Should the Church allow Priests to Marry?

The Roman Catholic Church already permits some married men to become priests. But priests are not permitted to marry, subsequent to priestly ordination, unless they undergo laicization (essentially, leaving the active priestly life). This distinction is important.

The Church has always had some married priests. Saint Peter the Apostle, the first Pope, was married — prior to becoming a priest and the first bishop of Rome:
[Matthew]
{8:14} And when Jesus had arrived at the house of Peter, he saw his mother-in-law lying ill with a fever.
{8:15} And he touched her hand, and the fever left her, and she rose up and ministered to them.

Some priests and even some bishops in the early Church were married:
[1 Timothy]
{3:1} It is a faithful saying: if a man desires the episcopate, he desires a good work.
{3:2} Therefore, it is necessary for a bishop to be beyond reproach, the husband of one wife, sober, prudent, gracious, chaste, hospitable, a teacher….

Today, the Eastern Rite of the Catholic Church have many married priests. But these are married men who subsequently become priests, not priests who seek a wife and marriage. In the Latin Rite, some married men are priests, most notably married Anglican ministers who convert and become priests in the Anglican Ordinariate of the Catholic Church.

Why then are priests, at least some priests, at least in the Eastern Rite, not permitted to seek a wife and marry subsequent to priestly ordination? The answer is a matter of prudence and discipline, more than doctrine. However, there is a doctrinal issue to discuss as well. The question of married priests is not solely a matter of discipline.

First, the prudential reason: it is not good for a man to leave a higher calling for a lesser calling. The priesthood is a higher calling than marriage. That is one reason why Jesus did not marry. Virginity and celibacy are greater than a loving Christian marriage (as the Council of Trent infallibly taught). That is one reason why Mary — despite being called to bear a child for God and to have a type of marriage with Saint Joseph — remained ever virgin.

The role of a priest requires the full attention of the man.

[Acts of the Apostles 6]
{6:1} In those days, as the number of disciples was increasing, there occurred a murmuring of the Greeks against the Hebrews, because their widows were treated with disdain in the daily ministration.
{6:2} And so the twelve, calling together the multitude of the disciples, said: “It is not fair for us to leave behind the Word of God to serve at tables also.
{6:3} Therefore, brothers, search among yourselves for seven men of good testimony, filled with the Holy Spirit and with wisdom, whom we may appoint over this work.
{6:4} Yet truly, we will be continually in prayer and in the ministry of the Word.”

Therefore, most priests must be single and celibate, not married. Some married men are permitted to become priests. But it would be harmful for most or all priests to be married men. A priest must spend his time in prayer and in the ministry of the Word and the Sacraments. Dividing his time between family and parish would diminish his ability to serve souls.

And now suppose that an unmarried priest is permitted to seek a wife. How does he do so? Should he set up a profile on Match.com or ChristianSingles.com? Will he look over the women of his parish and start asking different parishioners on dates? What if his intended date has been to Confession with him as Confessor? Women in the parish would have to consider, whenever they are talking to such a priest, that he might be interested in dating her. It adversely affects the priest’s ability to minister to women.

Suppose that this unmarried priest now has a steady girlfriend. Certainly, they cannot have sex outside of marriage. But the pressure from the culture to do so, and the pressure from concupiscence will affect them. Over a large population of priests who are dating, some will fall into that sin of sex outside of marriage. The scandal harms souls much more than if a layperson commits the same sin.

What happens when the priest and his girlfriend become engaged? Can they go away for a weekend together in the Hamptons or Cape Cod (or wherever you people on the West Coast go)? Scandal, temptation to sin, and a lack of availability to the parish make an engaged priest unsuitable for his own ministry.

Once a priest is married, he must devote time to his wife and children. This diminishes the time that the priest can devote to souls, perhaps resulting in some souls being lost to eternal damnation.

Will he or his wife use contraception? The Church teaches that any use of contraception is a grave sin. But the pressures from society and concupiscence will affect the couple. Over a large number of married priests, some will fall into that sin. Will the priest and his wife engage in unnatural sexual acts within marriage? This type of sex is gravely immoral, even within marriage. But again, our hedonistic culture has much influence over fallen sinners. And the scandal of a married priest committing such sins is even more grave.

Moreover, the sacrifice of a priest in remaining celibate strengthens him spiritually to serve God and Church. If he is not celibate, will he take a vow (or promise) of poverty? But poverty is more difficult to follow when one must provide for a wife and children. Will he take a vow (or promise) of obedience? What happens when the bishop orders him to move to another parish, but his wife and children do not wish to move? He is divided in his attention and priorities. He cannot take the three vows, not to the same extent as an unmarried priest.
[Luke]
{14:28} For who among you, wanting to build a tower, would not first sit down and determine the costs that are required, to see if he has the means to complete it?
{14:29} Otherwise, after he will have laid the foundation and not been able to finish it, everyone who sees it may begin to mock him,
{14:30} saying: ‘This man began to build what he was not able to finish.’
{14:31} Or, what king, advancing to engage in war against another king, would not first sit down and consider whether he may be able, with ten thousand, to meet one who comes against him with twenty thousand?
{14:32} If not, then while the other is still far away, sending a delegation, he would ask him for terms of peace.
{14:33} Therefore, every one of you who does not renounce all that he possesses is not able to be my disciple.

And the same teaching is true for chastity and obedience. A priest who cannot fully devote himself to the priestly ministry cannot build the tower or win the war because he lacks the spiritual resources. His contribution to the needs of souls is greatly reduced.

For these reasons, I think that the ordination of men who are already married should be relatively rare. The vast majority of priests should be celibate.

But these are prudential reasons for celibate priests. There is also a dogmatic reason.

Christ was unmarried and celibate. A priest stands in persona Christi. He represents Christ by his words, actions, and his priestly life. Therefore, the priesthood cannot consist mainly or solely of married men. As a material dogma of Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture, the Roman Catholic priesthood must include mainly celibate men, who are not married at the time of their priestly ordination and who do not seek marriage subsequent to becoming a priest.

by
Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and
translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

Forgiveness and Salvation for Everyone
available in print (paperback, 510 pp.) and in Kindle format.

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