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

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I’m 16, raised as an atheist, but searching for a faith. Should I try Catholicism?

Dear Catholic Girl,

I’m a 16-year-old girl raised atheist, but this past year I’ve been searching for myself through faith. I’ve tried all different dominations of Christianity, from United Methodist to Mormon to Congregational, but I’ve never thought to try Catholicism because I’ve heard so much about the rules in the religion. What if I have a different opinion than my church? Does that mean I can’t be Catholic? And since I wasn’t raised Catholic, will that mean I would never be a ‘true’ Catholic? How do I even become a Catholic? How do I learn everything about Catholicism? I have no one to teach me about Catholicism, because my whole family is atheist! What do you think?

Thanks!

Confused & Questioning

Dear Confused & Questioning,

I’d like to start by giving you a big kudos, a hearty congrats, and big pat on the back for beginning the search for your own spiritual path at your young age. I spent a lot of my life not searching, just idling down the path placed in front of me, and I wish I had found my individual faith sooner. It’s clear you have a very open mind and heart, which is a rare and beautiful thing in this world, and such a blessing for the people in your life.

There are a few of your questions I can answer quickly, so lemme get those out of the way:

No, you don’t have to be raised as a Catholic to be a “true” Catholic. Oftentimes, converts are the most enthusiastic Catholics around. (My dad is one, and we sometimes call him St. Terry because of his reverence and enthusiasm for the Catholic Church.)

As for who will teach you? To learn about Catholicism, you can begin by reading, and there’s enough out there that you can read and read and read forever, on Wikipedia, in books, in magazines. For the basics, the Catechism of the Catholic Church is a big heavy book that explains the beliefs of the Church in the traditional format of question and answer. Last year, they came out with a youth version, called Youcat, which seems to be very popular. Might be worth checking out.

Because the faith is very old—the Roman Catholic Church cites St. Peter as the founder of the faith around 2,000 years ago, when Jesus said, “You are Peter, and upon this rock I build my church”—there’s a lot of material, some more essential, some less. If after reading up on your own and attending Mass (the name for a Catholic service) a few times, you decide you like it, you can then go through a program to learn everything you need to know to become a Catholic. It’s called the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA).

Normally in RCIA, you would attend classes once a week for about six months. You’d learn about the core beliefs of the Catholic Church, especially the heart of the Church: the Sacraments, which are the seven sacred rituals of the church. At the end of RCIA, you would participate in three of them: Baptism, Communion, and Confirmation. The process may seem long, but I’ve always sensed in RCIA candidates a growing excitement and a deepening faith commitment. It seems to me a real time of growth, and they enter the Church knowing what they believe and why they believe it. When they are finally confirmed into the Church, usually at Easter, it’s often very moving.

So now that we’re through the straightforward stuff, I’m going to weigh in on your other questions: about “rules” in the Catholic Church, about whether you have to agree with everything the church teaches.

In my experience, Catholicism doesn’t have more “rules” than other religions. As a Catholic growing up in the Bible Belt, I always felt that Catholicism was more lenient on individual behavior (stance on alcohol, dancing, music, etc.) than many other Christian religions. In many cases, the Catholic Church sticks to the principle of moderation. So drinking alcohol is okay, though drinking to excess is not good for you. (Seems like common sense, right?) It’s true that the Catholic Church has a very Puritanical stance on sex, especially outside marriage. But I don’t think it’s any more rigid than the many Protestant religions I’ve encountered.

One thing that is true is that Catholics do have a stricter policy about actually going to church—you are supposed to go every Sunday, as missing means you’ve missed an opportunity to take Holy Communion, which to Catholics is an incredibly meaningful ritual. In the eyes of the faithful, missing an opportunity to take Communion is like shooting yourself in the foot, and therefore, attending Mass is very important.

Which leads to the next point: you ask if you have to believe it all, or if you are allowed to have different opinions from what your faith teaches. (If, for example, you don’t feel compelled to go to Mass every week and take Communion, can you really be Catholic?) Some people would answer that question with a simple, “Yes, you have to believe everything to call yourself a Catholic” and “No, you cannot disagree with any part of Catholic teaching.” This is the way I was raised, and for many years, I believed it. But I don’t believe this anymore, nor do the other Catholic Girls.

I truly feel that this is something you have to decide for yourself, as you take what you learn and test it against your common sense and your life experience and your conscience and the innate wisdom at the center of your being. As I see it, God is bigger than every religion and cannot be contained by any. I believe that religion is something we humans have invented as ways to connect with the divine, but God is bigger than all of it. There’s a Buddhist expression that illustrates this: “The finger pointing at the moon is not the moon.” It seems to me that what’s most important is to find what is going to get you closest to the moon. Too often we get hung up on the finger.

So I say, try the Catholic Church. If you’re looking around anyway, why limit yourself? There might be something about the Mass that you feel drawn to, as it offers an experience that is quite distinct from the Protestant services you have attended. I would recommend going with a Catholic friend or contacting someone at a local parish (what each individual church is called) beforehand, since the rituals of the Mass are sometimes confusing to a newcomer. Having someone help you through the service might make you feel less isolated.

But even if you decide you love the Catholic Church, or if it’s totally not for you and you love something else instead, this search for your faith will always be a process. I have always loved the tradition of the Catholic Church and the rituals that have been instituted over 2,000 years as a means of seeking the divine. But a few years ago, I began also studying traditional Indian yoga through the lens of Tibetan Buddhism, and found those practices enriched my experience as a Catholic. I found that on Sundays, as I sat in the pew below the image of Jesus on the cross, I could focus my mind and truly pray for the first time in my life. I could close my eyes as we sang together, and I could feel an awesome connection to the people around me. I could also feel my heart swell with something powerful, which stayed with me and, in the days that followed, allowed me to approach everyone I encountered with kindness and patience and compassion and love.

Which to me is what it’s all about anyway.

Best of luck in this confusing and wonderful search,

Carmen, A Catholic Girl