Weighing the pros and the cons of married priesthood

There’s been a lot of talk in Catholic circles lately — including on our own “letters to the editor” page — about the advisability, or not, of abandoning the tradition in the Latin-rite Church of an unmarried priesthood. 

A couple of catalysts have prompted the discussion. 

Most recently is the news of whole communities of Anglicans “swimming the Tiber” and becoming reunited with Rome, while retaining their own characteristic liturgy and traditions, such as a married priesthood. A fair number of Catholics in the United States probably already have experienced the occasional married Catholic priest who formerly was a minister in the Anglican Church or Protestant community. But that’s likely to become a much more widespread experience, if the expected larger numbers of Anglican communities integrate into Catholic communities here (and in other English-speaking Catholic churches around the world). 

For Catholics in the United States, there’s the additional experience of knowing many permanent deacons. They are clergy who are married; why not priests, too? 

Another catalyst is probably the lingering suspicion among many, including very many Catholics, that the clerical sex abuse crisis, at the very least, wouldn’t have been so catastrophic if we had a married priesthood — even if the data pretty convincingly shows that sex abuse of minors takes place far more commonly in families, and occurs just as often in church communities with married ministers. Still, the perception is tough to crack. 

Another is the belief widespread among Catholics, and even among some bishops, that dropping the celibacy requirement for men who feel called to the priesthood would help solve the coming crisis of a shortage of priests. 

But I wonder if people are thinking through all the practical consequences. Yes, we know the handful of former Anglicans and Eastern-rite Catholic priests somehow make marriage and their ministry work. 

A popular Catholic blogger, Simcha Fisher, recently imagined a series of comments Catholics might make about their married priest and his family. An example: “I wanted to meet with Father to talk about the new brochures for the pro-life committee, and his secretary said he was busy — but on the drive home, I saw him at the McDonald’s playground, just fooling around with his kids! I guess I know where I stand in this parish! Harumph.” 

Or: 

“Everyone thinks it’s so great that Father started all these holy hours and processions and prayer groups, but I saw two of his little ones sitting all alone, just looking so sad and neglected. It’s a shame that any children should grow up that way, without proper attention from their parents. Harumph.” 

You can probably imagine many more. 

What trumps for you? Email feedback@osv.com