Time for Married Priests?

I’m sharing this essay once again because, in the teeth of the ongoing abuse and cover-up scandal, people are saying we could easily fix so many problems if we’d just allow married priests.

The issue of celibacy is a thorny one, as I rediscovered from the passionate response to my Twitter post about the topic.  In this essay, I’m not attempting to disentangle celibacy from the culture of silence that surrounds it. I’m just thinking through what would happen if we introduced married priests with kids into a tradition that doesn’t already have a culture and support system accustomed to the idea. 

Since I wrote this essay, the Church established the Ordinariate so Anglican priests, many of whom have families, can become Catholic priests. That, too, comes with complications of its own. See the story we broke about Fr. Luke Reese and the Ordinariate’s response to his arrest for brutally beating his wife inside the church.

I don’t have any profound understanding of the metaphysical significance of celibacy.  But I do know something about human nature, and I can imagine what would happen if the Church began to ordain married men.  Here is a post I wrote back in January of 2011.

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Why doesn’t the Latin Rite Church just start ordaining married men again? If men can’t or won’t embrace celibacy, then why force the issue?  Well, I peeked into the future, when married priests are commonplace, and this is what I heard in the pews:

“Well!  I see the pastor’s wife is pregnant again!  What is she trying to prove?  Must be nice to pop ‘em out year after year, while the parish has to support all those brats.”

or:

“Well!  I see another year has gone by and the pastor’s wife still isn’t pregnant.  A fine example they’re setting!  I won’t have them teaching my children CCD, since his own wife is clearly on the Pill.”

and:

“I went to the rectory the other day to talk to Father about my divorce, and those damn kids of his wouldn’t shut up for a minute.  Sounded like a herd of elephants running around up there — I couldn’t keep my thoughts straight.  How can he give me advice about my family when he can’t even control his own?”

or:

“I have to talk to someone about my kids, but I would never go to Father — his kids are so well-behaved, he could never understand what I’m going through.  I swear, his wife must drug them or something — something ain’t right there.”

and:

“I see the pastor’s kids are taking tennis lessons!  I guess they’re doing pretty well– no need for me to leave anything in the basket this week, when we’re barely getting by.”

or:

“I see the pastor’s kids are wearing such ratty shoes.  What a terrible example he sets!  No one’s going to want to join a church that encourages you to have more kids than you can care for.”

and:

“I wanted to meet with Father to talk about the new brochures for the pro-life committee, and his secretary said he was busy — but on the drive home, I saw him at the McDonald’s playground, just fooling around with his kids!  I guess I know where stand in this parish!  Harumph.”

or:

“Everyone thinks it’s so great that Father started all these holy hours and processions and prayer groups, but I saw two of his little ones sitting all alone, just looking so sad and neglected.  It’s a shame that any children should grow up that way, without proper attention from their parents.  Harumph.”

And so on, and so on.  I’m sure you can think of more.   Imagine if his wife had a job?  Or imagine if she didn’t have a job?  Imagine if his wife wore jeans?  Imagine if she wore a veil? Imagine if he got an annulment? Would the parishioners pay for child support?  Imagine if the priest could have gotten married, but was still single?  Does that mean he’s gay, or impotent?  Am I imagining it, or is he hitting on me? Is he hitting on my daughter? Does he regret not marrying before he was ordained?

I’m paraphrasing here, but I remember a pathetic prayer uttered by the semi-fictional Don Camillo:  “Please, merciful Lord, if I have to blow my nose while I’m up at the altar, let me do it in a way that doesn’t offend anyone.”

And it wouldn’t just be a matter of doing the right thing and shrugging off unjust gossip.  It would be so hard to know what is the right thing to do.  I see how my husband struggles to work hard at his job,  make enough money, and strategize for the future, because we’re all depending on him — and then comes home and puts it all aside to become the sympathetic and appreciative husband and the strong but playful dad.  And he only has one family.

It’s hard enough for men to balance family and career. What if, as priests, they had to balance their biological family with a spiritual family of parishioners?  Whose needs come first?  It might work in a small, very close-knit community with a long tradition of married priests; but most parishes in the United States are not like that.

And did I mention?  The average American Catholic diocesan priest makes between$15-30,000 a year.

I’m not saying it’s unworkable; I’m just saying it’s not the no-brainer heal-all for anemic numbers in the seminaries.

All the hypothetical nasty comments above are things that people say about decent, hard-working, lay Catholic couples with private lives.  Other people have no business judging them — and yet they do, all the time.  How much worse would this gossip (and the attendant protest via empty collections basket and empty pews) be if the couple in question had much less claim to a private life?
Parishioners tend to feel like they “own” their pastors.  This can take the form of befriending and loving him, making him meals, and praying for him — but it can also take some uglier forms.  I cannot imagine enduring such scrutiny as a pastor’s wife or child, especially without the graces of Holy Orders that help a priest survive his daily ordeal.

It can be done. But it’s ludicrous to suggest, as so many have, that it’s a no-brainer that would do away with abuse and solve the vocations crisis all in one fell swoop.

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19 thoughts on “Time for Married Priests?”

  1. As an ex-Protestant and sister in law of a Protestant pastor, I absolutely see the advantage of a celibate clergy. It’s not comments – and the comments in the article aren’t really the thing to focus on, but rather, the problems they represent. Pastors are constantly pulled between their own families and the parishioners they’ve been entrusted with. While the salary (plus added benefits of living expenses) are do-able for someone single, they’re not enough to raise a family on. The kids of clergy typically have a rough time, as they always have a spotlight on them. Because of “who Dad is” in most cases, these kids can feel like they can’t struggle with questions of faith, so they’ll hide whatever it is, sometimes with disastrous results. The pastor and wife, even if they know at some level that their family isn’t any different than the one sitting in the pews, will at some point cave to the pressure of “setting the example,” which could mean not dealing with a problem that needs attention because doing so will “look bad.” Even if no one makes snide comments, the dynamic is there, and there isn’t a good way around it. The pressure on these families is enormous – that’s fact, not hypothetical. Clergy with families do not have the same amount of time to care for their parishioners as single/celibate clergy. There aren’t enough hours in the day, especially considering the extra duties that Catholic clergy have (particularly, both sacraments of healing). As Simcha rightly points out – Protestant culture at least has some structure in place to support the families of clergy. The Catholic Church does not have that. And ultimately, if the idea here is to embrace married clergy as a way of dealing with the abuse, I’ll just point out the recent revelation of the abuse in congregations of the SBC (and if memory serves, most Baptist churches prefer, almost require, married clergy). Being married isn’t going to solve that problem.

    1. A great many jobs, however, bring lots of extra responsibilities that might distract someone from their family and/or subject their children to intense public scrutiny and unfair expectations. Should all public figures therefore live in celibacy? I’m sure the families of politicians suffer many of the same difficulties in terms of being expected to set an example at all times and mum or dad not always being available, but no one has yet argued that those entering politics should remain single. As for the money issue, what if the priest’s wife worked? Would it be so absolutely impossible to set up a structure to support married clergy? I agree married priests isn’t a magic cure-all for the sex abuse crisis, but many of the ‘practical’ arguments brought up in favour of priestly celibacy could quite reasonably be applied to many other professions.

      1. Potentially. Some of those professions break marriages or cause involuntary celibacy of one kind or another. But it’s worth restating why Catholic clergy are celibate—it’s primarily for spiritual, not practical reasons. Poverty in human richness and experience is part of the direct imitation of Jesus’ own celibacy.

      2. The big thing, though, is the spotlight, and I’d argue in a different way than a politician. We only hear about the foibles of a politician when they get reported by the press, and even then, there is a general rule, most of the time, that the press leaves the kids alone. The spotlight on wives and children of clergy is an immediate, intimate spotlight that does not relent. While I know it’s doable for many Protestant clergy, it is a problem when your child-rearing is altered because you know the entire congregation is watching you and your children. The children are often (OFTEN!) adversely affected because of that spotlight.

        I’m just saying that I don’t see any great benefit to including married clergy, especially as a band-aid for some problem (either a priest shortage or the abuse scandals). If the Church is anything, it certainly isn’t reactionary (which I consider a good thing). If we believe in the authority of the Church, and in the influence of the Holy Spirit over all times and all places, then if God wants married clergy, then it’ll happen. Otherwise, I don’t see the benefit.

  2. There may be good arguments for celibacy (ie. that it can make someone more available to love others) but the risk of petty gossip from overinvolved parishioners is not one of them.

    I suspect that the majority of massgoers would continue to be far more concerned with making a hasty retreat to avoid awkward small talk than with what Father’s wife is wearing. Rabbis, imams and, yes, Protestant ministers have managed perfectly well for centuries despite having wives and children. If a parishioner is tempted to make mean-spirited comments about a clergyman’s wife and children it says a lot more about said parishioner (namely that they should get a life) than it does about the alleged problems of married priests.

    1. To give the hypothetical other side of the coin, here’s what I heard on my own time travel adventure:

      ‘Father’s been so much more understanding since having his own family! It really seems that dealing with a pregnant wife and newborn has given him more perspective on my own struggles as a parent!’

      ‘Father couldn’t see me today because he was out on a hospital trip, but his wife was in and she was so kind and empathetic. It’s great having someone else around the parish!’

      ‘Father’s wife is so gracious and elegant and the children are beautifully behaved. What a wonderful example of a Catholic family to set to his parishioners!’

  3. A possible model for a Roman rite married priesthood is the Roman rite permanent diaconate, esp. in the U.S.

    The 15,000+ married permanent deacons are expected to be financially self-sufficient.

  4. Well…as a women married to a Ukrainian Catholic priest, I can say that a lot of the things you brought up can be a problem but they are such small issues in the grande scheme of things. Our church has a very high number of married clergy and I can say with confidence that there are a very many benefits to them. You often don’t just get ONE man dedicating his life to the church..but his wife too. Often their children choose to be involved as well. A lot of people prefer a married man as a confessor because he “gets” it. He is also a pro at teaching marriage prep and has real life NFP experience. There are pros and cons to boh sides. Do I see the RC church ordaining married men..not likely. But please don’t forget that there are many rites of Catholic and a great many of them never dropped the practice of married clergy..and it’s not that big of a deal.

    1. Kim, I get what you’re saying, but I don’t think a priest’s marriage is going (on average) to be more credible or exemplary than the average layperson’s marriage. So, even if my priest were married, I’d still want laypeople (or better, a group of laypeople) to handle marriage prep. It’s a bigger pool of talent to draw from. Plus, there’s no one to teach laypeople about marriage than other laypeople who are living similar lives.

    2. And as for confessors, I will never, unless there are no other options, confess to any priest unless he’s celibate. It’s a trust thing, and also the fact that celibate / consecrated types are just spiritually different. I like their objectivity, and their ability to take the long view, and to see things in great perspective. It’s a spiritual peace and tranquility that is lacking in many people’s lives, and it’s part of why good priests can help people so much, even in intangible ways.

  5. While I think the discussion is a complicated one, it’s interesting to note that we don’t hear Protestant and Eastern Orthodox churches clamoring for a celibate-only priesthood. They want pastors who know about the trials of raising families. They want pastor’s wives, too.

    I just want to comment on the salary of diocesan Catholic priests. While it is true that a priest’s salary (in the two dioceses I’m most familiar with) is around $28k/yr, what isn’t mentioned when these numbers are bandied about is that the typical parish priest has almost NO living expenses. Their healthcare, retirement, car insurance, housing, utilities, home repairs, home furnishings, clericals, groceries (in one diocese the stipend is $1500/month for a single man), retreats/pilgrimages, books, continuing education, student loans, housekeeper, and cell phone are all covered by the Church and/or the parish. They don’t pay social security taxes or property taxes. They don’t pay the deductible if they get in a car accident. I know of a priest who had his lower-middle class parish fund an $80K kitchen renovation. I know of another priest who had his fireplace moved out of convenience. These aren’t particularly unholy men, but I feel they are perhaps out of touch with the realities of savings, waste, frugality, and “making-do.” The realities faced by every person in the pew.

    So, all told, celibate Catholic priests are doing pretty well financially. Certainly they won’t get rich as priests, but they also don’t have a financial care in the world. In our diocese, a number of our priests own vacation homes and take international holidays that middle-class families can only dream about. I don’t begrudge them this. But let’s set the record straight about how much we are paying our priests. About $75-100K a year, at least. Many families can and do live on a similar salary, so perhaps the hurdle of financially supporting a married cleric is not as high as it may seem.

    1. Agreed. Unfortunately, because each eparchy does thing differently there can be HUGE variations in what a priest is paid. I can say from my experience that we (a clergy family with 4 children) will never take international flights or own a home. But I have never used a food bank or had to deprive my children of a week of camping in the summer and the occasion so swimming class. We are better off than some of my friends and I would never consider myself poor. Plus.. my funeral and burial is covered.. so that’s a plus right? 😉

    2. Interested observer, you’ve got to be kidding me.

      I’m a priest on the east coast, in a diocese that covers a reasonably well-off region. I gross in the high $20k range, before taxes. I pay into my healthcare account. I set up my own retirement savings account because my diocese doesn’t offer one and/or it might be broke in the future. I pay for all my automotive expenses, from gas, to repairs, to car insurance. (And yes, deductibles. A guy hit me last year and I ended up out about $1.5k, as an example) No one pays my cell phone bill, or pays for my books. I do. Priests in my diocese and others who obtain additional degrees must fundraise or pay out of pocket, unless specifically asked to get the degree by their diocese. I know plenty of priests who are still paying off student loans, even from undergraduate years. I also have ordination classmates who are flat broke because of unexpected costs, and others who give generously to family members despite not having a ton. And I absolutely do pay into social security. I’ll show you my W-2. Also, taxes for priests are often are about 30% (rather than maybe 15% which would be more normal for their income bracket) because of various ministerial tax rules and penalties (most of which are based on provided lodging). I don’t pay rent, but I pay taxes as though I did.

      In sum, none of the things above are able to be “expensed.” I’m fine with that. It seems normal. Why would someone else pay these bills for me anyway?

      So, where are you getting all this? Get your facts straight before saying something like what you outlined above is “typical.” Ridiculous.

      1. I’ll add, too, that the fantasy of a rectory bustling with cooks and housemaids is almost entirely an historical artefact. Most parishes can’t afford a salary just for that task. The vast, vast majority of parishes, particularly if there’s only one or two priests in the rectory, ask priests to find their own food (which, again, is not a complaint–it seems normal to me). Sometimes they’ll be reimbursed for meals–perhaps $150ish per month in some cases. But I also know of priests who aren’t offered any help with food costs at all. So, again, you need to get some more realistic data.

    3. That is a bit of a problem I had with this article. Pill vs. no-pill might be an exception, since most Protestant churches are not against contraception, but all the other scenarios must surely occur in Protestant churches all the time. Yet somehow these Protestant churches get by.

      I think the strongest argument in favor of celibacy is that the present moment is the worst possible time for a change. How could we tell divorced or homosexual people to live the entire rest of their lives without sexual relations and then say that such a life is too hard for our own priests? But the fear that people might be judgmental toward the priest’s family does not seem to me to be very a strong argument.

      1. Just curious: why does anyone care if their pastor has some deep understanding (supposedly) of the trials of family life. Are people that hangry for fawning empathy? Is that a pastor’s job? Maybe for protestants, who don’t believe in the priesthood. And does being married and a pastor guarantee that you know more about marriage than the average married person? No, not really. I find that whole argument silly. I personally don’t want to look to one person, priest or not, to be my marriage guru. There are millions of laypeople, with more diverse experience than any one person can have, to help me with that. Also, clericalism. Priests are not meant to be perfectly impressive specimens at the human level. It’s a humble position. They are sin-eaters, not dignitaries.

        1. Well, presumably it would make a difference in the confessional. And priests do quite a bit of marriage counseling, too. I’ve occasionally heard a priest say something about marriage or sexuality or raising kids and I suddenly realize, “Dude, you have NO IDEA.”

          1. It’s not really what the priesthood is for. I have friends who have had profoundly stupid things said to them about family life by married deacons. It’s all a wash, as far as I’m concerned. And what actual difference would it make in the confessional? Going into such intimate detail that confusion is caused probably means you’re going into too much detail. Confession is about absolution, not counseling, or even “being understood.” Even if the priest doesn’t register something as quickly as a parent of five children would, it’s not rocket science to figure out what’s being said. Priests are not dumb. Both scholars and simpletons can figure out marriage. It’s doing it that’s the hard part. And the “dude, you have no idea.” That’s partly projection of a pre-prepared stereotype we carry around in our heads. It’s uncharitable. You don’t know what he knows—you’re just making assumptions. Maybe in some egregious cases with an especially clueless priest or a complicated explanation….but again, why? Just to feel understood? We always think this way about authority figures, no matter their age relative to us….”they just don’t get what my life is like!” We say that about our parents especially.

            1. That married deacon, by the way, told my friends, in full hearing of their three young girls, that it was probably time for them to stop having children. The bastard. For what it’s worth, the celibate priest of the parish would never have said that, even if only because his celibacy makes him tend toward idealizing such things.

              I’ve always appreciated priests’ perspectives, in part because it’s often fresh and different, and with a good priest, it’s tinged with a vision of things that go beyond the humdrum of my day to day life. It’s always been good for me. I suspect that half the time one person self-flatteringly says “dude, you have no idea what you’re talking about,” another person says “that was just what I needed to hear.”

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