US Catholic Faith in Real Life

Renewing the debate over a married priesthood

By Scott Alessi | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare

It's one of those questions in Catholicism that people just love to talk about: What if the Roman Catholic Church allowed married men to be ordained to the priesthood?

This week, the question seems to be whipping Catholics into a frenzy once again. With the Vatican's creation of a new American ordinariate for Anglicans--and the announcement that a married priest has been chosen to lead it--there is a buzz about the potential increase in married clergy being accepted into the Catholic Church. Add to that the news that Los Angeles auxiliary bishop Gabino Zavala resigned after admitting he'd fathered two children and plenty of Catholics are starting to raise those "what if" questions with renewed fervor.

All of this, of course, is nothing new. As the NY Times reports, there are already about 80 priests in the U.S. who are married, having converted from other denominations that don't prohibit married clergy. Though such cases are always labeled exceptions, they also show that having a priest who has a wife and family won't bring down the church.

And while these may be "exceptions" in the Roman Catholic Church, we can also look to the Eastern Catholic Churches as an example, where a married priesthood is the norm. In the Ukranian Greek Catholic Church, for example, the majority of priests choose to marry because it is seen as customary for the priest and his family to serve as a model for their parish community.

There's enough evidence to show that allowing priests in the Roman Catholic Church to be married would probably lead to no more problems than having a celibate priesthood (albeit maybe different ones). And as in Eastern churches, not all priests would choose marriage over celibacy. In a recent study of the priesthood conducted by Catholic University of America professor Msgr. Stephen Rossetti, 82 percent of current priests said they would choose to remain celibate even if they were allowed to marry. I don't think that the percentage of celibate priests would be that high if married men were allowed to be ordained, but it shows that not everyone who becomes a priest would choose marriage were it an option.

The real question--and the one that gets people so excited about this topic--is whether allowing married priests would help to reverse declining numbers of vocations to the priesthood. Not everyone thinks that it would, even priests who are themselves married. But there are undoubtedly many men who don't even consider the priesthood an option because of the celibacy vow. Having worked for the church before I was married I was often asked by priests if I'd considered that I might have a calling, but I always dismissed the idea because I wanted to marry. I also knew other young men who debated not whether they wanted to be priests, but if they could give up the possibility of marriage and children.

So would a married clergy really give us a dramatic increase in priests? That's a question we can, and likely will, continue to debate for some time to come. But at the very least, it would change the question that men ask themselves from "marriage or priesthood?" to simply "priesthood or not?" If nothing else, that's a much better question for potential priests to be asking themselves.