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.
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.”
“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.”
“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?”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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 I stand in this parish! Harumph.”
“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.