hidden, under the surface . . . so I have little hope of convincing you, I realize.

However, has it occurred to you that sometimes men apply to the seminary who would be deemed "conservative" -- and yet not suitable for admission?

And I don't suppose you can conceive of anyone being "too conservative" -- because that would allow for a benign understanding of Bishop Moedell's comments.

David L Alexander said...

Mr Leonardi, you wrote:

"Just to be clear, the point of my anecdote about MSM of the West is that the environment there is -- thank God -- much more hospitable to good men than it reportedly once was."

How much of this can be attributed to the new rector, Father Edward Smith, formerly of North American College in Rome?

Mike L said...

Fr. Fox:

I would welcome your comment on my blog article prompted by the same occasion and question as yours.

Just so you know I'm for real, several of the people who have commented in this thread have commented before on other articles at my blog.


Father McCarthy said...

A very liberal priest once said to me that we would not get any more vocations to the priesthood than we have now because of the parents: if it is not celibacy, it is the money. Everyone knows that pastors could never be paid $100,000 a year.

I know many men who have turned down the priesthood because of their parents. I agree with you that we would see more older married men enter the seminary if celibacy became optional because more than likely their parents would be dead.

Moreover, some problems with widowed deacons are starting to happen. I know many widowed deacons who are living their life of celibacy with joy and fidelity, but there are more and more deacons who have lost their wives and have a very hard time with celibacy (mostly young deacons with children), often times being laicized so they can get married again. I think they should study the permenent diaconate and see how they deal with being alone after the death of their wives before they discuss optional celibacy.

Also, I have been told by some of our peers (mostly young orthodox priests) who said that they would be very angry if the Church made celibacy optional tomorrow. They feel that it would be unfair for them if they didn't have the same option when they were discerning their vocation. I don't feel that way because I know that the priesthood makes much more sense theologicaly or spiritualy when lived in the celibate state.

But I don't see optional celibacy happening soon or ever.

Anonymous said...

I see no real benefit in ordaining 20-somethings to the priesthood. Most of them that I've known have the pastoral touch of a spoiled prince.

Look up the meaning of the term "presbyteros".

JBP said...

It is bizarre when temporal reasons for celibate priesthood are brought into play. If celibacy is truly spiritual, one would never bring up the temporal nature of the marriage contract. Is it so much more difficult for a Priest to be married than (say) a man who runs a coffee shop?

With all due respect, Fr. Fox, your reasoning is not up to the level of a mature adult. If Catholics can afford hospitals, orphanages, meat-cutter schools, funding the Special Olympics, I am sure we can afford married priests.


Fr Martin Fox said...


It is certainly true that the funds could be found; however, I think it's naive to suppose some hidden hand in the Church is going to re-arrange the finances to do it.

The messy -- yes, temporal -- reality -- is that other things will suffer. More money in this pot, less in that one.

Of course, its conceivable that married priests will be so wildly popular that the result will be a significantly higher level of giving. But on what basis may we assume that? I see none; therefore, I assume approximately the same level of giving.

I think your separation of the spiritual and temporal represents a straw man argument.

Perhaps you think of celibacy is strictly spiritual, but Catholic Christianity is not spiritual apart from the temporal, any more than any human being can be spiritual, apart from the temporal.

I have no idea what running a coffee shop is like. But I find the comparison inapt in several ways. People who have businesses -- a shop, store, restaurant, etc. -- while very committed to them, usually have a certain detachment; and such detachment is considered healthy. If the store loses money, at some point, one walks away from the project. Lots of people try their hands at such businesses, and later move on -- either because it didn't work, or it did, and they want to get out.

If you think this is how a man in the priesthood approaches his care for the people of God, I can only shake my head at how you formed such an impression.

Finally, every married man faces pressures choosing what comes first: job or family. I believe family has to come first; his relationship with his wife has to come first in the family. What do you recommend?

Maybe that's too icky-temporal, but Catholics know we actually live in a world of stuff and time, not to mention sin and weakness. Our religion is built on this acknowledgement: at the center is the Incarnate God.

JBP said...

(wadr) Fr,

The hidden hand you mention to fund all this? Why that is simple!It was described 200 years ago by Adam Smith. The Invisible Hand of the Market is perfectly capable of funding the church.

I think you hit the nail on the head. It is really hard to run a coffee shop. It is really hard to run travel agency. It is really hard to be a priest.

It is also spiritual and sacramental to be a priest, but those seem very natural to a person with a Priestly calling.

You mention tradeoffs between work and family. Welcome to the good life!. Myself and billions of others face it every day. I am not perfect (not even close) at it by any means, but it is a reality.

If the Church can figure out how to manage something as confusing as a devotion to (say) the Infant Jesus of Prague, I am sure we can manage married priests. Why the pessimism?


Anonymous said...

Fr. Martin:

so are you opposed to men being ordained under the pastoral provision? It seems as if you should be, considering, according to you, there is no real need. It is nothing more than acceding to the desires of these men. Why should their desires be met, when similar desires, and senses of being called, by men who had the (mis)fortune to be faithful Catholics their entire lives, are not?

Give your average parish a choice: You either have no resident pastor or a married pastor, the latter of which would require every household in the parish to chip in an extra two bucks a week. What would they say?

The difference between teh West and the East is that the West has religious orders. The charism of celibacy and its fruit can be well nourished there, and the secular clergy can be given the option.

Not that this applies to you, Father, but those most frantically opposed to optional celibacy are the cabal of gay priests, who would lose their cover and their political power. This is simply the reality. Want to break the "lavander mafia?" so bemoaned by St. Blog's? Get some married men with families in there. That will do it, and fast.

The "practical" and temporal arguments can't hold if we are willing to be honest about the lives of priests, as they are lived. Some are heroic and sacrificial. Others - too many others - see the people of their parishes as a burden and a pain in the neck. They are married to their golf games, to the largesse of wealthy parishioners, to their bachelorhood. You want to argue realism? I agree. Let's do it.

Fr Martin Fox said...


What in all that I've written on this leads you to conclude I'm against the pastoral provision? I've said all along that my purpose was to raise some concerns that I believe get too little attention in this discussion.

(I invite you to identify where I asserted a definitive position, for or against retaining celibacy.)

The pastoral provision, if we are speaking of the same thing, was essentially about salvation of souls--of clergy in other Christian bodies, and their families, to facilitate their full communion. Adding to the ranks of the priesthood was an ancillary effect. I offer no opinion, here, on whether it was a net plus, or not. That discussion can be found elsewhere.

Attacks on priests are tiresome, and if I may so, not particularly welcome here. I'm sorry not all priests live up to the standard Christ sets, or you set.

We can all think of terrible examples of priests, or simply disappointing examples (i.e., those who seem focused on golf games, or material things); but until you, or I, have walked in their shoes...

Even the worst priests, however you define that, have changed lives.

I know a priest, who was removed because of many grave offenses. Despite all that came to light--pretty awful stuff--there are folks who love and honor him, not for his offenses, and not because these are morally obtuse people, but for the great good they believe he did in their lives. Do you know that they are wrong?

I can also tell you that people commit sins against their priests that cause real hurt to their priests, but who calls them on it?

I mean the sins of gossip, rash judgment, calumny, detraction, and the like.

How much criticism of priests, in general and in specific, is truly necessary to say, as opposed to being self-indulgent? How many folks, who think better of it, go back and correct the record, go apologize for their sin against the priest, and go to confession for it?

And how often this sinful behavior is not over things that matter a great deal--when it would be more understandable--but over things truly trivial?

I'm not so much speaking for myself--I think I've been lucky. Or perhaps, just smart: I don't go digging to learn what people might say about me. I can guess; I choose not to.

Your comment, "those most frantically opposed to optional celibacy are the cabal of gay priests," is unworthy of you. I fail to see how you can know what you'd need to know to make this statement. (What qualifies as being "most frantically opposed"? How do you identify that cabal--and how do know who's in it?) Your comment is, in effect, a presumption against all priests who take a strong stand for maintaining celibacy, that their true, hidden motive is self-serving and sinister.

I fail to see what entitles you or anyone to presume anyone has a hidden, base motive, about anyone.

Indeed, your point about the "lavender mafia" simply proves one of my points. Introduce optional celibacy, and it sounds like you, yourself, may be ready to point to those still remaining celibate, and say, "aha, now we know their secret!"

JBP said...

(wadr) Fr Martin,

I would hesitate to identify a syndicate as championing celibacy.

But through a huge amount of ancedotal evidence, I am convinced that the major proponents within the priesthood of celibacy very much enjoy their bachelor lifestyle and do not want to change it.

I am generalizing here, but many of us former bachelors enjoyed our condition, then grew up and realized that married life was a profound purpose in our lives. Shouldn't a Priest be allowed to use his good judgement to make that choice as well? Are we sentencing him to bachelorhood because certain bachelors enjoy being lifelong bachelors?

A plea to St. Pantelon,

Anonymous said...

Not that this applies to you, Father, but those most frantically opposed to optional celibacy are the cabal of gay priests, who would lose their cover and their political power. This is simply the reality. Want to break the "lavander mafia?" so bemoaned by St. Blog's? Get some married men with families in there. That will do it, and fast.

Right! Unfortunately you forgot to reference the experienced laboratories where this combination takes place....several protestant denominations...huge ones that are now splitting into all kinds of different sizes and shapes and doctrines due to the fact that your "lavender" elements feel quite empowered to consider themselves equal to the heterodox couples/families of their denomination's mainstream. Your "solution" may push a few down here only to have them pop up elsewhere with even more damaging results to the body of Christ as we witness in the news quite often these days.

Anonymous said...

Fr. Fox,

Great post! I have also linked to it.

Speaking as a married deacon, I'd like to offer my two cents worth. First, I have nowhere near the responsibilities to the Church that a priest has. Even so, I often run into conflicts between my responsibilities as a deacon and my responsibilities to my family.

During formation, they told us that our responsibilities are "Family first; job second; diaconate third." Sounds good. But the reality is that it doesn't always work that way. Things happen when they happen, and nothing I can do will change that.

My wife is extremely supportive of my ministry, but I know she gets upset with me occasionally.

I'm also very aware of the fact that there are times when Jan and the kids are very uncomfortable in their roles as the deacon's wife and the deacon's children. Jan's identity in the parish has changed since before my ordination. It's subtle, but people do treat her differently. Fortunately, she's very capable of handling the change.

The situation with the kids isn't so good. Only one of the four attends mass regularly, which upsets me a great deal. I pray every day that the other three will come back. But they're all adults and have to make that decision themselves.

I guess the bottom line is that you can't give 100% to two vocations. The good news is that there is nothing that happens in the Church that REQUIRES my presence. For priests, it's a different story.

Fr Martin Fox said...


Right! Unfortunately you forgot to reference the experienced laboratories where this combination takes place....several protestant denominations...huge ones that are now splitting into all kinds of different sizes and shapes and doctrines due to the fact that your "lavender" elements feel quite empowered to consider themselves equal to the heterodox couples/families of their denomination's mainstream. Your "solution" may push a few down here only to have them pop up elsewhere with even more damaging results to the body of Christ as we witness in the news quite often these days.

Respectfully, anonymous, you did not answer my pointed questions, posed in my third-to-last paragraph. You made a calumnious assertion, and I very reasonably asked you to back it up.

Also, perhaps it is not your intent, but I find your response rather aggressive, toward me:
"your 'lavender' elements..." and "your 'solution'...."

I'm not sure just what "solution" you mean, insofar as a) celibacy isn't "my" solution, but long predates me, and b) I haven't proposed anything--I've raised questions and concerns.

I am glad you came to visit my blog; but I would hope, if you came to visit me, at home, or at my parish, you'd be a little more courteous. I can appreciate you feel strongly about this.

Anonymous said...

As a married deacon who just celebrated his 25th anniversary in holy orders I am very ambivalent about the Church ordaining married men to the priesthood (so am happy the bishops and the pope, not others, stuck with the decision). Since I am retired and able to support my wife and I easily on our retirement income and since my children are grown up and on their own there are times I think I would apply for priestly ordination if Church leadership determined it was wise or needed. By Church standards I am still quite young (62), healthy and if I make it to 50 years in the diaconate sometimes I think it would be nice to celebrate that 50th by being able to celebrate Mass as a priest (I figure my wife will outlive me). There used to be a category of "simplex" priests who only celebrated Mass which might fit old-time married deacons.
However, I like the combination of a celibate priest working with a married deacon. I never have had to worry about a conflict between family and ministry because the pastors I have been fortunate enough to work with have always been there to help me give my family priority when necessary. In time, hopefully, the Catholic Church will feel at home with the celibacy line for holy orders being drawn beween deacon and priest as the Orthdox world seems comfortable with the line being drawn between priest and bishop.

Anonymous said...

Dear Fr. Martin, I am an Orthodox layman, and have the rare privilege of knowing 1/75th of the Pastoral Provision clergy. He has been married to his wife for about fifty years, and they are grandparents. He has been prohibited from serving in *any* parish of the Archdiocese of Seattle, though his nearest parish in Olympia, WA has around 4000 souls and either one or two clergy. He would love to help out, but is not allowed to do a thing. He is actively discouraged from even showing up. He has become an Eastern Rite priest, and serves in the little mission in the same city. I guess there is something vaguely unsavory about the living situation?

I live about six miles from St. Edward's State Park on the shores of Lake Washington. Beautiful place. Used to be a Catholic seminary, now empty and sold off. As an outsider, I dare to offer you advice. Go with married clergy. For two thousand years now they have been around in the Christian East (not a geographical term anymore, of course), and it isn't broken so it hasn't been fixed. I would *love* to see that park be a seminary. If you allowed married men to be ordained, you would quite simply have more clergy than you would know what to do with. If all the pathetic excuses that are mentioned (lack of portability, expense, wives --- dear me, there's a thought! Families!) aren't less important than the shocking lack of clergy to simply celebrate Mass, some priorities are off. How does virtually *every* Orthodox parish do it?? How have they for two thousand years? How did the Christian West do it for a thousand? Is something lacking now that they *had* then?
By the way, to bring up a sad topic, Seattle's archdiocese is bracketed to the east by Spokane and Portland to the south. Both Catholic archdioceses are officially in bankruptcy. For reasons that *do* have to do with badly picked clergy and bishops. You don't need
no clergy like my friend, or a few, you need alot of them. I honestly pray you get them. As my friend was plowing through the ghastly process of the Pastoral Provision, he seeemed to meet very few older clergy who were unhappy with his presence. THey felt celibacy should be an option, not required. THe only really unhappy and downright angry people he met were the clergy who had no interest in women at all, and the very, very feminist nuns he had to deal with. Frequently in positions of great power. Oh, there was also Raymond Hunthausen, then archbishop. At his first meeting with the bishop, he said he was against the idea of married clergy, but all for women as priests.
Take back your Church.
Get family values where they belong.
I mean it when I say I'm *for* you in this. I wouldn't wish the current state of affairs on anyone.
---- Bob Koch
Brier, WA