Married Priests: Not So Fast

Cardinal Keith O’Brien of Edinburgh has repeatedly raised doubts about mandatory clerical celibacy in the Roman Church. In 2002, just prior to being named cardinal, he went on record as being open to changes in this discipline and was promptly hounded into silence by some oversensitive, self-identified “traditionalists” in Scotland and elsewhere. Yet he stuck his head up again in May 2005-just after Pope Benedict XVI took office-raising the question of whether this pontificate might be open to a change in Latin practice.

Though it is too early to know whether Pope Benedict will want to give much consideration to the issue, it is being regularly discussed by a variety of interested parties (see Commonweal, August 12). Yet that discussion is often theoretical and fails to include much practical thinking. Such thinking will be required if Roman Catholics are to prepare for the possibility of a married priesthood.

Many Catholics think that opening the priesthood to married men will bring about a massive infusion of new vocations, filling all vacancies, letting the elderly clergy finally retire, and setting the church up for a bright, well-manned future. Think again.

A married priesthood would bring many difficulties the Latin West has not had to deal with in centuries. First, it costs money and, crass though it sounds, this is one of the important historic reasons why the West chose to require celibacy of all its clergy. It is not easy today to raise a family, even a small one, and for a priest to do it would require, at a minimum, that he be paid double what the average pastor is currently paid. That is not likely to happen for the simple reason that Catholics are notoriously stingy givers. Many-encouraged by the media-operate under the illusion that the Vatican is swimming in gold, and this fiction absolves them from having to give more than a token couple of bucks a week in the collection basket.

In fact, the Vatican is often heavily in debt, and so is the church in North America. For the first time, entire dioceses on this continent (for example, in Newfoundland, Oregon, and Arizona) and provinces of religious orders (for example, the Oblates of Mary Immaculate) are declaring bankruptcy. The church has never had the wealth her detractors claim, and today its money is fast disappearing to settle massive legal bills. As a result, it is economically inconceivable for a married clergy to be supported by most parishes.

But priestly salaries are not the half of it. There would have to be an investment in parish infrastructure, to build or renovate the rectory to house a clerical family. And to put it bluntly, it is only natural to expect that the clerical family will have many children, who do not come cheap these days.

In addition to the dramatic changes parishes would need to undertake, bishops-who, presumably, following the model of the East (see John Garvey, August 12), would remain celibate-would have to change their modus operandi to contend with a force more formidable than any pope: the priest’s wife. One saintly Ukrainian Catholic bishop, much beloved in Canada, was wont to say that he had absolute confidence in his married priests because he knew their wives were more to be reckoned with than a room of the sternest hierarchs. A wife, he said, is a man’s bishop, metropolitan, patriarch, and pope all in one. A wife would keep the priest in line, and daily keep an eye on him, in a way a bishop-often hundreds of miles away-never could. This is so important a role that the Eastern Churches have a unique title for it: presbytera (Greek) or pani matka (Ukrainian) or matushka (Russian).

Once a man is married, bishops must realize that it will no longer be so easy to yank him out of one place and send him to another at a moment’s notice. No matter how desperate another place may be for a priest, the man’s wife will have to take part in the decision, and she is not bound by obedience to the bishop the way her husband is. If she is employed with a career of her own-as happens more and more often in the Eastern rites, where parishes are small and parishioners are stingy-she is likely to resist being sent to Crooked Elbow Pass or Frostbite Falls. Married clergy overwhelmingly prefer to be in large urban centers. As a result, bishops will continue to find themselves with clergy shortages in the more remote reaches of their dioceses.

This brings us to a second set of arguments for why a married priesthood is no cure-all: the experiences of the Eastern Churches, both Catholic and Orthodox, strongly suggest that a married priesthood cures few problems and brings a host of others.

The simplest argument to make against marriage as a solution to a shortage of priests is to realize that many of the Eastern Orthodox Churches, which allow a married priesthood, are themselves facing a shortage of priests in North America as severe as the Roman shortage-and in some instances more so, given the smaller population on which they draw. Even those churches that are said to be among the most generous in remunerating their clergy-the Greeks, for example, and the Copts-are finding woefully insufficient numbers of men coming forward to staff many parishes in Canada and the United States.

For their part, the Eastern Catholic Churches (for example, the Ukrainians, the Melkites, the Ruthenians) are no different. The largest of these, the Ukrainian Catholic Church, is very much in need of clergy in North America and is finding a married priesthood no solution to the shortage, not least because many of its parishes are strung out across the desolate Canadian prairies or American Midwest with their endless winters and tiny populations. Add to this the sociological factor that in a successful, fast-paced culture of technological wizardry, most men today are too materially contented to want to undertake a career that requires them not only to preach a spirit of sacrifice to their flocks, but to live it.

There are other problems with a married priesthood that the Roman tradition doesn’t have a clue about. Leaving aside the truly sad (and fortunately rare) instances of married priests getting divorced, there are many other unique struggles and strains on clerical families. First, a married priest is, after a fashion, a bigamist: he is married, certainly and sacramentally, to his wife, but he is also “married” to his parish insofar as he is intimately involved with all aspects of its life. He is expected to be available at all hours of every day and night. Just as one cannot take a holiday from one’s marriage, so too one cannot take a holiday from a parish-often quite literally. Many Eastern parishes can never give their priest a full and proper vacation because there would be nobody to replace him. The only alternative would be to close the parish while he was away, depriving the faithful of the sacraments. In parishes with many aged members-where there are more funerals than baptisms-it is not a viable option to be away when your flock is dying. Thus married priests are often overworked and chronically tired. They have no “down time,” no time away to rest and recuperate, whether physically or spiritually. The demands, and therefore the exhaustion, can be bone-crushing.

In addition to the fatigue, a man is conscious of being constantly divided. His wife and children must compete with the parish for attention, and in the end, both can end up being short-changed. That this can leave a man feeling forever under pressure and forever unfulfilled and unfulfilling contributes to the anxiety and fatigue of many clergy and their families, who must adjust to the omnivorous demands of the parish. In short, it is not easy for anyone. When these stresses are combined with the often appallingly low wages and difficult working conditions, is it any wonder so few men are coming forward? As one married priest told me by way of vocational advice, “Look after yourself, because the church sure won’t.”

None of the above should be taken as an argument against a married priesthood. As a married Eastern Catholic subdeacon myself, I am very much in favor of this ancient and clearly apostolic practice (see Luke 4:38) where properly supported and understood. It is this lack of understanding and support that makes widespread agitation for a change in the Roman discipline problematic. The serious challenges of a married priesthood should be noted, not to air dirty laundry in public, and still less to discourage discussion, but so that those agitating for a change in the Roman discipline do so with eyes wide open and are prepared to undertake the changes and sacrifices required. If, after much reflection and planning, the Latin Church begins to ordain married men, those married clergy will represent a new source of priestly vocations for the church. But one thing is certain: they will not be a panacea.

Published in the 2005-09-09 issue: 

Adam A. J. DeVille

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