About three years ago Pope Francis gave formal approval to the ordination of married men as priests in the Eastern Catholic churches outside their traditional, national territories.
Recently, signals that the pope is open to the ordination of married men as priests throughout the Catholic Church have grown stronger, and this has worried some Catholics.*
As a member of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, which already has some married priests (my pastor is married), I favor the ordination of married men to the priesthood. I am not opposed to the celibate priesthood in the Church. I simply believe that the Church benefits from having both.
Opposition to the ordination of married men as priests takes a variety of forms. Some cite the tradition of celibacy. Some recognize the tradition of ordaining married men but believe that to be most effective the priest should mirror Our Lord in celibacy. Some believe the priesthood is too great a burden for a married man and his family.
I doubt that any argument will change the minds of those who hold such beliefs, just as I doubt that the Orthodox will become more inclined to embrace the idea of reconciliation with Rome if the Catholic Church were to allow the ordination of married men as priests throughout the Church.
Although I understand the concerns of opponents, I am equally firm in my position. Their arguments cannot alter my belief that the Church benefits from having married priests. In fact, I have come to believe that the failure to do so is a missed opportunity for the Catholic Church overall, just as I believe that it is a missed opportunity on the part of the Eastern churches which have yet to take full advantage of Rome’s recent change in attitude toward them.
Jesus Christ elevated marriage to a sacrament and made marriage and family life a sign of his love for mankind. Through the sacrament of marriage, the family becomes a path to sanctification as a domestic church. When a married man is ordained as a priest, his priesthood elevates the domestic church to a more complete expression of the love of and for Jesus Christ.
The principal reason the Church needs a married priesthood is to define, defend, and strengthen marriage and family within and outside the Church. Until the reinstitution of the diaconate for married men, the Catholic Church overall lacked men who serve as a sign that there are those within the tripartite priesthood who have given themselves fully to Jesus Christ and his Church and to marriage and family life.
While it’s true that the Catholic Church and the Orthodox already have married priests, they have been too few throughout the world to make a difference. And while Protestants have married ministers (which some call priests), they do not have the sacramental priesthood. They also lack the same understanding of the matrimonial covenant as a sacrament that is held by the Catholic Church. The Orthodox, on the other hand, have a different understanding of divorce and remarriage.
In his writings on the diaconate, Pope St. John Paul II speaks of the witness deacons bring to the workforce as married men and how the married deacon and his wife become icons of the sacrificial and sacramental love of husband and wife in the world. The married deacon who becomes a priest, along with his family, can become a greater expression of this sacrificial and sacramental love by virtue of the grace of his priesthood.
Just as the Church needs married priests, married men need to become priests if called to this state to live more fully their vocation and to express more fully their sacrificial love for Christ and for wife and family.
There is no doubt that it is a great sacrifice to become a priest and that a married man who becomes a priest must make additional sacrifices, as will his wife and children. But today such men are not given the chance to say “yes” to this call throughout the Church.
The Church today places such men in the role of the rich man before he can answer Our Lord’s call. In answering for the married man, in making the answer to the call to the priesthood only a call that the unmarried who choose celibacy can answer, the Church takes away the opportunity of a greater expression of sacrificial love from a man and from his wife and children. This is a failure to allow the family to become as full and complete an expression of domestic church as it might become.
The ordination of married men as priests is not an innovation, nor is it a way to demean the celibate state. Married priests have existed throughout the history of the Church. The ordination of married men as priests does bring more balance to the Church.
If the hierarchy embraces the ordination of married men as priests throughout the Church, they also will embrace another aspect of the Church’s authentic tradition. The result will be a stronger Church.
Through their decision, they will open the way to a greater expression of sacrificial love for all of the Church’s members and will state through married priests the Church’s unequivocal belief in the sacrificial and sacramental love of husband and wife through marriage and family life.
The married priesthood serves, when it is allowed to flower, as a sign of the importance of marriage to the Church and to society. If you do not think this matters, just consider the success of those seeking to advance alternatives to traditional marriage and family in using images and portraits to advance their cause in advertising, literature, movies, and television.
If the hierarchy of the Catholic Church takes the step of once again allowing the ordination of married men as priests throughout the Church, they will rejuvenate the priesthood and take a major step toward the rebuilding faith and the sacrament of marriage at the parish level and in the world.
*Editorial note: I personally do not agree with Deacon Kevin Bezner on this issue, but as a longtime contributor to TCR, I’m willing to publish his respectful argument. Priestly celibacy is a matter of Canon Law (1031), not doctrine, thus, it can be changed, though it’s highly unlikely. This law does not apply to the communions of the Eastern Catholic Church. There are presently just over 200 married priests in the Roman Catholic Church made up of married priests who converted to Catholicism from primarily the Episcopal or Anglican Church.