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.