The Case for Letting Priests Marry

I was glancing at a story that referred to a bishop and his wife, and I did a double-take before realizing that the clergy in question was Anglican and not Catholic.  Although religious leaders in many Christian traditions are freely allowed to marry and have families, the Catholic Church has long required its priests and bishops to remain celibate and unmarried.

Amidst many other controversies relating to sex and sexuality (the massive sexual abuse scandal, continued denial of ordination to women, hardline approaches towards LGBTQ individuals) celibacy remains a thorny issue within the Catholic Church.  Now come reports that Pope Francis, who never passes up a good opportunity to make conservative Catholic leaders mad, may be considering easing up on the “priests can’t get married” thing by, well, letting priests get married.

Specifically, the pope and a group of bishops are holding a big meeting to address, among other things, the extreme shortage of priests that exists in the Amazon region, and one proposal to ease this problem is to increase recruitment in that region by allowing married men to serve as priests.  Of course, making an exception here would put pressure on the Church to liberalize its rules about married priests in general, which could change the entire institution in ways that some see as threatening Church tradition but others hold as long overdue.

Like most major doctrines, the Catholic stance on priesthood celibacy is grounded in the Bible, as interpreted throughout the centuries by Catholic tradition emanating from various church leaders and authoritative announcements.  The biblical case for celibacy, however, is in many ways a bit shakier than other issues.  Let’s take the similarly controversial stance toward male priesthood.  The idea that bishops and priests must all be men has some biblical foundation – Jesus’ apostles were all men, Paul wrote things about women not usurping men’s authority, and so on.  These details are all open to massive interpretation (did the original 12 apostles being men imply that all future apostles [that is to say bishops] should be men, or was it just reflecting a social reality at the time? Stuff like that.)

The biblical model about marriage is different.  The main justification is that Jesus remained unmarried (assuming you do not buy into some of the theories that come out of writings that didn’t make it into the Bible but did make it into the Da Vinci Code. Also, because I’m not above humblebragging, I’ve both taught at Harvard and been to the Vatican, and both experiences have been greatly meaningful but nowhere near as adventurous as that movie made them look; I want my international intrigue!). Fair enough, but the question of just what parts of Jesus’ life are meant to be imitated is an important one.  Should all Christians practice forgiveness and holiness like Jesus? Check. Should all Christians be carpenters? Probably not.

One way to figure out how best to emulate Jesus is to read his commands and examples. Jesus seemed to like marriage – he told his followers not to divorce their wives in most circumstances, and one of his first miracles, famously turning water into wine, was done to help out a marriage celebration that had underprepared for its guests. On the other hand, He did argue (in that same discussion about divorce) that some people had “made themselves eunuchs” for the Kingdom of Heaven (we generally assume He means practicing celibacy, not literally castrating oneself, just to be clear).  Just who these “some” are is not clear, however.

Another way to know how to emulate Jesus is to look at how the early church did it. Peter, considered by the Catholic Church to be the first pope, was clearly married – another of Jesus’ early miracles was healing Peter’s mother-in-law of a fever, and having a mother-in-law implies having a wife. There is some wiggle room here: Peter’s wife never shows up in any of the accounts, giving rise to speculation that she might have passed away before Peter met Jesus.  In that case, you can argue that Peter had been married but wasn’t at the time he was called to be an apostle.

And what about Paul? The Apostle Paul recommended celibacy (and offered himself as an example) in order to devote one’s life and attention to serving God, but he did not require it (and, in fact, he explicitly acknowledged that not everyone was built for it [or given the “gift”, to more faithfully echo the biblical language].  Elsewhere, Paul requires that “overseers” in the Church be, among other things, “the husband of one wife.” Now this is mainly a requirement against having several wives (e.g. polygamy), but it is not a requirement to have zero wives.  And, in fact, for a long time, Catholic priests were not required to be celibate; it doesn’t appear that celibacy became an expectation for priests until a couple hundred years after Christianity was founded, although the early records on the issue are incomplete at best.

Even now, some Catholic priests can marry.  Non-Roman Catholic but still Catholic clergy have essentially been grandfathered in (which, appropriately, gives them the ability to actually become grandfathers).  These clergy include Anglicans who have rejoined the Catholic Church (kind of fitting, since the whole existence of Anglicanism arose because of Henry VIII wanting to get rid of his wife and the Catholic Church objecting), as well as Eastern-rites Catholic Churches.  These are small branches of Christianity that broke away from the Catholic Church at some point in the past, as tended to happen when there were disagreement over seemingly esoteric spiritual concepts, but have since rejoined.  Since some of these churches allowed their priests to marry during the interim, the Catholic Church didn’t welcome them back by saying, Ariana Grande style, “break up with your wives!” So the Church implicitly recognizes that married clergy aren’t fundamentally incompatible with Catholicism, but it hasn’t been eager to make this a widespread policy.

A technical but important point is that clerical celibacy is considered a Church “discipline” rather than a Church “law,” which means that in theory it would be easier to change the practice, since it doesn’t involve altering a more fundamental belief.  However, in practice Church traditionalists are already quite upset about the changes that have been taking place under the watch of Pope Francis (and, for many of them, the changes that have happened since the Second Vatican Council pushed aside Latin and made a bunch of other reforms in the 1960s).

Many of the reasons that have been given throughout the centuries for priestly celibacy have been practical, for their contexts. Even Paul, writing a part of the actual Bible (yes, I realize it wasn’t yet the Bible when he wrote it, but he was writing an authoritative document) acknowledges that the part about celibacy was his opinion rather than strictly speaking a command of God. He saw being unmarried as a good way to avoid distractions from full devotion to the faith.

Other practical considerations held for the medieval church, such as controlling church resources and the appointment of church offices – if clergy could father children, they could pass along their property and titles in the same way that feudal lords did, thus usurping the power of the papacy to control these things (and indeed, many clergy were also literally feudal lords in the complicated political and economic system that existed in Europe, so the conflation of Church and social practices was a real concern).

But the times, they are a-changin’ (or, more precisely, have changed hundreds of years ago).  Church property, while still very valuable, does not have the same political implications that it did in centuries past, and most countries have much stronger and more rationalized property laws, such that a bishop could not just claim a piece of Church land for his son were he to have an offspring. Similarly, the process of ordaining priests and declaring bishops is pretty well established, and the Church could enforce its rules to prevent hereditary priesthoods from forming.

Against these now outdated concerns, we have many reasons why married clergy could be beneficial.  Many see clerical celibacy as an outdated practice that has the specific effect of discouraging potential clergy from signing up (although apparently the celibacy requirement is what prevented Rudy Giuliani from becoming a priest, so sometimes it works out for the best – sorry, Giuliani, I’ll leave you alone now).  Opening up the priesthood to married men may help overcome the shortages of clergy experienced in many areas of the world like the Amazon, shortages that have been made worse by the negative cloud hanging over the Church from the sex abuse scandal (which, to reiterate from earlier articles, is a SEPARATE issue from those of celibacy or sexual orientation within Catholicism, even if some people try to conflate them in order to push conservative agendas within the Church).

Speaking of those issues, it also seems kind of odd that an organization that focuses so much of its time and moral energy on questions of sex and sexuality is entirely run by people who are forbidden to engage in even the accepted sexual practices that it recommends for its followers.  In politics, there’s an idea that having political representatives who have the same backgrounds as their constituents (called “descriptive representation”) is good, not only for psychological purposes or “identity politics,” but because it give leaders the type of background knowledge and empathy that can only be gained from experience, allowing them to make more informed decisions.  Allowing priests to experience marriage, sex and family life would help inform their views on sex and sexuality, in both its doctrinal and practical dimensions.

More generally, clerical celibacy feeds into a perception that the Catholic Church is anachronistic and regressive. To some extent, that reputation is intentional; as an organization based on holding eternal truths, the Church purposely cultivates an image and practice of continuity and tradition. Yet the Church has recognized the need to balance that with an approach that adapts to evolving social circumstances, and this may be a good time to practice such adaptation.  In a social atmosphere where many view the Church as unrelatable at best and corrupt or predatory at worst, allowing for clergy whose life experiences more closely match those of their parishioners may go a long way towards reconnecting with the Catholic faithful and re-presenting the Church to the larger world.

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