Time for Married Priests?

 NBC did a story on married priests, and included comments by Mark Shea.  Looks like they actually did some research, and tried to present a balanced picture.  They tried to answer the question:  what would happen if the Catholic Church (by which they mean the Western rite — and no, I never get it straight if I’m supposed to say “Latin” or “Roman” or “Western” or what.  You know who I mean) dropped the celibacy requirement for priests?  Wouldn’t that solve the vocations crisis?  

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 alimony or child support?  Imagine if the priest could have gotten married, but was still single?  Does that mean he’s gay, or impotent?  Does he regret not marrying? Am I imagining it, or is he hitting on me? Is he hitting on my daughter?

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.

Well, next time, we’ll discuss some of the more practical reasons why – sigh – women priests are such a bad idea.

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8 thoughts on “Time for Married Priests?”

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

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