Married Priests Back Celibacy

(photo: CNS photo by Norman Schiller)

Part one of Two


WACONIA, Minn. — It was a Saturday night, and Father Larry Blake had just celebrated Mass at St. Joseph’s Church in Waconia, Minn. He hadn’t eaten dinner and longed to spend time visiting with his wife and children.

“No sooner had I sat down than our emergency line rang,” said Father Blake, a former Lutheran pastor who was ordained to the priesthood in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis in 1999. “Someone at the hospital needed the anointing of the sick. I determined I had enough time to finish eating dinner and then left for the hospital.”

By the time he returned home at 11:30 p.m., his wife and children were all fast asleep.

“I’d be dishonest if I said I wouldn’t have rather sat at home and visited with my family, but this is what I was called to do.”

It is challenges like this that are often overlooked in the debate over whether Catholic priests ought to be allowed to marry.

It’s an age-old debate that has been back in the news of late. On Dec. 10, Zambian Archbishop Emmanuel Milingo installed two more married men as bishops outside of the Catholic communion at the conclusion of his Married Priests Now convention in New Jersey. In September, Archbishop Milingo had installed four married men as bishops, leading to his excommunication by Pope Benedict XVI.

In early December, Cardinal Claudio Hummes, newly appointed to head the Vatican’s Congregation for Clergy, said in a Brazilian newspaper interview that celibacy is a disciplinary norm and not a Church dogma and therefore was open to possible change.

Shortly after arriving at the Vatican from his native Brazil Dec. 4, the cardinal issued a statement emphasizing that priestly celibacy was a long and valuable tradition in the Latin Church, based on strong theological and pastoral arguments.

As well, a couple of ordinations in December of former Anglican clergymen who are married led some to wonder, “Why should they be permitted the exception when priests who went off and got married are not allowed to return to active ministry in the Church?”

According to one scholar, the Church has been struggling with the celibate priesthood question from time out of mind.

Father Andrew Cozzens, an instructor of sacramental theology at the St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity in St. Paul, Minn., said the Church first legislated clerical celibacy at the beginning of the fourth century. “At that time, it was mostly the teaching of continence,” he said. “It was almost universally required that if a married man was ordained a priest, he lived as a brother and sister with his wife.”

Father Cozzens, who is writing his doctoral dissertation on how the priest is a living image of Christ the bridegroom, said that the continence idea stemmed from St. Leo the Great, who said that when a man becomes a priest, his former marriage becomes a spiritual one because he enters into a new marriage.

He added that the practice was common in both the East and West until the seventh century, when the East began to permit married men to live as married men, except for bishops, who are required to remain celibate.

“In the West, every time the question comes up for discussion, the magisterium grows stronger in its defense of the connection between priesthood and celibacy,” he said. “Once the Church started legislating, they started pushing celibacy.”


The Numbers Speak


Yet, organizations such as Corpus and FutureChurch continue to argue that opening ordination to married men — as well as to women — would attract more priests.

“We feel that celibacy is a gift, and a gift should be freely exercised. It shouldn’t be mandatory,” said Stuart O’Brien, member services director of Corpus, a Massachusetts-based organization representing priests who have left ministries in the Church to get married. “The priesthood should be open to all the gifts of all people.”

Yet, the argument that making celibacy optional would solve the priest shortage seems to be contradicted by the Protestant experience. Ordinations among denominations that allow married clergy have seen nothing but decline. Male ordination in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has dropped from 354 men in 1980 to 151 in 2003. In fact, in 2003, female ordination surpassed that of male ordination in the Evangelical Lutheran Church.

That decrease is also observable in the Episcopal Church of the USA. Male ordination decreased from 272 in 1974 to 94 in 1997, while female ordination increased from nine in 1974 to 69 in 1997.

“The Protestants have their own problems,” rejoined Corpus’s O’Brien. “They aren’t necessarily our problems.”

And yet, married men ordained priests legitimately aren’t the ones calling for a change. Often, they are the ones that are most supportive of celibacy.

“I fully support the position of the Church on celibacy and consider it an exceptional privilege to serve the Church in this way,” said Father Blake, of Minnesota. Still, he admits that it’s a balancing act.

“It would be dishonest for me to say that there are not times when there are things that happen in the parish, and it means that I have to take time from my family, or there are times when I don’t attend something happening at the parish because of a family obligation,” he said. “If I were by myself, I might go. It cuts both ways. The reality is that I now have two vocations.”

Through the Pastoral Provision, the Church accepts married Episcopalian priests who have become Catholic. To date, 82 men have been ordained under the provision, the latest being Fathers Alvin Kimel in Newark, N.J., and Dwight Longenecker in South Carolina. Father Longenecker is a Register columnist.

Statistics are not available for Protestant converts who become priests, as they have more stringent requirements, and are handled on a case-by-case basis by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Father William Stetson, who serves as secretary to Newark Archbishop John Myers, the ecclesiastical delegate for the Pastoral Provision, pointed out that Episcopal ministers who are ordained to the Catholic priesthood do not ordinarily serve full-time in parishes.

“The Church tries to recognize that they have a duty to their family,” said Father Stetson. “Practically, a married man is not as available. Theologically, it’s a gift of Christ to his Church. The best way for a man who is invested with the priesthood of Jesus Christ is to serve the portion of the flock given to his care with an undivided heart.”

Providing for his family is a common challenge for married priests, he said. “Many of the priests have to supplement their income with secular jobs,” said Father Stetson, who knows of priests who are policemen, university professors or psychiatrists. “The experience of every single Episcopal priest that has come into the Catholic Church is that they are surprised by the volume of work that the majority of Roman Catholic parishes require.”

Corpus’ O’Brien finds the Pastoral Provision incongruous.

“Those who are married can practice the priesthood in the Roman Catholic Church,” said O’Brien, “while those who have been ordained and would like to return are excluded. It’s something that, to me, doesn’t make any sense.”

Greek Orthodox Deacon Virgil Petrisor, of Brookline, Mass., said that he finds it sad that married priests so often cite the problem that the priesthood diverts their attention from their parishes to their wives and children.

“I tend to view the family as a part of the ministry,” said Petrisor, who is studying to be a priest at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology. “It’s not … these other people who keep him from doing his ‘job.’ Rather, it’s the priests and his family doing Christ’s work. I think the family can and should be an asset rather than a distraction.”

Jesuit Father Joseph Fessio disagreed.

“I don’t see how a priest who is faithful to his calling can give his wife and children the time and attention that they need in a marriage,” said Father Fessio, provost of Ave Maria College in Naples, Fla. “Does it mean it can’t happen? No, it doesn’t mean that, but I believe that there is some fundamental inner tension which can never be resolved.”


(CNS contributed

to this report.)


Tim Drake is based in

St. Joseph, Minnesota.



Next: Priests speak candidly about the spiritual and practical benefits that they have gained from the gift of celibacy.


‘A Precious Jewel’

Surprisingly, some of the most vocal defenses of priestly celibacy have come from those who can marry — Eastern-rite Catholics and former Anglicans who have been ordained under the Pastoral Provision, an exception granted by Pope John Paul II in 1980.

During the 2005 Synod of Bishops on the Eucharist, for example, Cardinal Angelo Scola, Patriarch of Venice, raised the issue of viri probati (tested men), saying that some bishops had “put forward the request to ordain married faithful of proven faith and virtue.” Bishops from Great Britain and New Zealand supported the idea, arguing that it might encourage additional young men to enter the priesthood.

During the interventions by Eastern-rite bishops, Cardinal Nasrallah Sfeir, the Maronite patriarch of Antioch in Lebanon, said that half of his diocese’s priests are married.

“It must be recognized that if admitting married men resolves one problem, it creates others just as serious,” he told the synod members.

The priest’s duty to care for his wife and children, ensure their education and oversee their entry into society are among the problems Cardinal Sfeir mentioned.

“Another difficulty facing a married priest arises if he does not enjoy a good relationship with his parishioners,” he said. “His bishop cannot transfer him because of the difficulty of transferring his whole family.”

Celibacy, in fact, is “the most precious jewel in the treasury of the Catholic Church,” the cardinal declared, contrasting the practice against an impure culture. “How can celibacy be conserved in an atmosphere laden with eroticism? Newspapers, Internet, billboards, shows, everything appears shameless and constantly offends the virtue of chastity.

“If Jesus Christ wanted priests to be married,” he continued, “he would have gotten married himself.”

The cardinal’s remarks drew applause from the synod’s participants.