Does Father (and Husband) Know Best?
by Dwight Longenecker
The publishers of Holy Spirit Interactive do not necessarily endorse the views presented in this article, which is offered here merely as some food for thought. - Editor
Catholics should stop asking whether we should have married priests or not. The fact is; we already have them. We often forget that over twenty Eastern Rite Catholic Churches have married clergy. Their priests are fully Catholic and fully married.
We also forget that the first pope—St Peter was married. Evidence is there in the Scriptures where Peter’s mother in law is healed (Mt. 8:14). Was Peter a widower—with a mother in law but no wife at the time? No, because St Paul remarks that Peter’s wife went with him on his missionary journeys, as did the wives of the other apostles. (I Corinthians 9:5)
In his instructions to Timothy and Titus St Paul assumes that married men may be ordained, saying that their households must be in order, and good examples of the Christian home. (I Tim. 3:12, Titus 1:6)
After the influx of married Anglican priests, the Catholic Church in England and Wales now has more married priests than any other province in the world. In my work with the St Barnabas Society offering assistance to convert clergy I have travelled the country meeting these men, listening to their stories and seeing how they have fit in.
There have been some natural tensions. A few celibate priests have expressed frustration. More powerfully, there has been some tension amongst the faithful—especially when a parish has lost an excellent priest who leaves to get married. However, the overwhelming experience is that the married former Anglicans have been accepted, honoured and appreciated by people in the pew. Most lay people I talk to don’t have a problem with married priests, and would accept the change readily.
Married Protestant ministers coming ‘home to Rome’ then being ordained is not just a British phenomenon. Faced with a new wave of converts from a whole range of denominations, Catholic bishops in the USA have pressed the Vatican on an important and interesting question: ‘If Anglican orders are “null and void”’ they argue, ‘why should their convert clergy be given special treatment? Why not ordain married former clergy of other denominations too?’
Rome has taken the point and now the Coming Home Network (a charity similar to the St Barnabas Society in this country) reports that after suitable training, married pastors from the Methodist, Lutheran, Pentecostal and Presbyterian traditions have all been ordained as Catholic priests.
While welcoming the generosity and flexibility with which Rome, the bishops and Catholic faithful have responded to convert clergy, one still has reservations. I am personally in favour of married priests, but we need to be clear headed and ask some serious questions. First of all, we should understand that, while married men might relieve the shortage of priests, ordaining married men will not solve the vocations crisis. The Protestant denominations have always had married clergy, but they are going through a crisis of vocations too.
Neither will married priests solve the clergy sex abuse problem. Statistically, married men are more likely to abuse children than celibate priests. In fact, rather than solving clergy sex problems, a whole new raft of sexual problems will be introduced. A church that has married clergy has to deal with marriage breakdowns, adultery, divorce, and family crises, and in the present moral climate the next question will be whether homosexual priests might not openly take a ‘partner’ as they do in the Anglican Church.
There is another problem with married priests that I have never heard anyone mention: it’s Humane Vitae. We must presume that a married Catholic priest will be faithful to the church’s teaching in all things mustn’t we? If that is so, there must be no artificial contraception in the presbytery, and if that is the case the presbytery may soon need a costly extension. Children are not ‘cheaper by the dozen.’ We might want married priests, but are we willing to welcome all the priest’s children to the parish?
On the other hand, a big family in the presbytery could be a fantastic gift to the church. We are pro-life. Why not let the presbytery be a pro-life statement? I know from my experience in the Anglican and Free Churches that a young pastor with a committed wife and young family can really set a parish on fire. Their radiant Christian example could inspire young families to live out the faith to the full. The love, youthful vigour and involvement in the everyday ups and downs of family life make the priest and his wife approachable and much loved by all in the parish.
One hears lots of laypeople calling for married clergy, but are Catholics willing to give sacrificially to support married men with large families? It is certainly possible. We only have to look to our Free Church brothers and sisters to see that any moderately sized congregation can easily support a married man and his family. All that is required is for each family to give between £5.00 - £10.00 per week to their church. Despite enthusiasm for married priests, I doubt whether most Catholics would consider giving that much to their local church.
More importantly, such a red-blooded type of priesthood would require a revolution amongst the existing leadership. Could a caste of celibate priests and bishops really endorse such a model of priesthood? Could this type of ministry (which is taken for granted by most other Christians) actually work in the Catholic Church? Would our leaders ever have the imagination and vision to see that this might be a positive way forward? Would they be willing to make the sacrifices necessary to enable such an experiment to take place? I think not. In my experience, Catholic clergy, for all their wonderful gifts, are not strong in the imagination department.
If we are to have married clergy at all we must expect a more moderate vision. That is why the Cardinal’s statement last week in his Independent interview was so careful and realistic. The Cardinal was headlined as being in favour of married priests, but he is not in favour of priests being allowed to marry. He is not even advocating the Eastern Orthodox tradition in which young married men may be ordained while those who are celibate remain as they are. Instead he is cautiously calling for the ordination of older married men whose families are grown up.
This option has many things to commend it. Firstly, it takes advantage of the large number of men who are willing and able to serve the church in retirement or early retirement. These men would come to the priesthood with a wealth of wisdom and experience in the world. They would bring skills from the workplace and marketplace to enliven a sometimes institutionalised and narrow priesthood.
Secondly, the Cardinal’s vision fits with Scripture. St Paul’s instructions in I Timothy and Titus indicate that the married candidate for ordination must have a solid marriage. By ordaining older men, whose marriages are proven to be stable we would be gaining good role models for the younger generation of husbands and fathers. This wise way forward would avoid many of the pitfalls surrounding young marriages and all the distracting problems of a marriage relationship that is going through growing pains. Experienced married priests could be wise confessors and expert marriage counsellors.
Thirdly, ordaining older married men echoes St Paul’s instructions that the man’s family be a credit to him and not a shame. A candidate for the priesthood would not have to have saints for children, but if his children are older, and have turned out fairly well, then they will be an example of the man’s maturity, wisdom and ability to take responsibility.
Fourth, the presence of a few older married men would not threaten the existing norm of celibacy. The married men with their gifts and experience would complement the important and still dominant ministry of celibate clergy. It would also echo the balanced ministry of the early church where we find both married and celibate clergy functioning together.
Finally, by ordaining older married men, the church won’t have such a financial burden. An older man, coming from a lifetime’s work, may have an adequate pension for both him and his wife. The church will be able to employ and house him at a reasonable rate.
Some months ago I led a weekend retreat for a diocesan group of deacons and their wives. I was hugely impressed by their love of the church, their learning, their wide range of professional skills and their desire to serve God. These were mature, prayerful men with love in their hearts, shrewd minds and a good sense of humour. They valued their call to the diaconate. Not all of them felt a call to the priesthood, but some did.
If I read the Cardinal aright, these are the sort of men we could ordain tomorrow. If we did the whole church would be richer for it.
E-mail this article to a friend
Rev. Dwight Longenecker was ordained through the Pastoral Provision in December 2006 and serves as chaplain to St. Joseph’s Catholic School in Greenville, South Carolina, and as weekend assistant in the parish of St. Mary’s, Greenville. He is the author of ten books on conversion and the Catholic Faith. Check his website
to discover more about his articles and books. This article first appeared in Crisis Magazine
. All rights reserved.