Married Priests

A Countercultural Witness

It is very difficult to have a productive conversation about the possibility of a married priesthood in the Roman Catholic Church. For some Catholics, any discussion of a change in the church’s current discipline constitutes either an attack on the priesthood itself or a capitulation to a secular culture that cannot appreciate the spiritual gifts that a celibate priesthood offers the church. Some Catholics support a married priesthood as a way to argue against priestly celibacy, which they regard as an antiquated discipline that is antisex and at least indirectly responsible for the clerical sex-abuse crisis. Still others will argue for a married priesthood as a necessary pastoral response to the shortage of priests: the people of God, they say, have a right to the Eucharist, and that right trumps any spiritual or pastoral value in a celibate priesthood. Frequently, advocates of a married priesthood will point out that ecumenical accommodations have already been made for married Protestant ministers who convert to Catholicism, but those cases remain the exceptions to the rule. What is needed today is a constructive argument for a married priesthood in the Latin Church that is neither a pastoral/ecumenical accommodation nor a repudiation of priestly celibacy.

Any discussion of the relationship between celibacy and priesthood needs to distinguish between three different “logics” that have governed the practice of committed celibacy in the tradition. We find the first logic in the words of Jesus commending those who freely become “eunuchs for the kingdom” (Matthew 19). We might speak of this as celibacy’s prophetic witness to the values of the reign of God. According to this logic, one chooses a life of committed celibacy and renounces the sexual intimacy and companionship of marriage in order to enter into the paschal mystery in a distinctive way and give public witness to its transformative power.

This logic is not antisex: those who freely choose this way of life can also give witness to the liberating power of authentic sexuality, in part by resisting the contemporary tendency to reduce sexuality to sexual acts. This kind of prophetic witness invites all Christians to consider anew their own call to exercise the virtue of chastity, whatever the particular circumstances of their lives. A crucial characteristic of this logic is the presumption that the person considering a celibate way of life actually possesses a charism for celibacy. For those who recognize that charism in their lives, celibacy can be both demanding and fruitful. Without such a charism, however, celibacy can become a sterile burden. Prophetic celibacy first emerged in the witness of hermits and monks and continued to flourish in later forms of consecrated life. It has no intrinsic connection with the ministerial priesthood. 

A second logic for celibacy, characterized by a concern for both moral and ritual purity, appears with particular force in the fourth and fifth centuries. Before examining this logic, we should recall a basic distinction: sexual continence refers to abstinence from sexual relations, whereas celibacy refers to forgoing marriage (and of course presumes sexual continence as well). The logic of purity sees the sexual continence of the clergy not as a freely embraced charism but as a canonical obligation intended to preserve the purity of the priest in view of his holy office. When it became difficult to ascertain whether married priests were observing sexual continence before celebrating the Eucharist, bishops and regional synods began calling not just for priestly continence but also for priestly celibacy.

The logic of purity is constructed around a selective appropriation of the norms governing the Levitical priesthood, as presented in the Old Testament. This logic treats sexual activity as a form of ritual defilement. It also draws on ancient Stoic suspicions of human sexuality. Sex, even in marriage, is viewed largely as a concession to natural appetites and to the necessity of procreation. Partly as a consequence of this second logic, sexual continence and eventually celibacy would become a canonical obligation for priests in the Latin Church. 

Finally, there is a third logic for celibacy, what we might call the logic of ministerial freedom. This logic sees celibacy as providing a greater freedom for Gospel service because the minister is not preoccupied with familial obligations. (A fourth logic emerged in the early Middle Ages as a way of protecting church property from the inheritance claims of the clergy’s offspring, but this logic lacks a properly theological foundation and so will not be considered here.) Note that the logic of ministerial freedom, like the logic of prophetic witness, assumes the presence of a charism, without which celibacy will be experienced only as a burden, not as a gift.

As long as celibacy was intended to preserve ritual purity, it made sense for it to be a canonical obligation for all priests. According to the logic of purity, the point of forbidding priests to marry was just to prevent them from engaging in sexual activity, which was judged to be incompatible with their cultic function. Since the Second Vatican Council, however, this logic has been largely abandoned (for good reasons). So we are left with the logics of prophetic witness and ministerial service. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church,

All the ordained ministers of the Latin Church, with the exception of permanent deacons, are normally chosen from among men of faith who live a celibate life and who intend to remain celibate “for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.” Called to consecrate themselves with undivided heart to the Lord and to “the affairs of the Lord, they give themselves entirely to God and to men [and women]. Celibacy is a sign of this new life to the service of which the church’s minister is consecrated; accepted with a joyous heart celibacy radiantly proclaims the Reign of God. (1579)

But this leaves us with a difficulty. As Heinz Vogels argues in Celibacy: Gift or Law (1993), a celibate life lived as prophetic witness and in genuine freedom for gospel service cannot be mandated by canonical obligation; it can emerge only as the free recognition and embrace of a particular charism.

A better understanding of celibacy’s proper role in the church would require a better theology of vocation—one that properly distinguished between various ministries on the one hand and various forms of holiness on the other. Despite some helpful developments in its theology of vocation, the Second Vatican Council continued to draw on the traditional view of Christian vocation, configured around three alternative “states of life”: marriage, priesthood, and religious life. However, an alternative framework presents itself in the middle four chapters of Lumen Gentium. Chapters 3 (on the hierarchy) and 4 (on the laity) explore how the church is constituted by its different charisms and ministries. Chapters 5 and 6 are concerned with the call to holiness—the former with the perfection of charity to which all Christians are called, and the latter with the public witness to holiness offered by consecrated religious. What we see embedded in the order of these four chapters is not the traditional “three states” schema, but the outlines of a new schema constructed along two axes. The first is ministerial: Am I called to serve the church through the charisms I have received from baptism or through ordination? The second axis has to do with holiness and forms of Christian discipleship: Am I called to pursue that Christian holiness proper to all disciples of Jesus, or am I called to give a public witness to the demands of discipleship and the values of the reign of God through a form of public vowed life? This framework has the merit of unhinging the ministerial priesthood from any necessary relationship with either celibacy or marriage, since the call to priestly ministry would be realized along one axis, and the call to the single life, marriage, or committed celibacy along the second axis. 

Some male religious communities have preserved this distinction by insisting that those seeking entrance into their community focus on their embrace of its charism and apostolate before they explore the quite separate question of whether they are called to priestly ministry. The process for those entering the diocesan priesthood should be adapted along the same lines, so as to leave room for the possibility that a candidate for priestly ministry may not have a charism for celibacy. The lack of that charism should not be thought to invalidate a vocation to the priesthood.

For much of the history of the Latin Church, priestly celibacy was defended according to the logic of purity: the priesthood was seen as essentially incompatible with the sexual intimacy of marriage. This logic depended on a rather harsh appraisal of the character of human sexuality. A much more positive theology of sexuality emerged in the twentieth century, offering the possibility of a new assessment of a married priesthood—one based on the recognition that Christian marriage is not an alternative to an ascetical life, but a form of it.

I have no wish to demonize secular culture; grace is at work there too. Yet we cannot ignore the force of consumerism, which turns goods into commodities and encourages an “upgrade mentality,” even with respect to human beings. This mentality can make lifelong commitment appear almost nonsensical. At the same time, our culture’s preoccupation with romance and passion can make the mundane marital practice of companionship appear boring, laborious, and ultimately unnecessary. Consider the myth of Mr. or Ms. Right—the naïve conviction that there is one “right person” out there for each of us. This is a myth often underwritten by an inadequate understanding of divine providence and the misguided Christian conviction that God has intended “one person and only one person” for each of us who feel called to marriage. This myth can make the inevitable pains and disappointments within a marriage appear as indications that one has chosen the wrong person (“I see now that my spouse was not the right one”).

Against this cultural backdrop, authentic Christian married life will inevitably be countercultural and prophetic. The public profession of marriage vows engages Christian spouses in a prophetic form of renunciation, a free embrace of limits for the sake of Christian witness and mission. The vows of marriage bind a couple together “for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health.” The faithful companionship to which Christian marriage calls us retains a vital and necessary ascetical character. Moreover, we must resist reducing marital lovemaking to “the thing celibates don’t get to do”; it, too, participates in the prophetic witness of marriage. Conjugal love is not constituted by a mere “right to the body of one’s spouse” (ius in corpus). In its potential for intimacy and vulnerability, as well as delight, and in its humble openness to new life, it is a sign of contradiction in a culture that commodifies sex and depreciates fidelity.

Christian married couples, like faithful celibate priests and consecrated religious, give prophetic witness to eschatological values associated with the coming of God’s reign: chastity, radical forgiveness, vulnerability, fidelity, hospitality, generosity, and gratitude.

Were leaders in the Latin Church to recognize the prophetic witness of Christian married life, they might look at the possibility of a married priesthood with new eyes. They might see that marriage, like committed celibacy, is a concrete form of the universal call to holiness that can fruitfully support priestly ministry. They might come to see a married priesthood not as a reluctant pastoral or ecumenical accommodation but as a genuine gift to the entire church. They might recognize in a married priesthood a valuable complement to a celibate priesthood, a form of life well suited for both ministry and prophetic witness. And if a married priesthood helped challenge the misuse of priestly celibacy as a support for clerical elitism, well, that wouldn’t be so bad either.

About the Author

Richard R. Gaillardetz is the Joseph Professor of Catholic Systematic Theology at Boston College. His books include: Keys to the Council:  Unlocking the Teaching of Vatican II (co-authored with Catherine Clifford, Liturgical Press, 2012), When the Magisterium Intervenes (editor, Liturgical Press, 2012), Ecclesiology for a Global Church:  A People Called and Sent (Orbis, 2008) and The Church in the Making (Paulist, 2006). 



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What I have never understood is the Latin Rite's adamant position of mandatory clerical celibacy EXCEPT for members of the Ordinariate and others who are married Protestant ministers and then become Catholics and are able to ordained as married Catholic priests.  If these exceptions to the rule are valid for them, does it not argue against the adamancy of the position to begin with?

And what about the married priests of the non-Latin Catholic Rites?  Are they not quite "real" priests because they are not celibate? 

The discipline will have more current validity if it is voluntary for those who choose it and not mandatory as a condition of ordination.

Thank you Professor Gaillardetz for a well written and insightful article.

The issue of Protestant clergy and their admittance to the Latin Church's ordained priesthood, with all the rights and obligations associated with this ministry and its call to holiness and witness, is contradictory and inconsistent to the argument of purity and its many defintiions and logics. To most theologians and Catholics, the Church's argument is unconvincing. 

I profess that there is very little, if any, evidence that the married priesthood of non-Roman Catholic Christian Churches are less holy, effective witnesses and disciples of Jesus Christ in a public vowed life. Where is the evidence that one form of chasity is superior and more pleasing to God? Where is the evidence that the demands of married life has seriously impacted the obligations and responsibilities of priestly ordination? 

I appreciated your discussion of consumerism in the modern Western secular culture. Clearly, this culture does minimize the values of married life, sexual intimacy, charisms, and forms of discipleship. However, the Church makes the profound error of painting with a wide brush the non-reception of many of its sexual ethical teachings by asserting that the secular culture is the cause of divorce, contraception, same-sex marriage, procreation by modern reproductive technologies for couples with serious fertility problems, et al. Those who disagree said to be infected with a some type of cultural diabolical cancer that prevents them from recognizing, understanding and living the truth, as proclaimed by the Magisterium. When there are no convincing moral arugments in suport of such teachings, it has the effect of rendering the Magisterium irrelevant especially in the areas of marriage, human sexualtiy  and procreation.

So when it comes to the subject of a married or celibate priesthood, the prohibition of women ordination, or the question of a Divinely-wille ecclesial structure, it is not surprising that these teachings are unconvincing. The argument offered is often an argument "from authority", by proclaiming that the Church can only proclaim and teach the truth. However, when the issues are debated philosophically and theologically, by theologians, the discussion ends in division where the group opposing the established teaching are called revisionists, dissenters, unfaithful and misguided.

I enjoyed your article and pray that it moves the conversation of a married priesthood forward in a positve way. 





Talk about a big news day to post this brilliant piece! I am not sure if it is unfortunate or providential, though it was perhaps correctly timed for the day before Francis’ exhortation for a major revitalization of the Church. I am reading it as a foundational clarification of a key issue in the structural reform about to be undertaken. While the Catholic world is busy reading the lengthy and groundbreaking Evangelii Gaudium it may take a few days for readers to notice and engage with this article, judging at least from the few comments yet posted.

I too have found it “very difficult to have a productive conversation” about his issue. And this precise clarification of the reasons for the difficulty is most helpful and opens a way forward. It seems in fact a liberating experience that deserves a wide readership that hopefully will open the productive conversation that can effect the necessary breakthrough it implies.

It has long been my experience and observation that many engaged in vocational discernment find the way the Spirit is leading them blocked and can find no way to meaningfully express their disappointment or engage in “productive conversation” that may foster real change or reform in Church structures. The major need this article arouses in me is for some open and ecclesially recognized forum to promote and explore realistic ways married persons can follow a call of the Lord into presbyteral ministry.

Ritual Purity? Charism to witness to escatological issues? Defeating the possibility of inheriting church property? Becoming eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom - Seriously? So Peter was a weak and unworthy pope? Did he diddle with his wife too often for the purists? Juggle his grandchildren on his knee and know the rewards and comforts of family life? Dance with his daughter on her wedding day?

As they say on ESPN: "C'mon, man" 

What if a significant number of men left the church and became Anglican priests then transferred back and became Catholic priests? It might take only a little longer than going to a Catholis seminary.  Or go to an Eastern Rite seminary?  Will it take something like this to get the church to reconsider its position which was not in effect our first thousand years?  Let's return to the old, original church.  Enough of this radicalism.     

What a great article!  I hope that Professor Gaillardetz will also write someday about the "creeping infallibility" that followed Pope John Paul II's insistince that the subject of women priests could not even be discussed in the church, another ridiculous concept of "sexual purity" by an all-male clergy.

What has been  already  noted..   and what definitely has passed...., is how  we older Catholics loved and admired our celibate priests  as portrayed in 30-40s-50s, movies.   how the hero celibate priests with un-encumbered courage cleaned up whatever evil  they encountered in society..... hero priests were played by Gregory. Peck, Carl Malden, Specer Tracy, Bing Crosby  and even Frank Sinatra... that image of hero celibates mirrored the lonesome cowboy who came to town to ride out the bad guys and that cowboy  never had a wagon full of  wife and kids tagging along either   .Is that hero celibate priest story helping  keepi the lid on still? .

I will support a married priesthood *after* the Church approves of birth control.

Kathleen:  "the church," i.e., the People of God, have approved of birth control with their actions and large-scale ignoring of Humanae Vitae.  The church has spoken.  Please do not fall into the trap of equating "the church" with the clergy.


Now for the married priesthood.  If, for a start, bishops simply started to ordain married men in those areas where there is a crying need for priests the ability by the hierarchy to stop it would weaken quickly.  Then the magic words could be uttered:  "As the Church has always taught ...."

Would the wives also be "priests"?  Or would it just be a way a perpetuating an all-mail priesthood?

I can spell but apparently I can't type!

BTW, where DID you find that picture of those priests?  Are they for real?????

I have known a couple of priests who were deeply attached to their dogs.  I felt sorry for the priests, who probably pined for wives and children, but dogs were the only family they were allowed to have.  "It is not good for man to be alone," God said, so he created a woman, NOT a dog, for Adam.

The notion of "ritual putity" has deep roots in the dualism that has infected Christianity from the beginning: Zoroastrian/Gnostics, Manichaeans, Paulicians, Bogomils, Cathars, Albigensians, Jansenists and all in between. The thread running through all these dualisms (condemned as heresies) divides men (sky, light, dry, good ) from women (earth, darkness, wet, evil).

The Noah story tells of the sons of God entering into the daughters of men (men from the heavens endowed with a spark of divinity; women binding these heavenly spirits to matter). Thus the notion that Eve brought about man's fall from original grace. The Jewish "ritual purity" separated the women from the males' Court of the Israelites, thus farther from the Holy of Holies. The priests performed the theourgic ritual of bloody sacrifice (an empty magic). They required menstruating women to stay away from the temple until they had purified themselves in ritual baths. Why? the flow of women's blood is a marker of women's real magic which alone can give life.

Tradition tells us that all the Apostles, save John, were ordinary married men. The Eastern rites allow priests to marry. While holding other offices, women were banned from full priesthood in the early Church due to the suppression of women in those cultures. A woman's baptismal character is no different from a man's and this sacrament alone entitles every baptized person access to all other sacraments, including Holy Orders, if a woman feels called.

Many American Bishops are intent in supressing women on all fronts and have attacked the Sisters who are the true exemplars of the Christian life as spelled out in the Sermon on the Mount (spiritual and corporal works of mercy). The hierarchs would silence nuns and women in general and force nuns into the same clothing the Islamists force on their women.

No Pope can tell the Church as the "people of God" that they cannot discuss a married priesthood or priesthood for women. It's time for American Catholic Universities to protect the rights of theologians and laity to speak out and it's time for lay Catholics to curb the "hubris syndrome" infecting so many American Bishops and Cardinals.

I can't imagine being happily married and not wanting everyone else to experience the same joy that marriage brings. 

Thank you for breaking the ice on this subject that most Catholics have already voted on but which "must not be discussed". The article is an excellent summary of the theological state of the question.  But  there is another elephant in the living room, and I suspect that we won't get far with the theology without facing up to that one too.  When will we be able to speak without shame about homosexuality in the prriesthood?  The New York Times just published an article estimating something like 5% for the prevalence of homosexuality in the general population;  conservative estimates for the clergy run around five or six times that, and higher if we're considering those whose attractions are bisexual. Is this just a random coincidence, or has the celibate priesthood provided a safe and constructive outlet for the energies of generations of gay men who would otherwise have had to live lives of secrecy or ignominy because of our bigotry?



William Marrin,

The 2002 LA Times Poll of U.S. Priests showed that 23% of younger priests, those ordained less than 21 years, were either homosexual or had a strong trendancy toward this human orientation. 15% of all priests answered that they have a homosexual orientation.

Clearly, the percentage of Catholic priests who say they have a homosexual orientation (15%) is greater than the percent of men in the general population with a same-sex orientation (e.g., 5%). However, I don't think the proves that homosexuality was the cause of the clergy sex abuse scandal. For example, I don't think there was any convincing evidence that most of the clergy who sexually abused children were homosexual. Nor has it been proven that the rate of sexual abuse of children by Catholic clergy is significanly higher than the sexual abuse of children in the general population. What is horrific is sexual abuse itself especially by clergy.



Mr. Barberi is clearly correct in asserting that homosexuality did not cause the sexual abuse scandal. I I was surprisedin fact that the thought even occurrd to him. As a resigned priest who taught for many years in a seminary, however, I do feel that there may be a connection between the clerical culture of cover-up that has long existed to preserve the illusion of clerical heterosexuality (and sexual continence), and the outrageous  cover up of the criminal behavior of a few sociopaths. This may be a part of what Gaillardetz is referring to when he says that some believe to be an indirect connection between celibacy and the sex abuse scandal.

OK, keep priests celibate, but the Bible (Epistles of Timothy) states that a bishop should be a married man. If this party of the Bible is ignored, why not ignore the parts of the Bible bout homosexuality?

Christ ws celibate and we're supposed to immitate him.

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