Should the Catholic Church have married priests?
Many people are
surprised to find that the Catholic Church already has, and I’m one of
In the early 1980s, Pope St. John Paul II established the Pastoral
Provision, allowing married men who had been ordained in the Anglican or
Lutheran churches (and were subsequently received into full communion
with the Catholic Church) to receive a dispensation from the vow of
celibacy allowing them to be ordained as Catholic priests.
The dispensation from the vow of celibacy is permitted because
celibacy for priests is a discipline of the Church, not a doctrine.
Doctrines cannot be altered.
I received my dispensation from Pope Benedict XVI and, with my wife
Alison and our four children in attendance, was ordained in 2006.
served first as a high school chaplain and assistant priest in a parish.
I was then asked to be the administrator of a small parish.
After ten years serving as a married Catholic priest, I can report on the practical pros and cons.
There are historical and theological reasons to retain the discipline
of celibacy for priests, and there are historical and theological
reasons to change this discipline. This article is not about those
arguments either way. It is simply a report on the practicalities.
What Alison and I have learned is that for every practical reason for married priests, there is a counter balancing reason not to have married priests.
The first area of concern is time management. “How can a married man
also be a priest?” people ask. “Our priests are available 24-7 to serve
God and his church.”
Not really. Priests take vacations and days off. Although they are
available for emergencies, most priests work relatively set hours.
My work as a Catholic priest is no more demanding time-wise than many
other men who work irregular hours. Doctors, nurses, fire fighters,
policemen, truck drivers, soldiers and many more are away from home and
family with more difficult schedules than I have.
are busy, but no more than other professionals in demanding jobs.
There are other concerns that involve not just time management, but commitment.
St. Paul said that men should remain single like he was because a
celibate man can be concerned about pleasing God only, but a married man
has to please his wife.
Therefore, what about stresses on the marriage
because of the priest’s commitment to serving God? Doesn’t the wife feel
like she takes second place?
I remember hearing an Anglican priest’s wife complain that her husband loves God more than he loves her.
“I could compete with another woman” she cried, “But I can’t compete with Almighty God!”
It takes a strong, independently-minded woman to be a priest’s wife.
Furthermore, the close pastoral relationships that develop between a
priest and his people can lead to jealousy, extramarital affairs and
divorce. Those who advocate for married priests had better be prepared
for unhappy priests’ wives, marriage breakdown and how to provide for
priests and their wives when the marriage ends in divorce.
They must also consider how to provide for priests’ widows and
dependent children. The typical diocesan infrastructure has no way to
cope with such needs.
While these difficulties are real, it is also true that his wife is
the priest’s greatest supporter and help. When the marriage is strong
and faith binds them together, the married priest and his wife and
family provide a shining example of Christian marriage. The priest’s
wife is by his side as a sounding board, a critic and a helper.
Very often, when I come home after a long day, I thank God for the
blessing of a wife as my friend and companion and I offer a prayer for
my fellow priests who have accepted the discipline of celibacy and
return to an empty home. They have made a great sacrifice and I have a
huge respect for them.
When most Catholics hear I am married they say, “Its about time. I
think all our priests should be married.”
That’s when I remind them that
a married man with a family will require not only a large house, but
school fees, orthodontics, college and other expenses.
“You want married priests? Are you willing to pay an extra twenty five dollars a week to help support him?”
It’s amazing how suddenly their enthusiasm for married priests evaporates!
Finances are a real concern for married priests.
Rome stipulates that
before a married man is accepted for ordination, he is guaranteed an
adequate income to support his family. My first post was as a school
chaplain. The school provided me with a teacher-level salary.
Now that I’m in the parish, I do not take more than the diocesan guidelines allow for parish priests.
Money can be tight.
However, on the plus side, once the children are
grown up, the priest’s wife can get a job to contribute to the family
income, and although the priest’s salary might not be very much, most
priests in developed countries will receive housing, utilities, health
insurance and benefit from having job security and retirement benefits.
Is the salary low?
Yes, but I can think of a good number of married
men and their families who would be very happy to work for a lower
salary if they had housing, job security, a rewarding job, and the other
fringe benefits most dioceses provide.
Finally, what about children? Many people seem to forget that a
priest and his wife will be faithful to the church’s teaching. That
means they will not be using artificial contraception.
If they are young
and fertile, is the parish ready to accept the responsibility of
feeding and housing a dozen clergy kids?
Many parishes would find it difficult, and a large family would put further strain on the priest, his wife and his parish.
On the other hand, what a fantastic opportunity for a parish to
remember the teachings of the Church and witness the blessing of
A young priest with a large family would be a source of life
and energy for the parish, and the whole community would learn to live
by faith and give more generously to support the gift of children and
A rectory full of clergy kids could be a source of abundant blessing.
Perhaps more couples would see the priest’s example and be open to
Parish schools would be full again, and there would be
more vocations to the priesthood and religious life.
I’m aware that my experiences are those of just one priest in
affluent America. The situation would be very different in other parts
of the world. I don’t pretend that our experiences offer the last word
on the subject.
So should we have married priests?
For every “pro” there’s a “con,”
and when you weigh up the historical and theological reasons for the
discipline of celibacy, I think it’s better to maintain the status quo.
In saying that, there is another option.
Rather than allowing all
priests to marry, the Vatican could delegate to individual bishops’
conferences the authority to consider some older married men for
As most of us are living longer, active lives, there are many married
men who are financially secure and whose children have grown up who
could well serve the Church as mature priests.
But that’s just my opinion. The decision itself is above my pay grade.