Married priests

Father Tom McMichael and his wife Karin

Last week I wrote about the idea of Women Priests (bottom line: could never happen). This week’s topic is married priests. That is a totally different kettle of fish!

Priest celibacy is a matter of discipline whereas the male priesthood is a matter of doctrine. The requirement for priestly celibacy has changed over time and could change again. It is completely permissible for faithful Catholics to discuss the pros and cons of it and to respectfully hold personal viewpoints which differ from the current practice.

There is a lot of discussion among the laity on this topic. In fact, we have married priests right now. Some Eastern Catholic Churches allow married men to become priests. In those cases they may not remarry if their wife dies and only unmarried men may be ordained bishops.

Latin Rite Catholics also have married priests. This is done via papal dispensation only for married priests converting from Anglicanism and similar situations. One of the many blogs I closely follow is by Father Dwight Longenecker, an Anglican priest convert. The purpose of these dispensations is not to generally introduce non-celibate priests, but as one-time actions to heal schisms. The recently announced Anglican Ordinariate makes use of this.

While there are some married priests as described above, it is a rarity among the 410,000 priests worldwide (40,000 in the US). I don’t know of any situation permitting a married bishop.

A vow of celibacy was not always required. It is generally believed that all the Apostles other than John were married. This is not really that surprising if you consider the time and circumstances. It is also possible that some Apostles may have left their families (see Luke 18:28-30).

Later as the early Church formed, celibacy became the norm. Paul was not married. In his letter to the Corinthians he said:

I should like you to be free of anxieties. An unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how he may please the Lord. But a married man is anxious about the things of the world, how he may please his wife, and he is divided.

I am telling you this for your own benefit, not to impose a restraint upon you, but for the sake of propriety and adherence to the Lord without distraction.

So then, the one who marries his virgin does well; the one who does not marry her will do better.

Further back, Jesus – the one true High Priest – spoke of celibacy as a gift:

He answered, “Not all can accept [this] word, but only those to whom that is granted. Some are incapable of marriage because they were born so; some, because they were made so by others; some, because they have renounced marriage for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Whoever can accept this ought to accept it.”

Celibacy was the norm in the early Church. In 305 it was explicitly addressed by the Council of Elvira (and again in 390 by the Council of Carthage).

Should priests now be allowed to marry? Some reasons given are: it would reduce the priest shortage, it would reduce temptations for priests to take scandalous actions and it would help priests be better counselors for the vocation of marriage. These are of course, “practical” not theological reasons. In my opinion, they are all false. Anglicans priests may be married and they have a similar shortage. It has been shown that celibacy has very little to do with the sex scandal. There are many areas in which people teach, coach or counsel but they themselves are not practitioners.

Looking only at the practical issues, I would say the biggest obstacle to married priests is that they simply do not have the time for a family. Were they to make the time necessary, they would have far less time for the work of the Church. More married priests would be necessary to accomplish the same service of fewer celibate priests.

Another practical issue that can not be avoided is cost. Not just because more would be needed than the equivalent celibate priests, but because their families would have to be supported. Certainly this can be done, but it would necessarily take money away from other important work.

To me the most important reason for celibacy is holiness. Our priests are 100% dedicated to the work of the Church. Their commitment and self-denial disciplines their body and spirit. We are deeply blessed to have these men who have answered their call to this vocation.

Finally, there is the vocation of deacon. They may be ordained if married (but may not marry or remarry once ordained). They too are a great blessing, may perform many of the functions of priests and also have a rigorous education. The one *big* difference is that they do not act in persona Christi consecrating the Eucharist or absolving sins (see Omnium in Mentem).

I have to admit that before I was Catholic, my thinking on priest celibacy was different. Now that I have a much better (yet far from complete) understanding of the vocations, sacraments and Church history I see this differently. If you feel so inclined, leave your thoughts in the comments.


  1. Wow! I'm surfing around the net and I see a picture of my good friend Fr. Tom! Fr. Tom is a great priest for our diocese and I'm excited to join him as a priest next year (I'm not married, though)!

    Celibacy is a great blessing for the Church, and one thing you don't mention is that it can model a certain type of freedom. As most people known, many people are enslaved to sexual desire in some way. A joyfully lived celibacy shows that they do not have to be enslaved by it. A friend once tole me that he couldn't use NFP because he can't abstain for 10 days. I called him on his BS and said, "If I can do it for a lifetime, you can do it for a week and a half." I love my celibacy, and although it is difficult to live sometimes, it really is my best witness of my faith to this culture.

  2. Pope Paul VI, in SACERDOTALIS CAELIBATUS, also said that the law of celibacy supports priests in their choice. These sort of boundaries are necessary; marriage has them. The law against polygamy helps a husband to remain faithful.

  3. Virginia Parcou Rodrigues says

    One does not have to be a priest to be celibate! This is an option chosen by many persons. However as to holiness and faithfulness celibacy a false gaurantee, especially proven in priestly celibacy.

    The Catholic Church seems to be fully sold on the idea of celibate priesthood ~~ resulting in often ridiculous stances such as paying exhorbitant fees to protect priests in sexual abuse Lawsuits, while treating priests who want to opt for marriage, as though they were criminal. These latter priests leave without so much as a thankyou-for your-years-of-Service!! One high profile priest had to wait 14 , yes 14 years for the Pope’s dispensation to get married. In the meanwhile the priest and his fiancee married in the Anglican Church. Their children were already teenagers when that Dispensation arrived. Obviously the Church wanted to engage in humiliating the good priest and his bride.

    The Church is throwing out courageous men from the ranks of the Clergy just to appease ……. What ???


    • Virginia, no one is forced to become a priest and thus not forced to be celibate. That is a choice. Those called to the vocation accept it and most strongly defend it. In fact, you may be surprised to learn that the few Latin Rite married priests generally support priestly celibacy.

      Celibacy is not intended as any sort of “guarantee”. It is rather a full and complete commitment to the vocation – one that is needed for many reasons. Celibacy is NOT related to the sex scandal. That is a myth and has has been conclusively shown to be unrelated. Note too that reforms have been extremely successful at addressing that terrible issue without any change in priestly celibacy.

      I know of no Catholic priest who waited 14 years for a dispensation to marry and am very doubtful. A Catholic priest would request and be granted laicization to leave the priesthood if they no longer felt called to their priestly vocation but to that of marriage.

      Perhaps the person you are referring to was not a Catholic but of some other Christian community, serving in a pastoral role and married. They certainly could convert to Catholicism but being married would be an impediment to entering the priesthood, as it properly is for all Catholics. To heal the wounds of schism, the Holy Father does consider dispensation in some of those special cases. No one has any right however to demand such. Many married convert pastors now serve the Church in non-ordained roles. Some also serve as deacons.

      The Church is NOT “throwing out” anyone in the priesthood who after years of discernment, enter the priesthood and remain faithful to their vows, freely made before God. All of us love and respect our priests and other religious who are have answered the call to serve our Lord’s Church.

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