Jennifer Fitz is the author of Classroom Management for Catechists from Liguori Publications, and a contributor to numerous Catholic books, magazines, and online publications. Find her online at JenniferFitz.com.
Do priests have “no credibility” when it comes to marriage ministry? Cardinal Kevin Farrell reportedly asserted as much at a recent gathering of laity. Lacking more information and the full text of his comments, I’m not here to pick a fight over this particular talk. What I would like to do is address the common misconception, widely held by laypeople, that priests are inherently incompetent for marriage ministry. On the contrary: The priesthood is an excellent school for understanding the tribulations of married life.
What Can a Celibate Man Know About Marriage?
The Argument from Celibacy is both the most common and the weakest of objections to priestly involvement in marriage ministry. On the face of it, it seems reasonable: How is someone who is not married and who is pledged to continence able to give advice on all this stuff pertaining to sex? What the argument overlooks is that the bulk of marital difficulties about sex are specifically about not having sex.
So yes, let’s clarify: If a man is seeking practical advice on the marriage act itself, we are firmly hopeful Fr. Chaste has nothing whatsoever of personal experience to share on the technicalities of the topic. (Tip for the gentlemen: This is something you and your wife need to work out together. Don’t ask at the sports bar either, thanks.)
If, on the other hand, a couple is struggling with the necessity of periodic or long-term abstinence, that’s a topic on which the average priest ought to be fairly expert.
Is his experience exactly the same? No, it is not. We are, again, hopeful that Fr. Chaste knows very little about what it is to lie down in bed at night with a woman he loves passionately, and how difficult abstinence can be in that situation. But Father probably does know very keenly what it is to feel sexual desire and sexual temptation, and to be in a situation where acting on that temptation is entirely possible.
If you want advice on how to not have as much sex as you’d prefer, but still be a happy, fulfilled person who doesn’t bite anyone’s head off, that’s an area all priests should have ample credibility to address.
What Does a Priest Know About Sacrificial Love?
In the face of other marital challenges, the priestly vocation is again eerily similar. Did you have to get up in the middle of the night to attend to someone’s personal emergency? The priests I know get those calls and answer them.
Are your kids constantly vying for your attention and driving you positively bonkers with their overwhelming needs? Do you have to find a way to lovingly persist in a relationship with someone who is cantankerous, nasty or downright horrid to you? Are you stuck in life circumstances that you wouldn’t have chosen, but faithfulness to your vocation requires you to endure?
Priests get opportunities to do that too.
There are differences, of course. You vowed lifelong fidelity to your spouse, binding yourself to a single person until death do you part. Your priest either promised or vowed obedience not to a specific person but to an office. Your spouse’s personality changes over time, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the much worse; your priest’s superior likewise changes, both in personality and in person, and yet he is called to remain faithful to his vocation.
It isn’t that priests know exactly what it is like to be married, any more than married people know exactly what it’s like to be a priest. But the two vocations have so much in common that to live one well is to have a wealth of insight into what is required of the other.
The Balance in Marriage Ministry
This is not to suggest that priests should take on sole responsibility for marriage ministry. A priest who thinks it’s his job to do everything around the parish is doing it wrong. Preparing young people for marriage and then supporting married couples through the phases of their life together is a responsibility that is shared by parents, clergy and lay persons.
In my parish right now it looks like this:
- Parents rear their children in the faith, model the vocation of marriage, and guide their children in the early years of vocation discernment.
- Parish catechists and/or parish school staff (almost entirely lay people) support that formation.
- Young adults have a young-adult-led support group in which the resident seminarian or parochial vicar is involved.
- Engaged couples receive extensive marriage preparation from the pastor, who has the theological and pastoral experience needed to provide solid, practical, worthwhile preparation.
- A deacon and his wife lead a support group for newly-married couples, oriented toward getting through the challenges of the first five years of marriage.
- Experienced married couples working with the resident seminarian or parochial vicar provide support programs for married couples with children.
It spreads out from there, but that’s the kernel of it. The involvement of our priests is extremely helpful. The priests (or seminarians) bring to the table not just their theological knowledge, which is crucial, but also their own experience in answering their vocations.
Marriage is where priests come from. It is normal and natural that priests would, in turn, have something to give back.