More arguments against a married priesthood

More arguments against a married priesthood

Fr. Martin Fox, whose excellent blog Bonfire of the Vanities I’ve just discovered, last month gave an excellent exposition of the difficulties inherent in a married priesthood for the Latin rite.

Some of his arguments are familiar because I’ve made the same ones here several times. Others offer a new perspective, perhaps only one that a priest could offer.

Many Protestant bodies presently ordaining not only married men, but also women—and not expecting a lifetime commitment, and paying far better—also have a shortage of clergy. …

Per ancient and universal tradition, for an ordained man to be married, he must be married prior to ordination—and if widowed, may not marry again. This would, it seems to me, cause men thinking about a priestly vocation to postpone such a decision—perhaps for many years indeed. I.e., first he’d want to court and marry the right woman; then start a family; then have to build his career and savings. You’re not likely to see such married men enter the seminary in their 20s—more likely in their 40s or 50s. …

Married priests would hardly live in existing rectories with their families, on existing priests’ salaries. Many parishes would be in for sticker-shock; and what if a parish said, “no thanks—we want a cheaper (i.e., celibate) priest”? …

Divorce is sadly very common among married clergy. It would be only a matter of time before we’d have divorced priests.

He has many more good points and rather than just duplicate them here, I’ll direct you to his blog. Make sure to also read the comments where he offers some further thoughts, including links to studies of the clergy shortage among non-Catholics, including denominations that ordain married men, women, and even gays. Anyone who thinks a married priesthood would be a panacea for the priest shortage hasn’t thought it through.

Written by
Domenico Bettinelli
  • It is bizarre when temporal reasons for celibate priesthood are brought into play.  If celibacy is truly spiritual (it isn’t btw) one would never bring up the temporal nature of the marriage contract. Is it so much more difficult for a Priest to be married than (say) a man who runs a coffee shop? 

    If Latin Rite Catholics can afford hospitals, orphanages, meat-cutter schools, funding the Special Olympics, I am sure we can afford married priests.


  • Why should it be bizarre that temporal reasons should be raised? Priests are not pure spirits and neither are Catholics. We live in the world and such temporal matters figure prominently into how we do things.

    Did you even read the whole blog post? Did you read all the arguments? It’s not just about whether we can afford them. There were other very good points raised that don’t have anything to do with money.

    John, with all due respect, you’re starting to sound like a broken record, and if you’re not going to bother reading the posts before repeating yourself, I’m not going to bother to respond.

  • Memo to Father Fox:

    Why is it that people—priests and laity alike—insist on looking to Protestant bodies as a basis for comparison, when it’s obviously apples and oranges? Whenever this subject is approached, I read very little on the one confession with a married priesthood that holds to the essentials of the Faith outside of Rome, namely THE EASTERN ORTHODOX!!!!

    Now that I have your attention, perhaps somebody can elaborate on what THEY’RE doing. Yes, they have a shortage of priests in some places. But does a married man at the altar of God comprimise him? What does his wife think?

    Forget about everybody else; how do THEY answer those questions?

  • Married priests are scriptural.  These are problems that can be dealt with because they have been by the Orthodox and Byzantine rite.  Married priest would enlarge the talent pool and the priesthood would not as much of a ‘lavender’ profession.  Married priests would work just as hard and be just as available as celibate priests.  Many married men work much harder than the priests I know.  If a priest gets divorced, he can’t get remarried, and he knows that coming into it.

  • “Married priests are scriptural.” You’re right. But living separately from your wife, or at the very least, refraining from relations the night before offering sacrifice, is also “scriptural.” Read the epistles more closely, as well as various post-apostolic and patristic writings. Then ask yourself why the Orthodox don’t have a tradition of weekday Mass.

  • Hi Dom,

    Yes, read the whole thing a few times, it covers very day-to-day matters.  These are the same tired arguments I hear from priests every day justifying why they need to live a bachelor lifestyle.

    Managing this is not any more difficult to manage than raising funds for stained glass windows, starting a school for the blind, ministering to mountain parishes in Peru.  It can be done.


  • David:

    A fair point.

    I agree that comparisons between the priesthood and Protestant ministry are clumsy, but they aren’t entirely invalid. I cited Protestant experience simply to refute the easy assumption, by many, that the problem is all about the restrictions on who can be a priest.

    I don’t claim to know all that much about the experience of the Orthodox, and I’d like to know more.

    Probably the best place for a side-by-side comparison would be in Eastern Europe, where you can compare the Catholic way and the Orthodox way in roughly the same context. Also, perhaps in some urban areas in the U.S., if the concentration of Orthodox is high enough (I don’t know).

    Because comparing Catholic and Orthodox ministry in most places, is not comparing like to like. Being bigger, denser, and having more infrastructure makes it both easier and harder.

    My position on married clergy isn’t that I’m simply against it. Truth is, I’ve got too many other things to attend to; I’ll leave that decision to others. But I do think there’s a good deal of facile thinking about it, and I want to offer some cautions.

    Bottom line? Every system has problems; change the system, you change in one set of problems for another.

  • “Bottom line? Every system has problems; change the system, you change in one set of problems for another.”

    That would be my experience as well. A friend of mine is a former Anglican Benedictine monk who has counseled married clergy of various confessions. His overwhelming conclusion is that either the marriage or the ministry suffers.

    Still, a married priesthood might be a solution in some isolated parts of the third world. Or even the more mountainous regions of the western USA. The most likely candidates would be permanent deacons whose children are grown, and who have retired with sufficient means to minimize the support obligations of the diocese being served.

    (By the way, Father, you got an e-mail address? I have a question about a matter in your fair city.)

  • John:

    Perhaps my classmate, who entered the seminary in his late 40s as a widower, with two grown children, said it best:

    “Ask yourself: what wife wants to be—or should be—second?”

    As it stands, the Latin Rite priesthood is all about the priest putting the people he serves FIRST.

    Call that good, or call that bad; but that is the existing mode. So asking for a married clergy in the Latin Rite is really asking for this question to be reconsidered. And that’s fine; but how about we do that directly and openly?

  • My husband is a deacon who runs a parish.  We have a retired priest who comes in for Mass and Confession, but that’s all.  Our family lives in the existing rectory.  The rectory of our present assignment is inside the church building, so we are available 24/7.  Further, when you compare the cost of a priest (salary plus benefits) it doesn’t come out to much less than what my husband earns (salary minus the perks a priest gets that we pay for ourselves.)  “Sticker shock” is a myth.  Get your diocesan salary and benefits guidelines for priests and laypeople and do the math.  But make sure you account for everything:  priest don’t pay their own phone bill, nor their food expense, nor internet or cable bill, they get transportation allowances, often have a housekeeper, all rent and utilities are paid for by the parish, etc.  Also check out differences in what the diocese and the parish pays for health and retirement expenses, travel costs, and sabbatical expenses.  Compare that to what lay/deacon parish administrators get.  It all equals out when you factor everything in.

    We have been married for 27 years, have two kids who we have homeschooled for 16 of those years.  Neither the marriage, the family, nor the ministry have suffered.  If anything, it has all been enhanced.  I wouldn’t change our life choices for anything.

    If there are spiritual reasons for a celibate clergy, then, fine, go with that.  We’re a Church, not a business.  Also, this issue has nothing to do with Protestants ordaining women nor with divorced clergy.  Those are separate considerations.

  • Monica:

    Exceptions are just that. By the very definition, they are not the rule. If there are a proliferation of cases as your own which are successful, you may have cause. But if your “separate considerations” are not the issue, neither is “doing the math.”

    We’re not a business, right?

  • Fr Martin (and David),

    Why would these things be ranked (God, Wife, Family, Football etc)?  Isn’t it possible to serve God and Family?  You present a false dichotomy (trichotomy?) that one cannot be a good husband and a good priest…since when?  Show me empirical evidence.

    This argument is about as compelling as claiming you can’t be a good Catholic and a good America, a good Methodist and a good Dancer, a good Irishman and live in England.  False, false and false.

    It certainly possible to do all of the above, it may take about as much work for a Methodist to dance as a Priest to manage a family, but it can happen.


  • David, re “We’re not a business”,

    You should probably check up with the Secretary of State’s Ooffice,  Departments of Professional Regulation, or the IRS.  They can tell you for sure whether a Roman Catholic Church is a business.


  • “You present a false dichotomy (trichotomy?) that one cannot be a good husband and a good priest…since when?”

    The question was answered in my original post, by a priest-counselor who did his homework. Have you done yours?

  • Re: “We’re not a business.”

    The quote was attributed to the deacon’s wife, not me. I’m under no illusions that the Church is a business. Nor do I believe they answer to any earthly power for their identity, having been established by a Higher Authority.

  • David,

    Your sample size = 1.  How about something more than a Benedictine ancedote?  Wouldn’t someone having issues with juggling work vs. family be more likely to see a counselor than someone who is managing without problems?  Seems a self fufilling argument.

    Perhaps Fr. Greeley has some numbers…I will check up on his analysis.


  • There already is a divorced priest—in one of the Kentucky diocese, IIRC.  An Episcopal convert whose marriage ended after his ordination—I think Google can pull up something.

    The married Orthodox priests also have “day jobs” to support their families, from what I understand.  The married Catholic priests I have read about indicate it ‘taint no picnic trying to make do on a celibate priest’s stipend.  Mom has to work outside the home—period.

    In other words, a married priesthood would be a much different model of service to the parish than most western Catholics are used to.

  • Perhaps the best place to begin evaluating the possibility of returning to a married clergy is with the decision to abandon it the first time.  The problems should show up there.

    With a married clergy, there is not only the wife to consider, but also the children; and if we are talking about a Catholic marriage, we may be talking about many children.  Which would mean that the wife would find it difficult to work outside the home, especially if home schooling becomes an issue in a remote parish that doesn’t have a school.  How does a wife homeschool and work at the same time?

    I think that a look at Protestant clergy is legitimate.  A look at Orthodox clergy is even more desirable. 

    One thing the Orthodox do that we haven’t got a clue about is provide a role for the wife of the priest.  It becomes a joint ministry in some ways.  Leaving the wife out of the picture will only hinder a healthy marriage for the priest because of the inevitable competition.

    The question then arises, what if the wife becomes disillusioned with her role?  There is no grace of ordination for a wife of a priest.  She must exist on the same provision of grace that any other Catholic wife enjoys.  Is it sufficient to cover the dual role of her husband? 

  • “Generally miffed?” Hey, I can think of plenty of my own reasons without Greeley’s help. What I can’t think of, is how a married priesthood is going to be the magic bullet to solve the priest shortage, when a married clergy has NOT proven to be a windfall in other confessions.

    There might be a case for a married priesthood in the West—in isolated parts of the USA or the world… hey, I already mentioned this above, didn’t I? So I’m on record as being open to the idea.

    Now, I’ll wait for how it’s gonna work. I’m staying tuned….

  • David,

    Fr. G is a statistician. He has a ton of numbers.

    I am not thinking that one solves the (very questionable) priest shortage by imposing a responsible management system. 

    I am thinking that by imposing a responsible management system, one may solve many problems. 

    And Carrie, we should certainly be able to manage as Catholics.  Try comparing the huge success Catholic Schools vs. secular school to see our capabilities.


  • Actually I’m thinking about the huge failure of Catholic schools since the nuns decided they needed self-actualization, John. 

    That success in education is sort of like the huge success of the Catholic priesthood until recent times.  In both cases, the nuns and the priests had given up their right to marriage and family in order to give their lives to God and the faithful.  When the nuns decided they should be thinking about themselves, look what happened.  When the gay priests decided to think about themselves, again look what happened.  So when the priests decide that they should take back their right to a family, what will the result be?  Prudence would dictate that we move with extreme caution in light of the collapse of Catholic education.  We really don’t want to see a repeat where the sacraments are concerned, do we?

  • Hi Carrie,

    I am not convinced Catholic Education has collapsed.

    I can show you tremendous educational institutions in the most violent neighborhoods in America run by the Jesuits.  The Cristo Rey (among others)model is having awesome results in the Archdiocese of Chicago.  The schools are graduating 100% of students, sending 99% of them to College and working on about 1/3 the budget of the public schools next door, with their 50% dropout rates.

    These priests, nuns and laity are doing a awesome job.  Yes, there are some mixed up individuals, but the system works.  Please, lets repeat this!


  • Actually, running boys’ prep schools is one of the few things that Jesuits actually do right in the present day. One of my regrets is that I never had a chance to send my son to Gonzaga in DC. He would have been twice the man he is now. Oh well…

  • John, did you ever read Malachi Martin’s book on the Jesuits?  When I had finished it, I knew that I would never consider a Jesuit school for any kid of mine.

    But we’re getting way off topic here.