Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Will the pope OK married priests?

Last week, the newly appointed Vatican Secretary of State made news when, in answer to a question about the Church's ancient practice of priestly (and episcopal) celibacy, acknowledged that this was not a dogma, and it was certainly possible to discuss a change in this discipline.

The news media predictably made much of this; and for a lot of folks, this seemed to be something new.'s not.

I think, if you were to do an Internet search, you'd find that similar comments have been made by someone "high up" in the Church during the reign of the last three or four popes (with the possible exception of Pope John Paul I, who reigned about a month). It's a perennial question; and the recent answer is the stock answer. It's not the answer I, as a former PR man, would have advised--but this would hardly be the first time one of our prelates handled a question in a way that makes people savvy in media relations cringe.

For what it's worth, my PR advice would have consisted of asking the pope: do you want to generate controversy over this? No? Then I'd have suggested a response along the lines of saying the age-old discipline of celibacy has served the Roman Rite well, and while people are free to advocate for a change, the odds are extraordinarily slim at best that it's going to be changed now.

Meanwhile, the Secretary of State said we can "talk about it," so let's talk about it.

The reading today from St. Paul's first letter to St. Timothy mentioned the families of bishops, raising the question of whether, in the early church, bishops, as well as priests, might have been married. Well, they might indeed have been. But what people forget is that they might also have been expected, after ordination, to remain "continent"--i.e., no longer having marital relations.

But in any case, what people forget is that it was both what Paul wrote elsewhere in his letters, as well as what the Gospels report of our Lord's own instructions, on the value of celibacy for the sake of the Kingdom that provides a clear Biblical support for the discipline. Paul said it best: an unmarried man can serve the Lord without being pulled in two directions. And that's obviously true.

My classmate, the late Father Dan Schuh, said it as well as anyone. Father Schuh was, like me, a later vocation; before entering the seminary, he married, and before his wife died, they had two children. His two grandchildren were present for his (and my) ordination; and when one of them called out, "grandpa!" Archbishop Pilarczyk said it was something he never thought he'd hear at an ordination!

Those of us in the seminary with Dan who hadn't been married asked his take on the "married priest" question. And here is his answer: "what woman would want to be put in second place, or deserve to?"

And that is exactly right. That is an inevitable choice for any married man, pressed by his other obligations; now imagine that married man being your parish priest.

My humorous answer--when someone asks what I think about married priests--is to smile and say, "I'm amused that you think my life would be easier if I had a wife and children." Now, I fear some women think I'm making a crack; but I'm not--I'm just trying to make Father Schuh's point a different way.

Married priests mean priests with children and all that entails. Perhaps with large families. This means fundamental changes in housing arrangements and other financial arrangements for parishes.

Here's a detail that many overlook--but attend carefully here, because this is more significant than you may realize:

At issue isn't whether priests can marry--that will never happen. Repeat: never!

Instead, what is at issue is whether married men might become priests. That is what is potentially possible.

This is not a semantical difference.

While there is ample tradition--to this day--for married men being priests (among the Orthodox and other Eastern Christians), as far as I know, there has never been allowance for men, once ordained, to be married. If their wives die, they remain unmarried. This is the norm, right now, for deacons.

Whether that's good or bad is irrelevant; one thing I predict confidently is that the pope isn't going to overturn an established tradition common to all the ancient, apostolic Churches. It would create a vexing new problem for ecumenism, precisely because it would be a true innovation. I cannot conceive of a reason for any pope to go down that road.

But here's why this distinction matters. Given what I said, any change would mean, in practical terms, that for a priest to be married, he must marry first.

Which means that many of the men who now decide to enter the seminary at a younger age--in their 20s and 30s--would have a reason to wait. Wait until they marry.

But guess what? Once they marry, then they face three huge issues every married person faces:

> Building a good marriage
> Job, career and economic security
> Children

All right, show of hands: who wants to add, to this, the fourth concern: discerning if you are called to be a priest, and then entering seminary and becoming a priest?

Clearly, such men as I describe, who would want to be priests, and who I don't doubt would be good priests, would have huge reasons to wait. And wait. And wait.

This is not hypothetical; this is precisely what happens with married men who are attracted to the vocation of deacon.

We have wonderful deacons, and I'm glad we do. And we have a good number of them. We ordain 20-30 of them every three years. That's a lot.

However, ask them: are you able to be full time like the parish priest?

No; only some of them have a parish-based job. None of them has the expectation that priests do, of the Church providing them a living. That would be a difficult promise for the Church to make to deacons--aside from the added cost--precisely because it would be so different from case to case. This deacon has no children; this one has two, but they're grown; this one has young children; this one has ten children of all ages. Notice: we've had married deacons for approximately 40 years, and this is one of many questions unresolved for the Church. When's the last time you saw any of the bishops talk publicly about how they were going to address this? Probably never!

So picture a scene: a small U-Haul trailer sitting outside the bishop's front door, labeled "thorny problems related to the permanent diaconate we don't want to deal with." It's been there 40 years. What are the odds the bishop wants you to deliver another one, only a lot bigger?

Here's something else. People often say, allowing married men to be priests will mean more vocations. I assume they are right. But I wonder how many of those new vocations will be existing deacons? Will we allow them to be considered? I don't see why not. It would make sense; they would already have some of the needed theological training, and parish experience.

So, great: we get new priests! But we have fewer deacons. It might be a trade-off we can live with, but this is not usually how the promised new vocations is presented.

There are couple more practical considerations:

> Married priests means parishes will be confronted with all the drama and complications that their married clergy are dealing with: basically, every marital and family problem there is.

This is often presented as a benefit: our priests will experience these things first hand. Aside from the fallacies implicit in that sort of thinking, let's stop and consider what this really means.

When Father and Mrs. Jones are having troubles, the parish will have a ringside seat. Imagine the fun on the grapevine! As it is, whenever a couple is pulled apart, family and friends are confronted with the question, "whose side are you on?" Now we can introduce this dynamic into the parish.

Also, consider what it will be like when the priest talks about the immorality of using contraception, and people start counting how many children he has. And, yes, that's exactly what folks will do.

Now consider all the range of parenting challenges--but lived out in a glass house. Here's an easy case study: Father and Mrs. Jones's first two children are doing fine in the Catholic school; but the third child, for whatever reason, is struggling. They decide to shift this child to a non-Catholic school.

Imagine that news getting around the parish.

I can go on--those of you who are parents know about some of the really difficult things you have faced as you raise your children. Would you really want all that to be part of parish chatter?

This is not hypothetical: this is precisely what happens with Protestant clergy.

Speaking of Protestant clergy, there is a special dynamic that happens precisely with married clergy: the question of the pastor's spouse. What's her role in the parish? Is she co-pastor? Does she chair a committee? Hold a job? To whom is she accountable?

If you have Protestant friends who have been very involved in their churches, ask them about this.

As someone said after Mass this morning--reacting, in part, to what I said in my homily--"a lot of folks haven't thought through all the implications." Exactly right.

My assessment is this: if we made that change, we would trade one set of problems for another. While we might like our new problems better, that's far from self-evident.

Finally, a theological consideration.

While it's certainly true that there's no essential barrier to a married priesthood, there are some compelling theological considerations--rooted in the Scriptures, and in the life of our Savior.

Many who advocate allowing married men to become priests simply ignore the strong witness of Scripture, and Tradition, and the Lord himself, in favor of celibacy for the sake of the Kingdom. As far as anyone knows, Jesus himself did not marry. Taking him simply as a prophet (he's more than that, of course), this is not without precedent. But insofar as he is--in his own words--the "Bridegroom," then it's exactly correct. How can Jesus marry, when his "Bride" is the Church?

When clergy, and laity who are in religious communities, embrace celibacy, they are a sign of the kingdom. If a married man is on a business trip, away from his family, and if someone were to approach him, and perhaps express interest, what does a faithful husband say? "No thanks, I'm spoken for" as he points toward his wedding ring.

That's exactly what celibate priests and religious are saying by their vow of celibacy. And they also say, "I'm waiting for Someone"--that someone is the Bridegroom.

People mistakenly think that the practice of celibacy somehow denigrates marriage--as if the practice of fasting denigrates food! Setting aside the obvious fact that Catholics deem marriage so holy, it's a sacrament, celibacy only makes sense--as a prophetic sign--precisely because of how good marriage is. No one would be impressed by a vow to avoid drinking poison. But a vow to give up something very good is impressive. Why would you give up something? As a sign that your hope is fixed on something even better.

After Mass, someone asked me this morning, aren't there priests who don't agree with you? Indeed there are. What I've just shared is my own judgment and perspective, and it's worth every penny you paid for it!

But my answer to the question posed by the headline?

I think it's extraordinarily unlikely the pope will change this discipline. If he were even to do it, he'd have to involve all the bishops. Personally, I think such an initiative would be very ill advised. If he ever calls me (you laugh; but he's doing that sort of thing, apparently), who knows? Maybe I'll tell him myself.


Carolyn Lalli said...

The subject of married priests is one raised only last weekend at my Maronite Catholic parish. As a Roman Catholic, practicing my faith in an Eastern Catholic Church, I was prepared for the question.

In October 2005, Cardinal Sfeir, (then) Patriarch of the Maronite Church, addressed this topic at the 11th General Synod Fathers, gathered for their eighth meeting at the Vatican. The Cardinal defended the practice of the celibate priesthood and discussed the beauty of the tradition, calling it the "most precious jewel in the treasury of the Catholic Church."

While pointing out that "the Maronite Church admits married priests" and that "half of our diocesan priests are married", the Cardinal Patriarch said that "it must be recognized that if admitting married men resolves one problem, it creates others just as serious."

"A married priest", he said, "has the duty to look after his wife and family, ensuring his children receive a good education and overseeing their entry into society. ... Another difficulty facing a married priest arises if he does not enjoy a good relationship with his parishioners; his bishop cannot transfer him because of the difficulty of transferring his whole family.

He noted that "married priests have perpetuated the faith among people whose difficult lives they shared, and without them this faith would no longer exist."

"On the other hand," he said, "celibacy is the most precious jewel in the treasury of the Catholic Church,"

It should be pointed out that the Maronite Catholic Church, in respect of priestly celibacy practiced by the Latin Church, only sends celibate priests to serve outside of Lebanon. Our pastor is a celibate priest and missionary, and member of a monastic community.

Once this information had been conveyed, the visiting RC caught on very quickly, saying he had never considered these other aspects and the ramifications they would have on a local parish. For the most part, here in the US, parish communities are much smaller than their Latin Rite counterparts. We can barely support a celibate priest, much less one that is married with children.

Irenaeus of New York said...

I certainly hope the discipline is maintained. It has done a lot of good for the Church.

Pat said...

I think the benefits of having a married priest class outweigh the detriments.

Deacon David Oatney said...

Father, thank you for your defense of clerical celibacy. As an Aspirant to the permanent diaconate in the Diocese of Knoxville, I have come to appreciate the value of celibacy for priests and to confront the reality that I may be called on to embrace celibacy if anything happens to my wife. I agree completely that those who sing the siren song of "married priests, married priests, married priests!" have never experienced what it is like to have married ministers, as those of us who are former Protestants are well aware...nor do many of those who say these things ponder what the Scriptures say.

Your discussion of Father Dan Shuh reminds memory may be failing me here, but I may have been at your ordination. Were you ordained with Father Larry Gearhardt?

Fr Martin Fox said...


Yes, I was ordained with Father Larry Gearhart, in 2003.

Best wishes on your vocation to the diaconate! Thank you for answering the call!

Deacon David Oatney said...

Father, I am a poor and completely unworthy servant, in dire need of a quadruple dose of humility. Pray for me. If the bishop doesn't run me out on a rail, I'll be a candidate for ordination as of October 12...I'll be "on track" to be ordained in the spring of 2016.

I was indeed at your ordination. I was there in the company of Father Cy Middendorf, SM, and Father Chris Rohmiller. Father Chris has entered Eternal Life, and I think Father Cy has as well, but I am not entirely sure. He was at Mercy Sienna in Dayton last time I knew his whereabouts. I was not aware until I read your post that Father Dan Shuh has also entered Eternal Life. I will pray for him.