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Question on Clerical Celibacy

Okay, I know that there have always been “special dispensations” and exceptions and the like for married priests converting from Anglicanism to Roman Catholicism and remaining priests. But now it looks like Rome is doing everything it can to bend over backwards and make this transition as easy as possible for as many Anglicans as possible.

So clearly, what’s happening here is that Rome is more than willing for a big influx of married priests which would oversee numerous flocks, right? Well, as I understand things clerical celibacy is not a dogma of the church, rather it is a pragmatic pastoral practice that the church has adopted and could, ostensibly change (after all it has been quite different at points throughout the church’s history).

Now, if clerical celibacy is a pragmatic pastoral practice it seems like it should be, well, pragmatic. In other words it should have some distinct practical advantages that make it preferable. But doesn’t this move to include any married Anglican priests reveal that the Vatican clearly doesn’t believe this? I mean, if being married really was an impediment to caring for a congregation, why would they be so eager to make space for it with Anglicans?

It seems patently odd for a church to make exceptions for its converts that it refuses to dispense to its faithful lifetime members, doesn’t it? And if being married in and of itself isn’t problematic for Anglican clergy who convert, why would it be problematic for Catholic priests to begin with?

It also seems undeniable to me that clerical celibacy has contributed to the decline of the Catholic church, at least in the West if not elsewhere. The massive shortage of priests has been documented at length. So, given that, and the fact that, at least for Anglican converts, marriage doesn’t pose a practical problem for ordained ministry, why does the hierarchy insist on retaining mandatory celibacy as the clerical norm? What possible advantage does it have? I really can’t think of any. And if its supposed to be somehow a practical move that helps the practice of pastoral ministry it seems like this is an utterly vital question.


  1. Nathan Smith wrote:

    If Rome changed on this issue (or allowed women priests for that matter), it would probably be a paradigm shift greater than Vatican II. They do seem more likely to admit fault these days, however.

    At the same time, I’d like to question the protestant status quo of near-100% marriage of clergy.

    Wednesday, October 21, 2009 at 4:33 am | Permalink
  2. mike d wrote:

    “What possible advantage does it have? I really can’t think of any.”

    Money. Lots of parishes need only pay their clergy enough to support a single dude; not the seventeen kids that a married Catholic would have. If they opened up marriage for clergy parishes/dioceses would need to support housing, insurance, higher salaries in ways that could support a family. That would be a pretty big deal. That’s not a theological reason but it is a pragmatic one. It might be that poorer parishes won’t look twice at a former Anglican with 10 kids.

    Wednesday, October 21, 2009 at 4:49 am | Permalink
  3. Theophilus wrote:

    Not to mention that Eastern Rite Catholics have been allowed married priests (though not married bishops) for a few hundred years now. Anyone have a sense of how that’s played out in terms of, say, the issues Mike mentioned?

    Wednesday, October 21, 2009 at 6:33 am | Permalink
  4. Thomas wrote:

    It would help to look at the historical reasons for the practice. One of the problems was that priesthood was often followed down the generations within families, with the family amassing wealth as time went on. The result was that, in some cases, the priests were among the richest members in the community. Add to that the fact that being an unmarried priest was generally considered better, all things considered, than being married, the supply of those willing to forgo marriage, and you have the policy of priestly celibacy.

    As to allowing married Anglican priest converts, married Eastern Rite priests, and so on: there’s a significant difference between having a small minority of married priests, and opening up the possibility for married priests to become the norm. Rome’s granting dispensation in such cases acknowledges both that married priests are permissible and that celibate priests are preferable.

    This is a very different issue than permitting female clergy.

    Wednesday, October 21, 2009 at 7:16 am | Permalink
  5. Bruce wrote:

    For me, as a Catholic priest, the issue revolves around the idea of pastoral care. It has been assumed that celibacy allows priests more time and attention to their flock. This may have been true with parishes of 200 families, but it is ridiculous when we are faced, as I am, with a parish of 2600 families. Who can serve the faithful better: someone married who has 400 people to attend to or a celibate who has 6000? We seem to have concluded that megachurches are the standard even though they allow for next to no personal connection with individual families. Does this serve the Gospel?

    Wednesday, October 21, 2009 at 7:54 am | Permalink
  6. adhunt wrote:

    More proof that Rome has always been jealous of Canterbury

    Wednesday, October 21, 2009 at 10:32 am | Permalink
  7. David wrote:

    I must admit that the pragmatic arguments for not allowing priests to marry which have been suggested are pretty compelling on a purely logical basis. Of course it costs more to support a family rather than a bachelor, of course it would involve the RC church to back down at a time when backing down is not an option, and of course being married gives a priest an unintended dimension to his pastoral care. This does not detract, however, from what seems to be the fact of celibacy as a sexual abnormality, an exception rather than a rule. If God did not insist upon celibacy among the Levitical priesthood (despite similar practical considerations against marriage as those above), why should the Pope insist upon it among his own, who serve the same God as the Levites? It smacks (to me) of an unChristian dualism, a perverse belief that one can only operate in the spirit if one is above fleshly things (such as sex, women and families).
    In the end I think that chastity is more important than celibacy, because being celibate is no guarantee of chastity.

    Wednesday, October 21, 2009 at 10:55 am | Permalink
  8. Halden wrote:

    Its pretty high irony that Peter is supposed to be the first Pope and, out of all the Apostles, he’s the only one we know for sure was married.

    Wednesday, October 21, 2009 at 11:03 am | Permalink
  9. Thomas wrote:

    Sexuality is a sexual abnormality? That’s quite different than simply being uncommon. And you might remember St. Paul said that it is better to remain unmarried, even if you choose to forget the importance traditionally given to monasticism in the Church’s history.

    Wednesday, October 21, 2009 at 11:07 am | Permalink
  10. Thomas wrote:

    “sexuality” should be celibacy

    Wednesday, October 21, 2009 at 11:07 am | Permalink
  11. Halden wrote:

    I don’t see the difference between something being uncommon and abnormal. Its just two ways of saying that it isn’t what generally happens.

    Wednesday, October 21, 2009 at 11:10 am | Permalink
  12. Thomas wrote:

    Then “normal” is convertible with “average”? Of course not. “Normal” has strong connotations of societal expectations and moral standards. Normality, especially when talking about kinds sexuality one believes to be related to the “perverse” (as in the above comment), does not refer solely to statistical frequency, but to a sense of propriety or to an expected standard of behavior.

    Wednesday, October 21, 2009 at 11:21 am | Permalink
  13. David wrote:

    I suppose that abnormality is a pretty strong word for what i was trying to say. In no way did I meant to say that celibate priests are by definition perverts (societal or otherwise). The problem I have is with the privileging of celibacy as an ideal for priests, as though there were something about female flesh that might taint (instead of merely tempt) them and so sully their spiritual activities. If this wasn’t the case with the Levites, why should it be the case with RC priests?
    I agree that Paul thought it better to remain unmarried, but this was more or less his personal opinion, and rode on the back of what seems to be an immediate anticipation of Christ’s return. In my opinion (not as guide-worthy as Pauls, admittedly) priests should not marry if they choose not to, but should if they want to. Why have a blanket rule that then allows for exceptions like ex-Anglican: all are celibate, but some are more celibate than others!

    Wednesday, October 21, 2009 at 11:39 am | Permalink
  14. Thomas wrote:

    Regardless of the question of whether it’s possible to draw a sharp line between Paul’s “opinions” and his instructions to church authorities, the privileged place given to the celibate was not only his opinion, it was the collective judgment of the Church as a whole. Certainly with the influence of the monastic movement, the Church’s view often went to far, but the problem was in (sometimes) denigrating married life (this tendency was corrected by people such as St. John Chrysostum), not in simply giving a special place to those who live celibate lives. In any case, you’re making a value judgment that is against the great weight of the Christian Church’s belief and practice, not just Paul’s opinion (remember, Eastern Christianity, despite allowing married priests, privileges celibacy). And of course there’s nothing wrong with that, but there is, I would think, an especially high burden of proof to be overcome.

    Wednesday, October 21, 2009 at 11:51 am | Permalink
  15. Jody+ wrote:

    This move is important in that it expands the current pastoral provision (first instituted under JPII) beyond the borders of the US, making it an option for Anglicans world wide. Additionally, it provides a structure that means Anglican Use clergy and congregations will not be under the oversight of the local Latin Rite Bishop but will instead have their own oversight (one Anglican Use priest referred to it as moving from an apartment into a house) appointed from among unmarried Anglicans-tuned-Roman Catholic Priests or Bishops. In this way, Benedict XVi has side-stepped the reservations of his own Latin-Rite Bishops (particularly in England) and has smoothed the way for these conversions.

    The interesting thing is that, despite the overly dramatic headlines, this is fundamentally NOT the establishment of an Anglican Rite to go alongside the Latin Rite and the Byzantine Rite of the Roman Church. It is instead an expansion of the Anglican Use of the Latin Rite which means that these folks will, after the first generation of convert clergy, be subject to the same discipline of clerical celibacy that Rome believes to be inherent to the Latin Rite and therefore all of (from their perspective) orthodox western Christianity. All of these priest will be re-ordained because their orders are “utterly null and void” according to Rome, and the lay people will be reconfirmed since they have never truly received any sacrament (since their clergy have been playing dress-up). This is simply more evidence that for a large number of Roman Catholics, reunion can only be achieved by submission. In addition, if the current rules remain in place, each one of these convert priests will have to demonstrate that he can support his family without the assistance of the Church, nor will they ever be allowed to serve as the rector of a congregation, but only as assistants (right now, as I understand it, only unmarried clergy can serve as priests in charge of congregations, even in the Anglican Use)

    I agree that it makes absolutely no sense for the RCC to accept and (re)ordain married converts as priests when they explicitly refuse to ever ordain a married man who is a baptized Roman Catholic. But what sense does universal clerical celibacy make anyway? This is just par for the course.

    Wednesday, October 21, 2009 at 12:13 pm | Permalink
  16. Jody+ wrote:

    I think it is a bit incorrect to say that eastern Christianity privileges celibacy per se. In the East, Bishops are mostly monastics not because they are unmarried and celibate, but because they were seen to have a spiritual authority that comes from being a “holy man” (there’s a wonderful book entitled “Holy Bishops in Late Antiquity” that deals with this in detail). This spiritual authority is related to their being celibate, but only in so far as their celibacy is symbolic of their renunciation of the world and it’s many employments and distractions, of which marriage is only one. There has also traditionally been the desire in the East that priests be seen as men and not as, in some way a “third sex” as was the case in the west. Hence the beards and a practical support for married priests.

    Wednesday, October 21, 2009 at 12:48 pm | Permalink
  17. David wrote:

    I think that there seems to be a circular argument regarding celibate priests going on here: firstly, the pragmatic reasons (pastoral responsibility, bachelor wages over married man wages, and inheritance), and secondly the argument from tradition (early church judgements, monastic orders). My problem though is that the latter seems to be dependent upon the former; that is, pragmatic reasons are given credence by due respect for tradition, and tradition is grounded in the fact that it is the tradition of the church. Consequently pragmatic reasons take on an unassailable position because they are rooted in a tradition that is more or less beyond question. In any case, Halden is quite right to point out the irony of the first Pope being married! If that isn’t the beginning of a tradition i don’t know what is.
    My problem though is that the priests have no choice. Celibacy is great if that is what you want, but why can’t a married man serve God just as well (in the same way Peter undoubtedly did)? Why the need for a blanket ban?

    Wednesday, October 21, 2009 at 1:02 pm | Permalink
  18. Thomas wrote:

    You’re attributing to the East a style of reflection which unduly separates the meaning of a practice (celibacy) with the actual practice (being celibate). To make a division between practice and the meaning of a practice understood reflectively in such a way that the practice is less necessary than the understanding of the practice’s true meaning (renouncing the world) is strikingly “uneastern”.

    Wednesday, October 21, 2009 at 8:03 pm | Permalink
  19. While I’m not Catholic and don’t think that priests or pastors should be required to be single, I am very sympathetic to that reason for the practice (i.e. priestly dynasties).

    But I think it might (in an ideal world) be better not to have clergy at all. :)

    Thursday, October 22, 2009 at 9:03 am | Permalink
  20. I’m ignorant on this question: Do Catholics generally admit that Peter was married? Or do they deny it (just as they deny that Mary had other children by Joseph)?

    Thursday, October 22, 2009 at 9:07 am | Permalink

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