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Five points regarding a married Roman priesthood

May 1, 2014

Not since the 16th century—and probably not since the 4th—has the question of married priests in the Roman Church been so widely considered. Hardy a day goes by without another voice questioning or another story challenging clerical celibacy. At least some of the controversy over celibacy is the result of, I have argued, recent Roman decisions (as opposed to Roman rhetoric) facilitating the ordination of tens of thousands of married men (including thousands to priesthood). But, whatever is driving the discussion, the Church must, sooner than later, decide which of two paths she will take regarding celibacy. Her decision now will probably settle the matter for many centuries, perhaps even till Jesus comes again.

Five points seem especially important to recall when discussing a Western married priesthood.

1. It is doctrinally, canonically, and historically certain that married men can be (validly) and may be (licitly) ordained as priests in the Roman Catholic Church.

2. It is disingenuous to portray calls for a married priesthood in the West as merely calls for “optional celibacy”. Celibacy is already optional for every Christian; there needs no law come from the Church to tell us that teachers, soldiers, dentists, truck-drivers, bankers, shoe salesmen, farmers, or priests, have the ‘option’ of being celibate. Of course they do. What is being proposed is the elimination of mandatory celibacy for Roman Catholic men seeking priestly orders. Nothing less.

3. The financial objections to a married priesthood are prudential in nature and as such are not persuasive against ordinations that are in principle possible. That said, however, I suspect the real expenses associated with married priests are considerably higher than many others seem to think; in addition, the financial complications associated with married priests generated some hard lessons under medieval canon law. I hope we’ll not need to relearn those lessons the hard way.

4. The present model of diocesan priesthood—a model that emerged over several centuries of presbyterates supplied, till recently, by copious vocations—assumes that every parish priest should be able to do everything that every other parish priest can do, and that if a given man can’t do everything his brothers (supposedly) can do he probably doesn’t have a “priestly vocation”. This ‘plenipotentiary profile’ of a priest imposes unrealistic demands on some men who are ordained and prevents some others from being fairly considered for orders. In contrast, the so-called “simplex priest” model, which disappeared after Vatican II, does not impose quasi-unlimited demands on all parish priests and could, I suggest, be reconsidered in its own right; it should certainly be reconsidered in any discussion of a married priesthood.

And now, about the elephant in the room.

5. Canon 277 requires all clergy in the West, including married clergy, to observe perfect and perpetual continence. Notwithstanding, however, more than fifteen centuries of unbroken attestation (and, I suggest, twenty centuries of conscious observance), this obligation has been nearly-completely forgotten in a hardly a generation. But neither this institutional amnesia nor the fact that no recently ordained married clergy and their spouses were sufficiently (nay, remotely) aware of the obligation so as to have given consent to it, suffices to abrogate the canon law of clerical continence or to obviate the profound Western tradition behind it. Now at this point, one can either pretend that this conflict between clerical life and law does not exist or one can deal with it.

I know, of course, that some think the clerical continence question has been resolved. They invoke a 2011 letter from the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts against the diaconal obligation of continence (a letter basically taking continence to be indistinguishable from celibacy). I have already explained why that dicasterial letter does not resolve this question for deacons and I shan’t repeat those arguments now.

But, no matter what one concludes about the continence obligation of married deacons, the PCLT letter does not even mention married priests! This is a crucial point: deacons are more closely bound to the altar than are laity, but priests are even more closely bound to the altar than are deacons and priests personally perform the sacerdotal Sacrifice. Even the most strenuous opponent of diaconal continence must concede, then, that the continence issue for priests is distinguishable from that of deacons, yet a near-universal refusal to admit even this simple point prevails. Inexplicable, that refusal.

For now, however, I write only to say that, in any discussion of a married clergy in the West, no matter what models of priestly ministry might be envisioned, the question of clerical continence must be authoritatively resolved; that resolution, moreover, whatever it might be, must be defensible on Christological, sacramental, canonical, and historical grounds.

That, or we can continue to pretend the question doesn’t exist.

Updated as of 29 Nov 2014, in light of the Brazilian bishops formally investigating the possibility of ordaining married men to priesthood. See also my “Kicking the can down the road” (18 nov 2014).

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