Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

I might well have been one of the most available priests in the diocese that Saturday afternoon. After four hours of shoveling, my driveway was clear before the rectory garage was plowed out. Because of a disability, our youngest lives at home. Because she needs a wheel chair, we own vans. They have four-wheel drive.

So I got to the church to celebrate mass for the small group that assembled that evening. On Sunday I said one mass at the parish to which I am assigned and one at a neighboring parish. I prepared an RCIA lesson. I shoveled some more snow. Before bed I switched on the hospital pager, since hospital chaplaincy is another part of my assignment. The four-wheel drive would have made the thirteen miles, had I been called.

Whatever the difference is between celibate clergy and us exceptions, it is, I am convinced, not availability.

There is enough time; there is never enough time. What is true for everyone in the modern world is true also for priests, equally for the celibate as the married. Clergy who bemoan the demands of their office and the lack of personal time are whining. Tough though some of their situations may be, family life would not ease them.

I entered the Catholic Church in 2003 after twenty years as a Lutheran pastor and was ordained to the priesthood in 2006. I have a wife, three children, and five grandchildren. They have claims on my time, as do our large extended families. But many a celibate priest must respond to a large extended family or provide care for aging parents. Priesthood does not bring freedom from family and human obligations, nor should it. The requirements of a nuclear family are more immediate and time-consuming, but it does not seem to me that they establish a categorical difference in availability from the rest of the clergy.

To be sure, married priests can’t easily be sent off for advanced study in Rome. Nor can we move at the drop of a hat. We are in some ways more expensive, but the costs of maintaining and staffing a rectory are considerable. And we are generally cheaper to educate, since we all come to the Church with theological educations and a personal formation refined by the reflection and self-examination that led us to full communion.

So it cannot be the practical arguments that bear the weight for celibacy. Pastorally, there are some advantages. On questions of marriage and family we do have an enhanced credibility. While it is surely wrong to think that celibate priests know nothing of family life and equally wrong to imagine that marriage and family make anyone an expert on those subjects, it is true that those of us who have made this commitment have worked hard to live out our values and stand willing to help. A huge percentage of the people in the pews are unmarried, but few seem unwilling to relate to a married priest, while the opposite opinion seems widespread.

Acceptance by other priests has not been a problem. Some who were ordained in the turmoil after Vatican II expected celibacy to fall and may resent us, but their numbers seem few. Some may also be too imbued with Anglo-Saxon notions of fairness to accept the Roman character of the Church’s law, which sets standards that the legislator may in his benignity relax.

Most of my colleagues are happy to be colleagues and to have one more hand on deck. I cannot say that I have felt unwelcome or out of place at all, whereas in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in American I found myself increasingly out of step and at times could not in good conscience even attend liturgical celebrations. My day-to-day experience is not one of feeling exceptional. I feel part of the thin black line called to serve the Catholic Church in a world that has lost its way.

It would be a mistake to confuse the exception made for some of us with an experiment in married priesthood. Even less does the exception constitute a critique of celibacy. There is in any event little indication that the Catholic Church is going to change a discipline so firmly rooted in its own history and paradigmatically modeled by Jesus, Paul, and John the Baptist.

At the same time I would concede that not all the critiques of celibacy are irrational.

A married priesthood would increase the pool of available men who might otherwise suppress their sense of vocation, but to blame celibacy for the shortage of priests overlooks some possibly more significant and spiritually weighty causes. Where there is a passion for the faith and an assertive call to sacrifice there tend to be more vocations. If the problem is secularization and weakened commitment, a married priesthood is not much of a solution. Richard Neuhaus’ famous and often maligned solution to the abuse crisis”“Faithfulness, Faithfulness, Faithfulness””is likely both the better and the more realistic solution also to the vocations crisis. But to hear it requires abandoning some widespread assumptions.

The Long Lent of 2002, now dawning afresh in Ireland and Western Europe, has also led many to wonder anew about the wisdom of celibacy. While a celibate community does provide concealment for offenders and has contributed to the formation of dark networks of abusers, ending celibacy would not end human sinfulness. Celibacy does not cause abuse any more than marriage causes adultery. A married clergy and the ordination of women have hardly ended violations of the sixth commandment and pastoral trust in Protestantism. Protestantism endures the scandal of divorced and remarried clergy, sexual abuse in all forms, and in the mainline the increasingly successful effort to normalize homosexual liaisons. The Protestant experience ought to warn any thoughtful person off the notion that celibacy causes sexual misconduct.

That argument is also a smokescreen. It conveniently serves a bias that was already in place. Worse, it has served the politically correct denial of the main feature of the abuse crisis, to wit, homosexual misconduct. Now again, in reports on the European crisis, the word “pedophilia” is automatically used to describe the homosexual abuse of young males, when the statistics and anecdotal accounts suggest only a handful are pedophiles and the rest are homosexual men behaving badly.

Thus to the question many would prefer to skirt: Would a married priesthood dilute the problem of homosexuality in the priesthood? Almost surely to some degree, although in Lutheranism a married clergy did not eliminate either homosexual networks or sham marriages. But the problem in the Catholic priesthood was not so much the presence of a disproportionate number of homosexual men; it was the winking at misconduct, culpable naiveté and the failure by bishops to deal with criminal acts.

While a disproportionate presence of homosexual men in the priesthood can influence the ethos in troubling ways”Michael Rose’s anecdotal Goodbye, Good Men remains relevant”the option of marriage would help less than would an authentic quest for holiness in life and ministry. Where there is a passion for the Gospel, the Church, and the Christian life, sin remains but purification comes much more quickly.

There is one other thing that is usually left out of the advocacy for a married priesthood. In our sexually saturated culture it is simply assumed that what the celibate priest gives up is sex. Naturally enough. But that is not what the tradition sees as primary. What the celibate priest “gives up” is marriage. Marriage includes sex. Naturally enough. But in any biblical understanding of human reality, sex is part of the vocation of marriage, not a free-floating good looking for a place (generally in the modern mind any place) to land.

In giving up marriage and the family, vowed celibates teach a jarring truth, fundamental to the Christian faith: The greatest of human goods, one Catholics understand to be a sacrament, in itself a means of grace, is secondary to the pursuit of the Kingdom. Speaking of himself, Jesus said that some had made themselves eunuchs for the Kingdom of God. It would be hard to put it more bluntly. And it is plain that he expected some of his followers to follow his example. The mind of the Western Church on priestly celibacy instantiates that vision, even as the Church recognizes that it could be otherwise and hence permits some of us married converts to be ordained.

The wise old priest who catechized Christa and me had the idea that the Orthodox could afford a married priesthood because their liturgy pointed so powerfully to the otherness and holiness of the Kingdom of God, but that in the Catholic Church that witness had come to be shouldered by the celibate priesthood. The point has value. It suggests that advocates of a married priesthood as the obvious solution to the vocations shortage and other problems would do better to lay aside the political model of entitlement and complaint and to place their energies into the reform of the liturgy. A vigorous commitment to the truth of the Catholic faith and the long-overdue realization that the world is not our friend will do more good that a laundry list of “progressive” changes that should have been made after Vatican II.

Still, in the end it may prove that we were an experiment and not an exception and that the Church will reconsider the requirement of celibacy. The Church may look at the record of married convert clergy and other aspects of clerical celibacy and re-examine the practice. Married priests were common enough in the first millennium in the Western Church, and no one can on Catholic grounds object to the practice of the Eastern churches. It may indeed be the will of God at some point that the Roman Church change its practice. I do not envision such a time, but none of us has privileged information about the future.

Meanwhile there are a few hundred married men in the priesthood in the Latin rite. We are not here to make a point but to serve. The Church will, we hope, be enriched by our experience as married men and by the positive legacies and hard lessons we bring from our past ministries. Our presence provokes discussion of things that need to be discussed, and that may be argument enough that the occasional exception is a good thing.

Fr. Leonard R. Klein is the Director of Pro-Life Activities for the Diocese of Wilmington.

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter Web Exclusive Articles

Related Articles