Married Priests: The Deeper Issue

A recent interview given by Pope Francis to the German publication Die Zeit has caused alarm once more, stirring the ashes of settled controversies and demonstrating how ineffective the press interview actually is as a medium of papal communication. A quick example suffices. Here is the brief but highlighted take that The Week‘s mobile app took on the interview:


From that accurate quote from the Die Zeit interview The Week was able to distill the meaning down to a most astonishing Pope Rejects Papal Infallibility! byline. Of course Pope Francis talking about himself as an individual man, not about his office and its character. Such essential distinctions are lost on the media, and it is hardly Pope Francis’ fault that The Week is either ignorant or maliciously manipulative. The point is that the mainstream secular media is not fit to receive immediate comment from the pope.

Another sore point re-aggravated is the issue of married priests in the Latin-rite Church. Pope Francis raised the idea of ordaining married men to serve in remote communities. In the video report on CNN Delia Gallagher did at least make the crucial distinction between ordaining married men as priests as opposed to allowing priests to marry. “Voluntary celibacy is not a solution” is indeed a point that Pope Francis went on to make.

It would be no great surprise if this adventurous but not ridiculous idea was not seized upon by certain liberals to push the agenda yet for allowing priests to marry, which is to say, allowing men already priests to revert to optional celibacy. Pope Francis has ruled it out but it is clear in other situations that only some words will be heard and passed on by the mainstream media. Pope Francis was actually proposing the concept of viri probati, older married men who have proved themselves discreet and fit for a limited ministry in a remote or deprived area.

However, apart from the theological issues involved concerning the priest as alter Christus, of supreme importance though they are, there are other more mundane factors to be taken into account. We might posit such questions as:

  • Would such priests and their limited ministry end up creating a two-tier priesthood; the fully-trained and fully-ministering “professional” clergy, and a cadre of lesser-formed, functional extraordinary clergy?
  • Would such a division imply that priesthood is a little more than a job, and that the functional aspect of priesthood would be privileged over priesthood as a vocation and distinct lifestyle?
  • Would such a functional, extraordinary cadre of priests merely be a band-aid on a wound of far greater size and gravity: the decline of priestly numbers since the time of the Second Vatican Council? If the causes of this decline were identified and addressed effectively, would such emergency measures ever need to be considered?

However, of far greater concern is the prospect of a renewed push for voluntary celibacy and the consequent freedom for priests to marry. A discussion sparked by a question by Professor Stephen Bullivant on his Facebook page has prompted me to consider what the deeper issues might be. No doubt some of the proponents of voluntary celibacy are moved by a genuine concern for the Church and for the clergy. Others, no doubt, are also moved more by the desire to shape the Church according to their own needs, tastes and ideology.

The secular world would have us believe that a life without sexual intercourse is somehow lacking, even unhealthy, and mandatory celibacy is identified as a root cause of the abuse crisis. We have all heard this said so I will not bother to find links to such assertions.

However, given the fact that most abuse occurs in the family rather than the presbytery, what role does celibacy really play in the abuse crisis? Is the issue perhaps more about the selection of candidates for the priesthood and the formation they received (or did not receive)? Or is there an even more fundamental issue?

Equally doubtful is the claim that a life without sex and a sexual partner, be it spouse or otherwise, is inherently unhealthy and dangerous. It is certainly challenging, especially in our sex-soaked world—but a demand too great? Moreover, given that a significant number of the abusive clergy are homosexual in orientation, marriage would not be of much use in addressing their particular needs and issues.

What is more certain is that marriage and priesthood are two very different states of life, different to the point their coexistence in one man verges on the impractical if not incompatible. That is a sweeping statement that some may take exception to, or feel that it implies a judgment on the married clergy we already have, especially among our Anglican convert clergy. But canon law at its best and most detailed, in all its caveats and amendments, is the attempt to draw the grace and fruit out of the complicated lives that human beings so often make for themselves. The exceptions prove the rule.

The real issue behind the perceived need for married priests is in fact a confusion of issues. For so many who clamour for priestly marriage the real issue is not sex or sacrament, but loneliness and the need for another who cares for them in a deeper and more individual way, having a regard for them as unique human beings. In other words, married or not, we all have a need to be loved and appreciated for ourselves. As Victoria Seed pointed out in the Facebook discussion, even in marriage can there be loneliness, and no doubt also a lack of appreciation of one’s individuality.

Perhaps the love and regard we crave the most is that of the one—spouse or friend—who knows us thoroughly and still loves us. To be held in high esteem for being Father, or Brother, or Sister, or teacher, or colleague, is one thing; to be as highly esteemed, or more, by those who know us beyond our public or professional personæ, is a far richer gift.

Marriage is not the panacea for child abuse, nor for clerical loneliness and need for love. Nor is a married clergy the panacea for the shortage of clergy faced in so many parts of the Church. Priests, as much as anyone else, need the benefit of some truly deep and supportive friendships, and have the need to be appreciated as individuals on a deeper and more personal level than the appreciation they might receive for their priesthood. The Church has to address the real cause of the decline in the normal recruitment to the priesthood, rather than search out quick-fixes that treat (ineffectually I would venture to say) the symptoms.

A real human formation needs to be included in priestly training. This is not to envisage the well-meaning reformer who confuses healthy human formation with undermining the moral teaching of the Church and its time-tested general prudence in how it expects priests to interact with the laity as individuals. Rather it needs to explore and address the genuine human need each of us has to be appreciated in a more than, shall we say, generic way. The failure to meet such a need has led to disastrous priests. It has also led to disastrous spouses, since marriage is not infallibly the solution to this basic human need.

We certainly do not need the mainstream secular media to be making the running in this debate.


It strikes me that someone may raise the issue of God’s love for the individual.

No one knows us completely. There is no other human person who knows the full extent of our own personality, our deepest fears and shames, the dark areas within us that even we seldom dare to tread. But, of course, God knows the full extent of us as individuals: how he made us and what we have made of ourselves by his gift of life. And he still loves us! Yes. One might ask, sincerely or cynically, should not this be enough?

Yes and no. The fact of God’s love even for the worst sinner (a love which is not to be confused with indulgence) is not something we all necessarily experience, and certainly not all of the time, save for a handful of blessed souls. Rather, for saint and sinner, this divine love born of perfect knowledge is inevitably mediated through our fellow creatures, our fellow human beings. Which brings us back to the point…

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  1. “impractical” & “incompatible” – whilst I endorse your practical objections and believe the abandonment of compulsory celibacy would be a great mistake, I wonder whether these terms can only be true at the level of practicality, having regard to the manner in which the secular priesthood is lived out in certain cultural contexts. If you mean them to be understood on the level of the Sacramental economy, you might have to deal with the objection that in the Eastern Catholic Churches, this does not appear to be their position.

    1. Not the eastern position, I agree. However, the Latin Church has developed a rich theology of priesthood and when one removes one plank the whole structure becomes more fragile. Pax.

  2. The first married priest I came across was prior to VII & he ministered in the Philippines. I was astounded as we had always believed that priests were celibate. Then VII took place & by way of introducing lay Readers & Extraordinary Ministers of the Eucharist etc. the role of the priest greatly diminished. False ecumenism also meant the discarding of the Liturgy of Ages together with a dumbing down of Confession to half-an-hour before Mass instead of twice a week for approximately two hours. Also Holy Matrimony got the knock as cohabitation crept in without any protestation by our clergy from the altar &, of course, the Last Rites were not considered necessary at all for the departing soul so priests were relieved not to be called out during the night for such an assignment. All in all the priesthood became a very laid-back existence. The day to day administration was now being done by lay people & the duration of the Holy Mass was greatly shortened as the Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion speeded up the distribution process.

    Also, VII introduced the new concept of a guaranteed salary for CC clergy which meant they didn’t have to depend so much on donations for Masses, Funerals, Marriages etc. so consequently there was a considerable drop-off in same. The use of Holy Water also went out of fashion, as well as the blessing of new homes, cars & various sacramentals. The confraternities also took a knock as did local charities/fund raisers. The whole nature of the priesthood changed out of recognition & lost the dignity & status it once had. Of course, it wasn’t the only ‘vocation’ that went by the board – the teaching & medical professions also were badly hit by the new politically correct & ecumenically minded religious & secular leaders that were foisted upon us, so now there is a real disaster within society to-day that only God Himself can fix. Going back to the root of the problem (VII) would be a good start however.

  3. For so many who clamour for priestly marriage the real issue is not sex or sacrament, but loneliness and the need for another who cares for them in a deeper and more individual way, having a regard for them as unique human beings. In other words, married or not, we all have a need to be loved and appreciated for ourselves. As Victoria Seed pointed out in the Facebook discussion, even in marriage can there be loneliness, and no doubt also a lack of appreciation of one’s individuality.

    Someone pointed out on another discussion that, whereas in the old days even diocesan priests tended to live two or three to a presbytery, the priest shortage means that nowadays there’s usually only one, and the risk of loneliness is consequently much higher. Obviously more vocations would help solve this, although in the meantime I’m not really sure what we can do.

    One might ask, sincerely or cynically, should not this be enough?

    Genesis 2.18 suggests not.

  4. Yes. All that is said is true but at the end of the day the RC Church could not afford married priests unless they work full time at another job and are only priests at the weekend. Very few parishes in the UK could afford to keep a married man and his family in the job.


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