Will Married Priests Solve the Vocations Problem?

The Dangers and Challenges of Changing the Church's Discipline

Rome, (Zenit.org) Father Dwight Longenecker | 11163 hits

Married priests? I am one. As a former Anglican minister, I have been ordained as a Catholic priest under a special measure called the Pastoral Provision. Through this process a married man who has been ordained in the Anglican (and sometimes Lutheran and Methodist churches) is granted a dispensation from the vow of celibacy in order to be ordained as a Catholic priest. 

Therefore I am frequently asked, “Father, you are so good with the children, and you understand marriage first hand. Don’t you think the church should allow priests to marry?”

First of all there are some distinctions to be made. Celibacy for priests is a discipline of the church, not a doctrine. That is why exceptions can be made and the rule could be changed.
However, if it is changed that doesn’t mean that priests can be married. The Church continues to uphold the fine and ancient tradition of priestly celibacy and a priest has taken a vow of celibacy which is life long and cannot be broken. 

The Eastern Orthodox discipline is that married men may be ordained, but priests may not marry. In other words, if you’re already married you may be considered for ordination, but if you’re an unmarried priest you may not marry. This would seem to be in accord with St Paul’s instructions to single men that they “remain as he is” (I Cor. 7.25-27) and his instructions to Timothy on the other hand, that bishops and deacons should be the husband of one wife.(I Tim. 3) That is to say men who are already married to only one woman (he forbids polygamy) may be considered worthy of ordination. It is the discipline of the Western Church that clerics are celibate, but it is a discipline which could be changed. Paul himself says in I Cor. 7.25 that his opinion that the unmarried remain so is not mandated from the Lord, and implies that it could be changed. Should it be changed? Should we allow married men to be ordained? 

It would certainly seem, at first glance, to solve a lot of problems, not only in the developed countries where, arguably, the mandatory vow of celibacy is one of the greatest deterrents to increased vocations, but it would also be a great help in Africa where celibacy is culturally unheard of. It might also help to solve some problems of the modern priesthood in the West. So many of our priests are isolated and alone and a huge number of problems surround the men who struggle with celibacy. So is the answer to allow married men to be ordained?

Not necessarily. Having married priests would certainly help the vocations crisis, and married men might relate better to married people. However, believing that married priests are the answer assumes that they are mature, happily married men. With a bit of reflection we can all see that marriage in and of itself does not automatically make a man mature, self giving and happy. 

In my experience of married clergy in both the Evangelical Churches and the Anglican Church marriage is not the magic bullet for the lack of vocations. Having married clergy will not necessarily solve the vocations crisis, nor will it necessarily improve the priestly ministry, and it certainly won’t be the solution to the priestly sex abuse problem.

Remember married men are not perfect. Married clergymen are often workaholics. Many married clergymen are immature. Some  married clergymen have sexual problems just like celibate men do. Married clergymen have drink problems. Married clergymen struggle with porn and same sex attraction and abuse children. When a clergy marriage breaks down it is usually disastrous and scandalous and the hurt and pain ripple right through the whole church. I don’t mean to paint a horrible picture of married clergy–just reminding people that it’s not all quite as happy and wonderful as they seem to think.

There are other practical problems. Catholics say they want married clergy, but do they want to pay for them? As a married man with a family I get by because I earn an extra income through my writing and speaking. In addition to this my wife runs her own business. Not all married priests and their families can do this. 

When it comes to the financial aspects of having married priests many Catholics who are in favor of married priests forget that a young priest and his wife will be living by all the teachings of the Catholic Church. That means they will not be using artificial contraception. If they’re young and fertile they will have a large family. Do Catholics really want to provide a rectory and the income for a family of 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11 or 12? It’s not really cheaper by the dozen.

These questions are only part of a larger and very complicated matter. Before anyone changes the existing discipline every angle and possibility needs to be considered. The complex situation of the church in the developing world needs to be taken into account as much as the demands in the wealthy West.

Yes, there are problems with celibacy for priests. Believe me, there will be equal or greater problems if we have married clergy.

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Fr Dwight Longenecker’s latest book is The Romance of Religion--Fighting for Goodness, Truth and Beauty. Visit his blog, browse his books and be in touch at www.dwightlongenecker.com Blog: Standing on My Head