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Scott P. Richert

Reader Question: Are There Married Catholic Priests?

By November 19, 2009

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Reader Preston Bolinger has asked an interesting question through our Questions About Catholicism form:

I got into an argument with a friend of mine about Catholic priests. I told her my brother is a Catholic priest and is married, but she said that was impossible. I need some kind of proof to let her know that she is wrong.

This is a question that is likely to be asked more often in the near future. Those who have followed Pope Benedict's overtures to disaffected Anglicans know that married Anglican priests who convert to Catholicism will be allowed to receive the Sacrament of Holy Orders, thus becoming married Catholic priests. This is an exception to the practice of clerical celibacy in the Roman rite of the Catholic Church, but just how unusual is it for the Church to allow married men to be ordained priests?

Not very unusual at all. By the time of the Council of Nicaea in 325, clerical celibacy had become the ideal, in both East and West. From there, however, the practice began to diverge. While both the West and the East came within a few centuries to insist on the celibacy of bishops, the East continued to allow the ordination of married men as deacons and as priests (while maintaining, though, as both Christ and Saint Paul taught, that celibacy "for the sake of the kingdom of God" was the higher calling).

Meanwhile, in the West, the married priesthood was fading fast, except in some rural areas. By the time of the First Lateran Council in 1123, clerical celibacy was considered the norm, and the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) and the Council of Trent (1545-63) made it clear that the discipline was now mandatory.

Yet at all times, clerical celibacy was considered a discipline rather than a doctrine. In the Eastern Orthodox and Eastern Catholic Churches, married priests were common, though the disciplines of the Church severely restricted marital relations. When Eastern Catholics began to migrate to the United States in great numbers, however, the Roman rite clergy (particularly the Irish) chafed at the presence of Eastern married clergy. In response, the Vatican imposed the discipline of celibacy on all future Eastern rite clergy in the United States—a decision that led many Eastern rite Catholics to leave the Catholic Church for Eastern Orthodoxy.

In recent years, the Vatican has relaxed such restrictions on Eastern rite Catholics in the United States, and the Byzantine Ruthenian Church in particular has begun to import younger married priests from Eastern Europe. And starting in 1983, the Catholic Church has offered a pastoral provision for married Anglican clergy who wish to enter the Catholic Church. (One good example is Fr. Dwight Longenecker, the proprietor of Standing on My Head and a married Catholic priest with four children.)

It is important to note, however, that as far back as the Council of Nicaea (and possibly as far back as the end of the second century), the Church, both East and West, had made it clear that any marriage must take place before ordination. Once a man has accepted Holy Orders, even to the rank of deacon, he is not allowed to marry. Should his wife die after he is ordained, he is not allowed to remarry.

Thus, properly speaking, priests have never been allowed to marry. Married men have been, and still are, allowed to become priests, provided that they belong to a tradition within the Church that allows for married clergy. The Eastern rites and the new Anglican personal ordinariates are within such traditions; the Roman rite is not.

If you have a question that you would like to be featured as part of our Reader Questions series, you can use our submission form. If you would like the question answered privately, please send me an e-mail. Be sure to put "QUESTION" in the subject line, and please note whether you'd like me to address it privately or on the Catholicism blog.

November 20, 2009 at 12:14 pm
(1) Mary says:

Thank you Mr. Ritchert for, yet again, clarifying this rather tiresome recurring topic. The Latin Catholic Church is very, very clear that her Priests shall remain celibate. This same question was choking the airwaves and world TV screens during the installation of the Holy Father that, hopefully, he would relax the rule of celibate Priests and even some famous news woman suggested the ordination of women would follow. Please dear Catholics and all people of goodwill, our Church remains firm in her Doctrines and those who feel they cannot abide by them should at least respect our position and the way our Church is structured and governed. No one is forced to become a Priest. One makes a personal decision, and vows before God that he has offered himself to Him for life.

November 20, 2009 at 4:19 pm
(2) Frank McGrath says:

In the past 35 years or so some 20,000 American priests ( 100,000 world wide ) have resigned their canonical assignments and married. They are not allowed to function offically in the Church, but they are still priests and they are married. Thus there are many married priests. Many continue in various ministries reaching hundreds of alienated Catholics.

November 21, 2009 at 6:41 pm
(3) Scott P. Richert says:

Mr. McGrath is leaving out important information when he says that those who have left the Catholic priesthood and married are still priests. They are, because ordination makes an indelible mark on one’s soul—”You are a priest forever.” However, they are not allowed to exercise their faculties,which is something much more than Mr. McGrath’s “They are not allowed to function officially in the Church.”

Any sacraments performed by such priests may be valid, but they are illicit. Those who turn to such priests for the sacraments put their own spiritual well-being at risk.

As I have explained in this post and elsewhere, celibacy is a discipline, and the Church can thus allow married men to receive Holy Orders. However, as I also noted, from the earliest days of the Church, marriage after ordination has never been allowed. This is not a question of dispensation from the discipline of celibacy but one of the order of the reception of the sacraments. The Church, in Her mercy, allows some priests who struggle with the discipline of celibacy to be laicized—that is, to give up their ability to exercise their priestly faculties—and to get married. But such men cannot legitimately turn around and reclaim the right to exercise those faculties after getting married.

November 21, 2009 at 8:35 pm
(4) Christi says:

I was raised in the Byzantine Catholic church and received pre-marriage counseling by a bi-ritual priest (Byzantine and Roman rite) who was married with children. I always found it comforting that he really knew what he was talking about.

January 4, 2010 at 9:09 pm
(5) Fr. Vladimir says:

Their was certainly a great deal of controversy in the Early Church over imposing clerical celibacy. But Eastern Christianity has not looked at clerical celibacy separately from its understanding of monastic life. It is the whole of monastic life and not chiefly celibacy that was idealized as the angelic life in Byzantine Christianity. It includes a life of prayer, fasting et.al. and celibacy for those called and matrimonial chastity within that Holy Mystery.

Although in the Byzantine Churches marriage usually took place before ordination to the order of Deacon. Marriage after ordination continued to take place even after the Council in Trullo (Late 7th Century), especially in more rural areas. And even today exceptions have been made for widowed clergy with small children. That is economia for you!

April 4, 2012 at 12:28 pm
(6) Ken Sands says:

What IS…”bi-ritual” Catholic priest?????

April 9, 2012 at 11:00 am
(7) terry says:

Talk about the west if you want but your knowledge of the east if pathetic.
You CAN NOT have a parish or church if YOU ARE NOT married in orthodox christian churches. You can have in case of emergency but in general this has been the rule.

The Orthodox Christian churches didnt change halfway or decide a little of this and a little of that.

April 9, 2012 at 11:32 am
(8) Scott P. Richert says:

Terry, what exactly are you objecting to in what I wrote? A citation of something that I wrote that you think is wrong would be more useful than saying “your knowledge of the east if [sic] pathetic.”

December 3, 2012 at 11:29 am
(9) rev fr. kinyanjui says:

Yes there are married priest. this is because marriage is an older than celibacy more so it is a God command and liking It is not good for this man to be alone. Note no exemption other than those willing freely to embrace optional celibacy. Mandatory celibacy is where the mother of all the problems the Roman Catholic Church lets face it. pedophilia, braking marriages HIV and AIDS unwanted pregnancy, abortions neglected children. let the family of the priest be in the fore front in leading from example, let you have families and lies and pretence comes to an end.

July 29, 2013 at 2:29 am
(10) Tess says:

Required celibacy does NOT make someone a pedophile! That is such stupidity to think that it does! Men know BEFORE they behind priests that they take a vow of celibacy. They don’t become priests then the Church says ‘oh, by the way, you have to remain celibate now’! Also, study up on the incidents of pedophilia in the Catholic Church. First, much of it, if not ALL of it, is done by the masons who infiltrated the Church and set out to try to ruin it. Secondly, there is actually LESS pedophilia occurring I’m the Catholic Church than any other denomination!

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