Priests and marriage

As the new year began, Pope Benedict XVI announced the formation of an ordinariate to serve American Episcopalians to Roman Catholicism and named Father Jeffrey Steenson, a former Episcopal priest and then bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of the Rio Grande, to head the jurisdiction. 

Called the Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter, this new body within the Church will be akin to a diocese except it will not have geographical boundaries. So, a convert to the Church from Episcopalianism who lives in Seattle, and another in Atlanta, both will be members of the ordinariate — if they choose — despite residing in different parts of the country. 

By the same token, a parish of the ordinariate, wherever it is located in this country, will be subject to Father Steenson and not to the local Roman-rite bishop. 

Father Steenson is married, as are many other former Episcopal priests who have converted to the Catholic Church and have been ordained Catholic priests. 

Here several points should be made. Episcopal priests are ordained by Episcopal bishops. For a century, however, the Catholic Church formally has acted on the conclusion that Episcopal ordinations are wanting in considerations vital to the priesthood as established by Christ. Therefore, Episcopal priests must be ordained as Catholic priests if they convert and are accepted by a Catholic bishop for the priesthood. 

Invariably, the question of marriage is raised in these cases. Interestingly, in my experience, active Catholic priests rarely refer to it, unless perhaps in some pragmatic sense. Can a parish financially support a priest with a wife and family? 

I have heard many laypeople and more than a few inactive Catholic priests once ordained and active in priestly ministry but later resigned, usually then to marry, question this policy regarding former Episcopal priests. Not uncommonly laypeople and resigned Catholic priests grumble that inactive Catholic priests should be allowed to return to active priestly lives even if they are married. 

The difference between the two cases is very clear. While Church law does not allow a Catholic priest to be married, unless he is permitted to do so by the pope, and while a series of popes has required that priests receiving this permission must relinquish the active priesthood, celibacy is not imposed by the Church. 

Every Catholic priest remembers the day when he formally and expressly promised — in writing — never to marry. True, many Catholic priests, especially since the Second Vatican Council, have formally stated to Church authorities that they did not know what celibacy meant for them individually when they made this promise, and that they cannot save their souls without being married. So, the Church allows them to marry. 

Episcopal priests never make any such promise, and respecting the obligations of marriage, the Church would never require a priest converting from Episcopalianism to abandon his wife or to deprive her of anything essential to the marriage relationship. 

To be a Catholic priest, finally, any former Episcopal priest must promise never to remarry should his spouse die. 

People also wonder why priests can resign and be permitted by the Church to marry, while spouses cannot civilly divorce and without anything else remarry someone else. 

The Church permits priests to marry since priests promise the Church not to marry. As to marriage, spouses vow lifelong commitment until death, not to the Church or any human figure, but to God. Annulments do not dissolve marriages, but they declare that no marriage ever existed sacramentally. 

Msgr. Owen F. Campion is OSV’s associate publisher.