Why Married Priests Aren't the Answer

The Vatican's Synod of Bishops and the ongoing Apostolic Visitation of U.S. seminaries has piqued media speculation about the possibility of allowing married men to be ordained priests.

One participant in the synod, Australia's Cardinal George Pell, said last week that he did not favor this possibility. As a student for the priesthood, I agree. Celibacy is an asset for both practical and spiritual reasons. What's more, I am skeptical of the notion that married clergy is the miracle solution to the priest shortage. Here's why.

For starters, I reject the notion that the current crisis of vocations in the Catholic Church is rooted in the celibacy requirement. According to a 2004 USA Today article entitled “Protestant Churches Struggle to Fill Pulpits,” most mainline Christian denominations that allow married clergy are also facing serious recruitment challenges. A life of service to God is a hard sell for every denomination in a materialistic culture that touts six-figure salaries and fast cars as the benchmark of fulfillment.

But if the Catholic Church allowed priests to marry, there would be other complications as well. Father David Medow, 47, of the Diocese of Joliet, knows that first-hand. A former Lutheran pastor who converted to Catholicism in 1996, Father Medow received a dispensation from Rome to be ordained to the Catholic priesthood as a married man.

“It would fundamentally misunderstand the issue if, by allowing married priests, we would automatically ensure numbers sufficient to minister to the people of God,” Medow said. “To ordain married clergy is to trade one set of challenges for another.”

One of those challenges would be maintaining the delicate balance between work and family. Married clergy have made an ultimate promise and obligation to two different entities. According to Medow, the family almost always loses.

“My obligations in my parish work often take me away from time when I would prefer to be with kids. I can't go their ball games, or recitals or school plays,” Medow said.

A second challenge would be financial. Most priests in the United States earn a yearly salary in the neighborhood of $20,000, paid by donations from the collection basket.

Even if that number were to triple, what guarantee is there that droves of married men would leave higher paying jobs to line up at the seminary doors? And realistically, how many Catholics in the pews would be willing to triple their Sunday offerings?

If certain small but vocal Catholic groups want married priests, they have to be willing to put their money where their mouth is.

Third, the possibility of marital difficulties cannot be discounted. How will Catholics react if their parish priest is going through a divorce? To deny that such a thing would never happen is naïve, given the stress placed on the families of married clergy.

Finally, it is categorically false to link celibacy to the sexual abuse of minors, as if to say, “If only priests could marry, then there would be no more pedophiles.”

Sexual abuse is a tragic sin committed across the board by married and single people from all walks of life, though this heinous crime seems to make the front page only if the perpetrator is a Catholic priest.

It is a common misconception that priests are dissatisfied with celibacy and clamoring for change. In his 2004 book, Priests, Father Andrew Greeley noted that most priests surveyed are very happy as celibates, despite the fact that most in our pan-sexual American society look strangely upon their lifestyle.

But more than that, celibacy has value in and of itself for Catholic priests and nuns. It is not primarily a functional matter, adopted so that we can work longer hours. It has a spiritual dimension which is really the primary reason we in the Church regard it as a gift, not an onerous sacrifice.

For one, a celibate is a living sign here on Earth of how things will be in heaven (see Mark 12:25). Furthermore, celibacy is a sign of total dedication to Christ and to the people of God, and becomes therefore a motive for pastoral charity. Any priest or sister will tell you that lay people welcome them with an almost implicit trust and intimacy. As Father William Bausch of Trenton, N.J., put it, “I was a father of no one, yet father to everyone.” I was, he said, “an unspoken family member” of every person in the parish.

The result is often great personal fulfillment. Father Stephen Rossetti of the Washington D.C.-based St. Luke's Institute found that 90% of priests were happy overall. In a 2004 article in America, Rossetti wrote: “The picture of the priesthood as largely populated by single, isolated males made dysfunctional by years of celibate, Catholic living is a fiction.”

Now, I'm not interested in whitewashing celibacy; it does entail an enormous sacrifice. Wearing a Roman collar doesn't make attraction to the opposite sex go away. Nevertheless, I believe that celibacy can be an asset, not a hindrance, in recruiting for the priesthood.

There are many examples today of men and women who have given up far more than I have. I'm thinking of those members of the military who have left behind fiancés and spouses to serve our country overseas; some have even made the ultimate sacrifice. If they responded to their calling, how can I not respond to mine?

In the midst of this crisis, perhaps we need to challenge young people to choose priesthood by emphasizing celibacy, not soft-pedaling it. When the Marines recruit, they don't say: “Well, if you're looking for an easy, comfortable life, join us.”

What attracts young people to the Marine Corps is the challenge; it's tough, but the calling is bigger than you. So is the priesthood. It's about serving a cause greater than all of us.

A recent article in The Washington Times seemed to confirm this. Today's seminarians, the Times reported, are strongly motivated by the image of the priest as a warrior for the good, and are willing to embrace a life of sacrifice to this end.

In his book, The Priest Is not His Own, the late Archbishop Fulton Sheen said much the same. “Could it be that one reason for the lack of vocations is our failure to stress sacrifice? The young … want a mission, a challenge! When we follow the type of advertising appeal used by Madison Avenue to sell toothpaste, when we use commercial techniques in our vocation literature, do not the hearts of the young spurn our distance from the Cross?”

It is true that the pastoral needs of the Church still outweigh the number of newly ordained, but there is good news in that the numbers of men joining the celibate priesthood is on the rise.

Worldwide, vocations are up 75% from 20 years ago, and today there are 5,200 seminarians studying for the priesthood for the U.S. dioceses and orders, reported Father Edward Burns, the Director of Vocations for the Washington D.C.-based U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

There are currently 200 men studying at Chicago's Mundelein Seminary. This fall, the seminary welcomed one of the largest first-year classes in recent history.

Father Medow, who studies part-time at Mundelein, is very confident in the future of the celibate priesthood. “With the men I know at the seminary, it gives me great hope for the Church.”

I wholeheartedly concur.

Raymond Cleaveland writes from Chicago's Mundelein Seminary.

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