Married Priests in the Catholic Church?

Synod of bishops to discuss ordaining married men

Jun 19, 2019by Thomas ReeseReligion News ServiceOpinionVatican

Pope Francis greets indigenous representatives in Puerto Maldonado, Peru, on Jan. 19, 2018. Standing with thousands of indigenous Peruvians, Francis declared the Amazon the “heart of the church” and called for a threefold defense of its life, land and cultures. (AP/Rodrigo Abd)

The synod of bishops on the Amazon, which will meet in Rome this October, will discuss the possibility of ordaining married men in the Catholic Church, according to the working paper released June 17 by the Vatican.

The synod, called by Pope Francis to deal with issues facing the church in the Amazon area, will focus on protection of the environment and the church’s ministry to indigenous people, which necessarily includes talking about the shortage of clergy in this vast region.

The proposal to be discussed in October would be the possibility of ordaining “viri probati,” or mature married men, in exceptional situations. Many of these would probably be married deacons who already have some training.

This is the first time in centuries that the Catholic Church has put the topic of married clergy on the agenda of an international meeting of bishops.

For about half its history, the church did permit married priests. According to tradition, all the Apostles were married except St. John.

The rule of celibacy was gradually imposed, although even today there are exceptions. Married Protestant ministers who become Catholic can be ordained. In addition, Catholic clergy from Eastern churches, like the Ukrainian Catholic Church, have always been permitted to be married before ordination.

Celibacy is not dogma; it is a legal requirement that can be changed.

It has been an open secret that bishops in the Amazon area have raised the issue of married priests with the pope because they have huge dioceses with few priests. Although Francis places a very high value on celibacy, he is also a pragmatist who recognizes that indigenous communities are being denied the Eucharist and the sacraments because they don’t have priests.

After all, which is more important, a celibate priesthood or the Eucharist? At the Last Supper, Jesus said, “Do this in memory of me” not “have a celibate priesthood.”

Even so, conservative Catholics oppose the change as against tradition. For conservatives, this is just another example of Francis giving in to contemporary culture.

Limiting ordination to “mature men” is a classic Catholic compromise aimed at limiting the fears of conservatives. The change will be portrayed as limited and exceptional.

But both traditionalists and progressives believe that once ordination is permitted in exceptional cases, it will spread to more and more situations. After all, there are other places in the world that don’t have enough priests to serve Catholics desiring the Eucharist and the sacraments.

Eventually, as in other churches, married clergy will be the norm rather than the exception.

Those who believe that ordaining married men will solve all of the church’s problems have not been paying attention to our sister churches. Protestant and Orthodox churches have many of the same problems as the Catholic Church, including clericalism and sex abuse.

In addition, how is the priestly education of married men going to be conducted and paid for? A married man with kids cannot abandon his family to spend four years in a diocesan seminary. And once he is working in a parish, will he receive a just salary that supports his family? Too many Protestant clergy have incomes so low they qualify for food stamps.

Finally, what about those who are already ordained?

The Catholic Church is following the Orthodox model, which means that the man must be married before ordination. This is currently the rule for Catholic deacons. If a deacon’s wife dies, he is not allowed to remarry. If the same rule applies to priests, we will end up with some priests raising their children as single parents.

Also, there are currently too many priests in relationships with women that should be legitimized out of justice to the women involved, let alone their children. And then there are the thousands of priests who left to get married. How about letting them back into ministry?

All of these issues must be faced, but that does not mean the church should maintain mandatory celibacy. The Catholic Church has a shortage of priests that is not being resolved under the current rule of celibacy. But we need to recognize that along with the opportunities come challenges. Even if the synod votes in favor of ordaining “viri probati,” it will be only the beginning of a process, not the conclusion.

[Jesuit Fr. Thomas Reese is a columnist for Religion News Service and author of Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church.]


‘Unity in Diversity’ has long been a claim of the Anglican Church around the world – relating to its breadth of opinions on matters of liturgical and social issues that occur within the different national and international congregations, families and constitutions of its provincial life.

Other parts of the Body of Christ – amongst our Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Free Church sisters and brothers in Christ – once thought to be singularly isolated in their separate faith enclosures; are increasingly realising the diversity that exists within their own communities.

For some time now, in the Roman Catholic Church – with the disinclination of young men to dedicate themselves to life-long celibacy as ministers of the sacramental life of the Church – there has been pressure from the laity to promote the idea of a new outlook in the Church towards the ordination of married clergy, in addition to the traditional cadre of celibate priests whose numbers have suffered a decline.

Now the Vatican is looking towards the possibility of allowing for the ordination of men who are already married, in situations where the paucity of celibate vocations to the priesthood has brought about a severe shortage of sacramental ministry in places where the Catholic community is strongest.

In many countries of the global South there is a cultural pressure for men to be married, in order to provide for the ideal of family life that is an expectation of the indigenous people. Celibacy, in such communities, has long been thought to be a denial of the God-given faculty for reproduction. The words: “Be fruitful and multiply” – a biblical injunction – seems to have been overlooked by the Church in order to sustain its need for a ritual purity on the part of its clergy.

For instance, bishops of the Roman Catholic Church in countries of South America – where Pope Francis was once a Cardinal-Archbishop – have long been pressing for a change in the rules requiring celibacy as a primary virtue of Catholic priesthood. It is this new movement in the Church in the Amazon Basin that has occasioned the openness on the part of Pope Francis and the Vatican to discussion on this subject.

Of course, as we Anglicans are aware, there are married priest already ministering in Roman Catholic parishes around the world – where former Anglican Clergy who are married have been re-ordained into the Roman Catholic Church in order to administer the Sacraments in parishes where the shortage of celibate clergy is most acute. Their suitability for ordination in the R.C. Church was based on their isolated opposition to the ordination of women in their own Church. However, for whatever reason they were ordained; the Roman rule of celibate clergy in no longer absolute – prefiguring, perhaps, the willingness of Rome to extend the Sacrament of Holy Orders to married men in their own Church in places of sacramental need.

Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand

About kiwianglo

Retired Anglican priest, living in Christchurch, New Zealand. Ardent supporter of LGBT Community, and blogger on 'Thinking Anglicans UK' site. Theology: liberal, Anglo-Catholic & traditional. regarding each person as a unique expression of Christ, and therefore lovable.
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