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Let's welcome back married priests.

A PREMISE IS A POWERFUL THING. LOGIC DEPENDS on the ability to move from a premise to a conclusion based on the premise. Good premises make for sound conclusions. Ill-formed premises can lead to unintended conclusions.

One time-honored premise--that celibacy is not essential to the priesthood--is currently being applied inconsistently. Old questions are being asked in new ways. The case to welcome back married, resigned Catholic priests has been thunderously stated by, of all people, the pope. Forget justice, forget access to the Eucharist, both compelling enough in their own right. This is simply a matter of logic. Thomists everywhere, unite!

The starting premise--celibacy is not essential to the priesthood--is surely something everyone agrees upon. Jesus explicitly chose married men as his apostles. Peter, a married man, was Jesus' handpicked leader. The epistles clearly contain references to married bishops and priests. For the first 12 centuries of church practice, 39 popes were married in addition to many priests and bishops. Three popes (Anastasius I, Saint Hormidas, and Sergius III) produced pope sons of their own, two of whom went on to be declared saints (Saint Innocent I and Saint Silverius).

But in the 11th century the starting premise was mothballed. Pope Gregory VII mandated that anyone seeking ordination must first pledge celibacy, stating that "the church cannot escape from the clutches of the laity unless priests first escape the clutches of their wives." The Second Lateran Council and Pope Innocent II (forgetting the example of his fifth-century namesake) effectively put a halt to the married priesthood in 1139.

The starting premise was chained up for centuries until June 1980 when Pope John Paul II fiddled with the lock. He made special pastoral provisions for married Protestant ministers who converted to Catholicism to be ordained to the Catholic priesthood, bringing along their wives and children--a provision that, to this day, most U.S. Catholics are unaware of.

Since then, 70 Episcopalians and an assortment of Lutheran, Methodist, and Presbyterian clerics--most of them married--have converted to Catholicism and been ordained Catholic priests in the United States. The practice continues worldwide. Cardinal Basil Hume of England has, as of June 1998, ordained six Anglicans, five of whom were married.

In roughly that same time frame, 23,000 U.S. Catholic priests have left active ministry (100,000 worldwide). Twenty-five percent of the world's parishes are now said to be without resident priests. It is estimated that by the year 2000 there will be more Catholic priests who have left active ministry than institutionally active celibate priests.

So how can we start from the same premise--celibacy is not essential to the priesthood--and end up with such different conclusions concerning formerly Protestant married priests and Catholic priests who resigned and then married?

This is the way the Vatican sees it for married Protestant ministers who have converted to Catholicism and are now practicing, married Catholic priests: The former ordained ministry of married Catholic priests allows for both marriage and ministry to be simultaneously practiced vocations. Becoming a Catholic priest should not require these clergy to forsake the marriage commitment made prior to becoming Catholic. The original promise of these priests--to be Anglican and to minister to Anglican congregations--can be renegotiated without it affecting their status as an active Catholic priest.

And this is the way the Vatican sees it for celibate Catholic priests: Being a Catholic means that priesthood and marriage can never be simultaneously practiced vocations. Becoming a Catholic priest requires forever forsaking a marriage commitment. Original promises by the celibate Catholic priests--to be celibate while being a Catholic priest--cannot be negotiated without their active status as Catholic priests ending.

Clearly, the problem is not that the Catholic Church sees any problem with a married Catholic priesthood. The Holy See has affirmed this practice in both word and deed. The practice has been implemented without scandal to the faithful of the Latin Church. The problem is being Catholic to begin with. You can be a married Catholic priest if you started out a married Protestant minister. But you can't be a married priest if you started out Catholic.

If you are experiencing the beginning of a headache, you are not alone. Someone is confused.

WHY NOT WELCOME MARRIED CATHOLIC priests back to active Catholic ministry the way we welcome recently converted married Protestant clergy? Church leaders assert that there are two major obstacles to this. First, they say that the Catholic who leaves the ministry in order to marry is in a significantly different situation than the married priest convert. The Catholic candidate, prior to his ordination as a priest, agrees to celibacy as a standard set by the church in 1139 for all priests ordained in the Latin Church. One state of life is freely accepted (celibacy); the other state of life (marriage) is put aside. But this does not bind the convert. His denomination permitted him to be both married and a minister. He did not promise to be celibate. Being received as a Catholic priest, therefore, should not require forsaking his freely chosen marriage commitment.

Second, it is simply not fair, the church says, to allow for the reentry of inactive married Catholic priests. Laymen who have chosen not to be priests and are now married would howl. Active celibate priests who have lived the long, solitary promise would howl. Seminarians who have not pursued or who have cut off promising romantic relationships would howl. People in the pews would howl because the Father who left to become a Mister is back as a Father Mister.

The groaning you hear is the sound of a national bishops' conference straining to dance on the head of a pin. The reasoning simply doesn't hold. Plus one has to ask how freely chosen the agreement to be celibate really is.

The fact of the matter is that most priests struggle with celibacy--a human-made requirement for ordination. They live with a prerequisite that must be complied with in order to get to their real call, which is to be a priest. Candidates to the priesthood desire, with all their hearts, to be priests. They pray, with all their hearts, that something might help them live out the celibacy cover charge in a relatively healthy and life-giving fashion.

Celibacy is a forced discipline, not a freely chosen commitment. We all know forced choices do not hold. If we can understand Protestant clergy forsaking a call to be Protestant and to minister to a Protestant denomination, why can't we be flexible with a Catholic priest being honest about an enforced discipline that no longer fits? The situations of the married Protestant minister and the married Catholic priest are, in fact, the same.

Catholics are regularly denied access to the Eucharist because of the priest shortage caused by the mandated requirement of celibacy. Last time I looked, the Eucharist was much closer to the heart of the Catholic faith than celibacy ever was.

So the question on everyone's mind is: If the starting premise is a good premise that everyone agrees with, why not change the enforced discipline of the Second Lateran Council? We changed it once. We can change it again.

"Nope," says the pope. The case is closed. Don't even ask. There is no prospect for the reversal of the obligation of celibacy in the West. It will not change during your life-time. And the reasons given? None.

SO WHAT ARE WE TO DO? I THINK THE FIRST THING to do is let people know about the starting premise that celibacy is not essential to the priesthood. Let Catholics figure out whether welcoming married, converted Protestant ministers--while excluding married Catholic priests--makes sense. Let them fiddle some more with the lock on the box and move the furniture around a bit in their minds. See what happens.

The second thing is to encourage inactive married Catholic priests to act actively. There are plenty of places to start: rural parishes, people who want to get married but have been turned away from their parish, wake services, priestless parishes, and base communities--the list goes on and on, running from licit to illicit activity.

The third thing is to promise ourselves not to separate the issue of welcoming back married Catholic priests to active ministry from the issue of opening up the Catholic priesthood to women. It would be awful if married Catholic priests were admitted at the cost of continuing to exclude women from the priesthood. This, in my view, is too dear a price to pay.

The fourth thing is to watch our "special 70," our brothers in ministry who started out Protestant and are now Catholic priests. Let's welcome them for the families they are and the opportunity they represent. Let's take pictures of them, do follow-up articles, and perhaps create stained-glass windows of them for every church. In short time we will see that the idea of married Catholic priests is a fine thing and really no problem at all. In fact, it's a good idea, an idea whose time has come.

Last June, I attended the wedding of a--substitute your favorite adjective--inactive, ex-clerical, irregular, noncanonical, fallen, shamed, or procreatively challenged Catholic priest. Dave and Ann were married under a circus tent, there being no room for them in any of the 350-plus churches in that local diocese, four of which he had served with distinction in his previous 18 years as a priest.

Over half of those gathered in that makeshift prayer space were former parishioners of Dave's. After the ceremony, Anthony and his wife, Marie, waited just before me in the reception line. Middle-of-the-road Catholics in their late 50s, they raised three daughters (all married by Father Dave) and have seven grandchildren (all baptized by Father Dave).

Anthony and Marie were fired up. Why couldn't Father Dave be married in a Catholic church? Why were there no other priests present (i.e., pastor, classmates, and past associates)--are they running scared? Why couldn't ex-Father Dave continue being Father Dave somehow? When will the losses of great priests like Father Dave end?

Who knows? The time is coming. In the meantime, thousands of us wait at the end of the receiving line, looking for the cracks on the periphery. It will have to be enough for now.


Looking for the next turn of the wheel in church politics, 80 percent of U.S. CATHOLIC readers say mandatory celibacy for Catholic priests should be abolished. And among the majority of readers who want to see a change in the church's practice of priestly ordination, most view the calls for ordaining women and for reinstating married priests as equally important. But of those expressing a priority, more favor the option of married priests (28%) over women's ordination (6%).

As Richard Poydeck of Rochester, New York asks: "Why is the church turning down 99 percent of its vocations based on gender or marital status when the need for priests is so urgent?"

The Newsomes of Beloit, Wisconsin report that their parish closed when their deceased pastor could not be replaced. Catherine Boutte comments that while working as a nurse in Los Angeles, priests weren't available to administer the sacrament of Anointing for dying lapsed Catholics. Even priests themselves say they could use extra help. Father Tom McDevitt of East Lansing, Michigan says that at age 66 he is "working harder than ever. There isn't much impetus for `slowing down.'"

Calls for opening the priesthood to married men continue (see sidebar). In fact, 66 percent of readers believe that celibacy can be a positive component of the priesthood, but that it should not be a job requirement. Surprisingly, it is primarily younger readers who consider celibacy necessary. Twenty percent of readers aged 25 and under say celibacy is needed, while only 4 percent of readers aged 56 to 65 believe the same.

Yet younger readers are the most apt to welcome a policy change--no one aged 26 to 35 objected to the ordination of married priests. However, a quarter of readers 76 and older want to maintain the practice as it presently stands.

Readers aged 36 to 45 are almost evenly split as to whether they believe a married priest with a family could be as dedicated to his work as a celibate priest. (Thirty-five percent agreed they could; 40 percent said they could not). But as Kathleen Stoeser of Tucson, Arizona writes: "It depends on how we view our priests and their ministry. If we don't see them as people with friends, loved ones, and a private life, then we cannot see them carrying out their ministry as married people. I am ministered to by my heart surgeon, yet I would never question whether or not it matters that he is married."

Q: Have you, personally, felt the dwindling number of priests? If so, how?

I have a hard time finding someone to cover my duties when I want time away.

Father Don McAllister Portland, Me.

Our parish recently "twinned" with the other Catholic parish across town due to a shortage of priests in our diocese. This has resulted in bitterness, hurt, alienation, and rancor on both sides of the fence.

Madeleine Koeppen Idaho Falls, Idaho

Because my priest is stretched too thin, he can't get to know many in my large parish.

Name withheld Winter Haven, Fla.

By having been "led" by several inept men who should have been directed toward a different lifestyle--one was an alcoholic, one was an embezzler, the other was a pedophile.

Name withheld Littleton, Colo.

No priest leadership supporting parish programs. I'd rather have a married priest who really wants to be with us than one who pretends to care and doesn't show up.

Mary Griesemer Norwood, Ohio

As a 66-year-old priest, I'm working harder than ever. There isn't much impetus for "slowing down." In our parish we used to have four daily Masses; now we have four Masses a week.

Father Tom McDevitt East Lansing, Mich.

When I lived in Los Angeles we couldn't get priests to come to our hospital to administer "Last Rites" for lapsed Catholics--only registered parishioners!

Catherine Boutte Shawnee, Kan.

Retired priests offering Mass without the energy to lead in prayer.

Name withheld Albany, N.Y.

Our parish, for lack of a replacement, was closed when the pastor died.

Dick and Shirley Newsome Beloit, Wis.

I have seen priests who must travel several times a weekend to celebrate Mass at different locations. These priests are usually good-hearted and try their best to give off the impression of not being worn out.

Joshua Brommer Columbia, Pa.

The quality of the candidates and those ordained to the ministry has diminished considerably over the past 10 years or so.

Name withheld Notre Dame, Ind.

Q: When I hear that a priest I know is leaving to get married, I think:

God loves him unconditionally and would probably want him to continue being a priest.

Name withheld Rockville, Md.

The way I feel when I hear about the divorce or separation of a close family member: sad and angry at this failure.

Name withheld Tonawanda, N.Y.

Good for him. I hope he finds love.

Name withheld Minneapolis, Minn.

That the priest must have lacked faith.

Name withheld San Francisco, Calif.

God is calling him to be married to help increase his spirituality. My wife has certainly been my guiding light on my spiritual journey.

George T. Vyskocil West Babylon, N.Y.

That man is seeking a different lifestyle.

T. Meyer Monroe, Ohio

How sad. When is the church ever going to learn?

Richard Buttimer Mitledgeville, Ga.

He should have remained faithful to Jesus, for he was chosen by our Lord to do his work.

Name withheld Naples, Fla.

Q: One of the major drawbacks of "welcoming back married priests" would be:

There are no theological reasons to oppose married priests, but I'm concerned about its effect on religious orders who live communally.

Name withheld Chicago, Ill.

Acceptance by the hierarchy; to them, it would seem like priesthood was playing second fiddle to something else.

Robert Collins Kettering, Ohio

Money. Families cost more to raise.

Lorraine Frederic Pascagoula, Miss.

We shouldn't downplay the difficulty of being both a good, present, and involved pastor and a good, present, and involved father.

Sally Wilkins Amherst, N.H.

That it would take patience and compassion on the part of parishioners because priests would have their family as a priority too.

Cheryl Mitchell Downers Grove, Ill.

Resentment on the part of those who "played by the rules," and the pain involved for those for whom it's too late to marry and have a family.

Patricia Jeansonne Riverview, Fla.

No drawbacks for me. It would help reduce the sexuality problems among celibate priests.

Nancy Schwarzwalder Oberlin, Ohio

It would discourage the wonderful charism of priestly celibacy!

Name withheld Tonawanda, N.Y.

Many rigid Catholics would leave their parishes. We'd have priests, but no congregations.

Name withheld Wauwatosa, Calif.

The issues surrounding divorce. But that's real life.

Sister Nancy McNamara, R.S.M. Newington, Conn.

I have reservations about anyone who would break something as serious as Holy Orders. I would question their overall ability to commit.

Liz Latorre Lancaster, Ohio

O: One of the major benefits of "welcoming back married priests" would be:

Eyes would be opened to the power of marriage in ministry. As a permanent deacon, I know what that means.

Len Patrie Rouses Point, N.Y.

Many who have been denied the sacraments regularly will be able to receive as they were once able to do.

Joanne Mosier Kersey, Pa.

It would add the perspective of people with families of their own--who had to face the same challenges as many of their parishioners--to church leadership. Priests would be taken more seriously than celibate males on certain issues.

Laura Lewis Long Beach, Calif.

Catholics would lose fewer people to Protestant denominations.

Name withheld Winter Haven, Fla.

A rejuvenation of the Catholic Church.

Leslie English Plymouth, Mich.

More availability of the Mass for more people.

Father Eugene J. Faucher Arlington Heights, Ill.

Bringing a deeper understanding of sexuality and family life to pastoral ministry in the parishes.

Name withheld Detroit, Mich.


I wish more concern was addressed to the issue of women being ordained into the priesthood. The dwindling number of priests might not be if the Catholic clergy was no longer an "old boys" network.

Patricia Lawrence Groton, Mass

We place too much blame on the vow of celibacy for the dramatic loss in numbers in religious over the last 25 years.

Lawrence Ludwig Kenosha, Wis.

If married men were ordained the church could be more selective when choosing candidates.

Nancy Konopa Beloit, Wis.

We need to have more priests well-schooled in theology, psychology, the humanities.

Name withheld Littleton, Colo.

I have always had a hard time understanding how a priest who has never been married and never fathered children would be able to do counseling on marriage, divorce, birth control, and so on.

Belinda Bartels Dawn, Texas

Neither past practice nor present crisis is a sufficient reason for the church to relax this discipline.

Paul Dauphinais Fairfax, Va.

How can the church deny marriage to "nonconverts" when everyone is crying over the lack of vocations?

Jill Geisendoreer Buffalo, N.Y.

Our parish does not have a resident pastor, but we have at least two married Catholic priests as active members. Ordaining married men is the only answer to the current crisis; the Eucharist is more important than celibacy.

Name withheld Corona, Calif.

Why is a priest who left, got married, and, when his spouse passed away, was welcomed back as parish priest any different than a priest who leaves to get married?

Constance Howard Tucson, Ariz.

If not for the vow of celibacy, I would have been able to faithfully answer God's call to lead while fulfilling my covenant call to marriage. May God forgive the people who must ignore His call.

Mike Kleshock Cincinnati, Ohio

It angers me that this question isn't even being considered. The church is having a shortage of priests, yet it refuses to even consider all the possibilities.

Cheryl Mitchell Downers Grove, Ill.

Many of our priests end up sick or turn to the bottle because of the stresses connected to their jobs and the loneliness their lifestyle lends itself to. If they had a wife and kids to go home to they'd have "life" in their homes during the evening.

Name withheld Fall River, Mass.

1. The Catholic Church's tradition of mandatory celibacy for Catholic priests:

13% Should continue.

80% Should be discontinued.

7% Other. (A Wisconsin sister says celibacy should be discontinued only when Women are included in the baptismal right of full participation.)

2. The vow of celibacy is just as serious as a marriage vow:

agree 69%

disagree 18%

other 13%

(A New York woman says the vows are of a different nature and shouldn't be compared.)

3. I don't believe a married priest can be anywhere near as available and dedicated to his community as a celibate priest:

agree 23%

disagree 68%

other 19%

(Expectations of the role of a priest need to change, regardless of the "vowed" state, says Mike Kleshock of Cincinnati.)

4. I think celibacy:

17% Is a necessary requirement for the vocation of priesthood.

66% Can be a positive component to the vocation of priesthood, but should not be mandatory.

17% Can actually limit the effectiveness of a person's priestly vocation.

5% Other. (Celibacy is an unfortunate sacrifice that priests are required to make, says Leslie English of Michigan.)

5. Converted married Protestant ministers can act as Catholic priests in good standing. But Catholic priests who leave the ministry and then marry, can't. This:

20% Makes sense to me.

74% Makes no sense to me.

6% Other. (Joanne Mosier jokes that maybe Catholic priests who marry should briefly join a Protestant denomination and then come back)

6. I think the Catholic Church's provision allowing converted, married Protestant ministers to become active Catholic priests:

75% Is, on the whole, a good thing,

9% More good than bad.

5% More bad than good.

5% Is, on the whole, a bad thing.

2% No opinion.

4% Other. (Maryland reader Edmund Kennedy says women and ex-priests should have been ordained first.)

7. If you favor a change in the church's practice of priestly ordinations, which is more important to you?

6% That women be ordained as priests.

28% That priests be allowed to marry.

47% Both are equally important.

14% I don't want to see a change in the current practice of a celibate, male clergy.

6% Other. (It's important that the ball just get rolling, says an Iowa reader.)

8. Under current circumstances, resigned Catholic priests who got married should:

52% Be permitted to remain active in church ministry, but should not engage in "illicit" actions (such as administering the sacraments).

28% Continue active ministry as ordained priests, even administering sacraments.

5% Should remove themselves from ministry or church service of any form to avoid scandal.

15% Other. (A Wisconsin woman says former priests should speak out about their objections to current restrictions.)


The calls for allowing Catholic priests to marry have recently become louder and more frequent. Here are a few recent developments:

December 1998: At the Synod for Oceania held in Rome, bishops from the Pacific Ocean area are reported to be "clamoring" for the ordination of married men. The question is raised repeatedly, and four out of six group reports indicate some openness to the possibility of a married priesthood.

October 1998: Bishop Raymond Lucker of New Ulm, Minnesota writes a pastoral letter urging the dropping of the celibacy rule for priests and endorsing married priests.

October 1998: Delegates to the Dialogue for Austria meeting vote for a resolution that favors ordaining "mature married men" to the priesthood and calls for including resigned, married priests in all areas of church life.

June 1998: At the U.S. Catholic bishops' meeting in Pittsburgh, the Association of Pittsburgh Priests invites CORPUS, the association for a married priesthood, to participate in its dialogue with the bishops on the endorsement of optional celibacy and an invitation to married priests to return to active ministry.

April 1998: In an address to the National Federation of Priests' Councils, Father Philip Sumner, the head of the National Conference of Priests of England and Wales, says that the Catholic Church should offer forgiveness to priests who resigned to marry.

December 1997: Retiring Bishop Reinhold Stecher of Innsbruck, Austria, in response to the Vatican instruction on the participation of the lay faithful in the priestly ministry, criticizes Rome for failing to act quickly and positively on the matter of married priests requesting laicization.

--Joel Schorn

All comments used in Feedback must be signed, but we withhold names on request. We regret that space limitations force us to condense letters and that many cannot be used at all. Our thanks to all who wrote. --The Editors

By John Horan, dean of students at North Lawndale College Preparatory High School in Chicago and a married priest.
COPYRIGHT 1999 Claretian Publications
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Author:Horan, John
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Date:Feb 1, 1999

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