Why can’t Catholic priests marry?

Good afternoon, Catholic Girls!

I am a moderate Christian woman with Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish family. I love getting to know more about other faith traditions and find religious culture fascinating! So of course, I am a fan of AskMormonGirl, AskCatholicGirl, and now AskJewish Girl! :)

I’ve always wondered why the Catholic Church requires their priests to be non-married? Is there a Biblical passage that the Catholic Church bases this decision upon?

It just seems to me that in our post-modern world, having a leader who understands the joys, sorrows, needs, and demands of a family might be better equipped to understand the lives of his parishioners. Not to mention having a partner who can be a support, sounding board, and partner in ministry.

Just thought I would ask since the reverends and rabbis in my life are all married and have families… and this has always been a curious question of mine!

Warmest Regards,

EH

Dear EH,

With this one, you’ve hit upon something that every Catholic has considered many times in the course of his or her life, but probably no one more than priests themselves. The insistence on unmarried priests by the Roman Catholic Church is curious in our contemporary lives, and to the common person, celibacy can seem antiquated and restrictive, especially at a time when the Church is finding fewer and fewer young men willing to forego the pleasures of a wife and family in favor of heeding a call to shepherd the faithful, as a Catholic might say.

And as you rightly point out, sometimes it seems like priests would be more accessible to their congregations, and their congregations would be more accessible to the priests, if they had more common life experiences. Yet in the 12th century, after many centuries of pondering the question, the Roman Catholic Church rendered clerical marriages invalid at First Lateran Council, and of all the things decided there, this one really stuck.

You ask if there is a Biblical support for this, and there is. Probably the most often cited is 1 Corinthians 7:32-34, where Paul writes, “An unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how he may please the Lord. But a married man is anxious about the things of the world, how he may please his wife, and he is divided.” Growing up, this is what I was told about why priests couldn’t marry. The demands of shepherding a congregation and tending to their spiritual needs would be too much to balance with the demands of a family. One or the other would always be getting the short end of the stick.

But another reason cited for priestly celibacy is the accepted narrative (for the majority of Christians) is that Jesus was celibate, therefore it is a way for the leaders of the Church to emulate him. Many argue that this is most appropriate given the fact that consecrating and administering the Eucharist, which Catholics believe is the Body and Blood of Christ, is the priests’ most sacred responsibility. Even in strains of Catholicism where priests can marry—Eastern and Russian Orthodox, for example—the priests are supposed to abstain from sex with their wives for a certain period of time before they participate in these rituals.

This fits with the idea of celibacy as a means of purification and a discipline, which is not only part of the Catholic tradition but also appears in Buddhist and Hindu philosophy, among others. Celibacy is one form of denying the body in favor of the spirit, one means through which the individual transcends the baser human instincts in an attempt to reach the divine.

All of this is not to say that there were not contradictory motives for the prohibition in the Catholic Church. There are probably many layers of political and power struggles underneath the polished veneer, and it’s possible that Pope Calixtus II (and many popes, cardinals, and bishops that have followed) didn’t want to worry about the heirs of priests attempting to claim Church property or funds as inheritance.

With that in mind, it’s important to point out that the prohibition on married priests in the Catholic Church is Canon Law, which is a complex set of guidelines that functions the same way as laws drawn up by our legislators. It is not dogma. And while dogma is unalterable, Canon Law is not, so it may be that someday, Catholic priests will be allowed to marry. Based on recent statements by the current Pope, it doesn’t seem that will happen anytime soon. For now, Canon 247 will remain, and seminarians are to be taught “to hold celibacy in honor as a special gift of God.” This seems to reinforce that the practice is a discipline, but not integral to faith itself.

The fact that celibacy is not integral to the faith is also reflected in the fact that the church does allow exceptions to the rule, also following from Paul. Protestant clergy who convert and desire to become priests can receive dispensations from the Pope to be ordained as Catholic priests, even if they are married, even if they have children. There aren’t many—I’ve heard anecdotally that there are about 80 in the United States, though I’ve never seen that confirmed—but one of them is the priest in the tiny parish where I grew up. A convert from the Episcopalian faith, Fr. Martin arrived when I was 16, and he remains to this day, almost a decade and a half later.

So speaking from experience, it is a little different to have the priest’s wife sitting in the front pew or reading the scriptures during mass or administering communion (as a layperson, of course). I do think his “marriedness” and the fact that he is a father does give him some credibility when a parishioner looks to him for advice about what to do in a marriage or with worries about a child.

On the other hand, I’ve known the sons and daughters of Protestant pastors who speak of the pressure of being a pastor’s kid—how you’re expected to be well-behaved and perfect, how it feels as if the ministry is always the priority and that you are the secondary concern. And I’m ghost-writing the memoir of a retired minister of an Evangelical megachurch who says that it was all just too much.

I’m not advocating one or the other here. I truly believe that celibacy has a place and that it can be a true vocation, but I also see the point that imposed celibacy and be a lonely and alienating practice. I also think that rabbis and Protestant ministers and Orthodox priests probably do find a lot of comfort in their families. But they also might feel stretched pretty thin.

But if we’re talking about Catholicism, I don’t see the Church changing because priests aren’t connecting with their parishioners. (We’ve never been that democratic.) More likely it would be that young men are not hearing or responding to the call to priesthood, and that the shortage of available priests becomes more than the Church can withstand.

Which could bring us to the topic of women priests. But that’s a whole different question.

Peace and light,

Carmen

16 thoughts on “Why can’t Catholic priests marry?

  1. AskJewishGirl here. Thank you , Carmen, for your nuanced answer to EH. All religions, even ones that claim eternal truths (and that is DEFINITELY a topic for a future, perhaps even multiple-blog, forum) change over time. They have to; one thing no religion wants is to become irrelevant to its adherents or prospective adherents. The very fact that there is an exception, tiny though it may be, for accepting married priests into the Catholic clergy may eventually turn out to bolster the issue of unmarried, celibate clergy.

    And just by way of explanation, rabbis are not clergy. They are ordinary people who have completed a course of study (boy am I simplifying here), and received “smikha,” which merely confirms that they have completed the course. Many rabbis do not have a congregation.

    Shalom to all.

    • Thanks for clarifying, Sharon! We all need a little help with the ins and outs of other faiths, and I’m grateful for your input!

  2. As a non-Catholic, I can’t help but wonder if there would have been fewer cases of sexual abuse by priests if they were not expected to remain unmarried. Of course married men still commit sexual abuse. Has anyone analyzed the rate of abusers between populations of Catholic priests and populations of married men? I’m sorry because I think this comment sound callous toward the situation. I do not mean to imply that most priests are abusers, or that the horrific consequences for the abused can be quantified. I am trying to ask an honest question on a highly emotional topic, and I apologize in advance if my question offends.

    • I don’t think you need to apologize, though I appreciate your delicacy toward this very tragic and horrendous offense. The idea that priestly celibacy is what caused the sex abuse is something many people have tossed around in the last few years. As for the number of offending priests as compared to the general public, I’ve heard different statistics–that the incidence of Catholic priests engaging in sex abuse is the same as, lower than, and much higher than the general public. From the research I’ve looked at, it doesn’t seem like there’s a conclusive answer.

      But in my mind, it doesn’t make sense that taking a vow of celibacy turns a person into a pedophile or a sex offender. By the same logic, any type of abstinence would cause someone to behave deviantly in the opposite extreme. I think it’s plausible that a young Catholic man who has this deviant urge enters the priesthood thinking that it will go away, but it doesn’t. Then the power dynamics–that a priest is trusted implicitly as an authority and leader–are easy to exploit. I also think that the number of sex abuse cases is very high because the Church, in its hideous and ultimately counterproductive effort to protect the image of the institution, shuttled the priests around to hide the abuse instead of removing the offending priests and pressing criminal charges, which would have been the righteous and just response. Because of this, the abusers were able to perpetrate again, increasing the number of abuse cases.

      In addition, my mother-in-law, a sociologist who studies deviant behavior, hypothesizes is that these incidences of abuse are happening where women are not there as a protective presence. She’s not done any sort of statistical study, but I think it’s an interesting idea, especially given the similarity of the Jerry Sandusky/Penn State situation and other claims of abuse that have been recently made against male coaches by their players.

  3. Wives and families require money to support and are entitled to inheritance.

    If you eliminate the family, your priest requires less resources and all of his belongings default back to the church when he dies.

    • I just heard the same thing from my dentist. Sounds possible. I think all of the other reasons given above seem rather silly. Most of us know how easy it is to take bible quotes and apply them to a particular agenda. I think us Catholic folks could learn a lot from our Jewish friends. Like Sharon (above) wrote, Rabbis are “ordinary” people, not clergy. I’m hoping that, in the past, Catholic priest were married, had children and loved God too. It seems possible in 2012 as well.

      • In the past priests did marry and have children. This is, of course, before Luther and the Protestant Reformation, so there was nothing but the Catholic Church. But as Paul Mento referenced, an unmarried priest required fewer resources. Also, if a priest had children, his inheritance went to them (and his widow) when he died. The Church wanted the inheritances to go to the Church, and that was the initial impulse for requiring no marriage, and by extension, celibacy, from the priesthood.

      • Correct. . . anything that a priest possesses belongs to the Church, so He must leave it to the Church when he die, so if a priest has a family, he must look for a job to feed his family that will obviously divide his attention and service.

  4. Pingback: Current religious news to reflect… « A Robin Hood's Musing

  5. maybe they cannot marry just to reduce that chance of having too many kids the church could not afford to feed. what if the wife wants to stay home and take care of the kids? who’s going to pay for everything? so could money be the reason why? and nothing to do with faith?

  6. Further–the celibate priesthood got started in the Middle Ages, when for quite a while priests could marry, have families, etc. But the Church didn’t want a priest leaving his property to his children; they wanted it left to the Church. So for purely political and economic reasons it was decided by the Powers That Be (i.e., the Pope, I don’t know which one) that priests would not be allowed to marry. It was a short jump from that to requiring celibacy in the priesthood.

    • A life of celibacy is, very simply, not normal. Therefore it is likely to attract sexually dysfunctional applicants. Also, I suspect that many Catholic clergy have secret lovers. After all, when nighttime arrives you just jump in your car and head for lovers lane.

      • Celibacy is unnatural but I do think the majority of priests (and nuns) live highly tempered lives. In fact, we are all called to reflect upon our emotions and desires and act with restraint and thoughtfulness, this jut looks different for ordained individuals. I’m sure it’s challenging to never have had sex or to go from being sexually active to no longer having sex however, I do believe in being called to vocation. Therefore I do not think that clergy just throw their vows to the wind to take a lover (some probably do but I’m uncomfortable with your blanket statement). There’s a great moment in the Ed Norton film Keeping the Faith when his superior at the seminary tells him that he falls in love every 20 years or so and he contemplates leaving his priestly life but in the end chooses to remain a priest because the benefits out way the sacrifices.

      • I suppose the word “MANY” was probably a bit too strong for what I intended to say. As you implied, a man living a sexless life is extraordinarily difficult and requires a level of self control that the vast majority of men do not possess. As I am not a Catholic I rarely come in contact with members of the Catholic clergy so am certainly not qualified to make any well informed judgments. I would be inclined to look at a life of celibacy through the eyes of a man who believes that such a life falls outside the realm of normal behavior. Perhaps I am wrong in that assumption. I have never known a single man within my circle of friends and relatives who would want to make such a sacrifice and undoubtedly that influences my thinking on the subject.
        As you likely know, the Catholic church is having a tough time recruiting young men to become priest. they are falling way behind in filling vacancies as older priest retire or pass away. this may force the church to re-examine their policy on this subject.

      • This response is to both Lee and Nadia. I’m Jewish, and our view of celibacy is quite different from Catholicism’s. Briefly, if there are any Jewish groups which are celibate, they are so small that they would have to be called fringe groups; I don’t know of any. Judaism emphasizes discipline in sexual matters, and like most religions would like to see it confined to marriage, but within the bounds of marriage not only is celibacy discouraged, but a woman can divorce her husband (as well as vice versa) on the grounds that he will not have sexual relations with her. That said, in an environment where in certain situations celibacy is celebrated (sorry), it has to be taken on a case-by-case basis. If the benefits for the individual do indeed outweigh the sacrifices then it’s worth it. However, Lee’s comment also has truth in it, as witness the ongoing saga of priestly abuse of children. This is neither the time nor the place to go into that discussion, and PLEASE remember that the huge majority of priests and ministers and imams and rabbis are dedicated to a life of service and scholarship. But it’s all too easy, especially in the modern world, for someone to enter a position of authority, such as the priesthood, to try to deny homosexuality, or to have access to unethical acquisition of money, or to abuse children, or simply to enter a secure lifestyle, all of which have happened. As long as the celibate life is undertaken for the right reasons (“the benefits outweigh the sacrifices”), and the applicant is mature enough to make the decision, then it will probably work out.

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