National Catholic Register

Commentary

On Priests, Marriage and the Sacraments

In just over one month I will be ordained a Catholic priest. My wife will be in the front row.

BY DWIGHT LONGENECKER

December 3-9, 2006 Issue | Posted 11/29/06 at 11:00 AM

 

In just over one month I will be ordained a Catholic priest. My wife will be in the front row. My oldest son will be an altar server. My daughter and younger sons will present my priestly vestments as part of the ordination rite.

Since I was a married Anglican priest when I became a Catholic, the Church allows me to be dispensed from the vow of celibacy. Remember, celibacy is a discipline of the Church and not a doctrine. This exception is processed through a special office set up to deal with each case as it arises.

When a married former Episcopalian or Anglican is given permission to marry, is Rome changing the rule about priestly celibacy? No. These few exceptions prove the rule. Those of us who are given “special treatment” are not pushing for clergy to marry or for the Church to ordain married men. The tradition of priestly celibacy is the norm in the Roman Church, and none of us wishes to campaign for a change to that discipline.

However, the presence of married clergy through this exception (as well as their presence in the various Uniate churches) does raise some interesting questions. They are questions that I ponder as I face a life within the Catholic priesthood while being married with a young family. The questions are practical, theological and spiritual.

When considering married priests, most people think only about the practical problems one way or the other. They point out that married men have a wife and children to support. Bishops have to find a suitable post that will provide a salary for a married man. Usually this means he will serve as a chaplain of some sort. He and his family have to be housed and provided with necessary insurance coverage.

As priests, the married men must follow Church teaching and set an example to their flock in all matters. This means they would not use artificial contraception. If the man is young and he and his wife are fertile, the diocese and the local church must be willing to support not just a neat suburban family with two or three children, but a large Catholic family. Can the Church support such large families? With such a large family, can the man really be devoted to the priesthood as he should be?

There are other practical problems that are not so joyful.

Is the Church ready to deal with the question of clergy marital breakdown and divorce? Who will support the widows of clergy? Is the Church ready to provide Catholic education for the large families of married men? While these are real practical concerns, they are red herrings in the larger debate. Non-Catholic denominations accept all of these practical challenges of clergy families and have done so for years. Furthermore, there are many practical problems to clerical celibacy, but this does not mean that we abandon the discipline.

The practical problems of having married priests are not the primary concern. What interests me more are the theological concerns.

When we have married priests, what are we saying about the sacrament of holy orders and the sacrament of matrimony?

The traditional theological understanding is that the celibate priest is “married to the Church.” In an exclusive union, the celibate has given all in loving service to Christ and his Church. This view of the celibate calling does not negate or denigrate Christian marriage. Instead, it reinforces and supports the sacrament of marriage because it reveals to the married the self-sacrificial love and the ultimate union with Christ that is to be at the heart of their nuptial union.

Conversely, those who are married remind the priest of the daily, nitty-gritty demands of the total commitment of love. When a marriage is fulfilled with the gift of children, that gift reminds the celibate priest of all the spiritual children who are born again through his ministry.

In the whole life of the Church, the total consecration of celibate priesthood and the total consecration of marriage complement one another neatly, but can the two ways be held together by one man? How can he give himself totally to both priesthood and marriage? It is impossible — and that is why the Church expects clerical celibacy as the norm. The only way forward is to see that the married priest’s self giving still has to be total; the difference is that his total self giving is expressed through the demands of two complementary commitments.

This will make for real tensions.

When I am ordained, the pressures and demands of the priestly calling will impinge on my family life, and vice versa. There will be times when I will have to say No to a request for priestly ministry, but there will also be times when I will have to say No to some duty at home.

My family and I will need the support and understanding of the community in which we minister. The tensions will be real but I believe that, within the tensions, there will be real growth in grace for all of us. If the theological theory is true, then the self-giving that exists within our marriage should enlighten, inform and strengthen the self-giving that is demanded within the priesthood — and the self-giving of the priesthood should be a constant reminder of the self-sacrifice that is demanded every day within marriage.

Finally, there is a spiritual dimension to a married man serving as priest. In Ephesians 5, St. Paul speaks of marriage. He says, “This is a mystery … but I am speaking of Christ and his Church.”

Each person who is married enters, by that sacrament, a mystery that takes him or her into the heart of the life of the Church. Every priest, through his identification with Christ in holy orders, also enters into a mysterious union with Christ at the very heart of the Church. I hope that, in my own spiritual experience, being both married and being a priest will not be simply a canonical exception to an ecclesiastical rule — but that both sacraments may spiritually work together in my life and the life of my family to draw us ever deeper into the eternal mystery of Christ.

I felt truly humbled and unworthy the day I got married. I feel even more humbled and unworthy as I face priestly ordination. The adventure our family is about to embark on is unusual. The road ahead is full of pitfalls and problems. It is our prayer that this unusual way forward will be blessed with an unusually strong gift of grace.

Only through that gift will we be able to ensure that marriage and holy orders strengthen one another in our lives rather than being a tension that destroys both. As this grace is given, it is our prayer that my priestly ministry will be an unusual gift to both the sacred priesthood and the family life of our Catholic community.

Dwight Longenecker will

be ordained Dec. 14

in Greenville, South Carolina.

He’s online at dwightlongenecker.com.