The announcement this week that Pope Benedict XVI has approved a new procedure to allow Anglican congregations to enter the Catholic Church en masse has raised a lot of questions among Catholics. Perhaps the most common question concerns the married priesthood. Many of the Anglican priests who are considering coming home to Rome are married, and the new process will allow them, after conversion, to be ordained as Catholic priests, even though they are married.
While married priests are common in the Eastern rites of the Catholic Church (outside of the United States) and in Eastern Orthodoxy, celibacy has been the historical norm in the Latin rite of the Church. So it's no surprise that some have regarded the new provision as the first step toward revising or abandoning the discipline of celibacy in the West. A question I received on Facebook is a perfect example:
Would you say this move by the Pope may very well point towards married priests in the future?
Any answer here, of course, is speculative. If I were a betting man, however, I'd have to say no.
Before I discuss the reasons why, we should clear up a common misperception about the married priesthood. A married priest is not a priest who got married; he is a married man who was later ordained to the priesthood.
This is an important distinction. There have been married priests throughout the history of Christianity, starting with the Apostles. But there is no evidence that priests have been allowed to marry after receiving the Sacrament of Holy Orders. Indeed, if an unmarried man is ordained a deacon (not simply a priest), he must remain celibate; he cannot marry, because he has already received Holy Orders.
Likewise, if the wife of a married priest dies (or if, in a very rare occurrence, a married priest has his marriage annulled), he cannot remarry.
But what about these Anglican priests who are converting to Rome? Some of them were married after they were made Anglican priests. Is there a double standard here?
No. The Catholic Church considers Anglican Holy Orders invalid, so any married Anglican priest who converts to Catholicism will have to receive the Sacrament of Holy Orders in the Catholic Church before he can function as a priest. In other words, his marriage will have taken place before his ordination as a Catholic priest.
So to return to the question that I was asked on Facebook, is it possible that Pope Benedict's move is something of a trial balloon for introducing the married priesthood in the Latin rite?
It's possible, since celibacy is strictly a discipline and not an intrinsic requirement of the priesthood (as the long history of the married priesthood in the East shows). And, in the 1960's and 70's, Joseph Ratzinger expressed some sympathy for the idea of introducing the married priesthood in the West.
So why do I think it's highly unlikely that this will be extended beyond converts from Anglicanism? Because the dropping of the discipline of celibacy in the Latin rite could not happen today without great disruption, if only because it would interpreted by people on every side as "giving in." It would be followed by renewed calls to allow priests to marry (a practice that has no warrant whatsoever in tradition) and to allow women to become priests (another innovation that cannot be justified by tradition).
I think that Pope Benedict fully understands the disruption that dropping the historical discipline of celibacy in the West would have. Someday, under different circumstances, it might happen; today, in a culture obsessed with sex and rights and "gender equality," would be the worst of all possible times to tinker with this particular tradition.
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