June 29, 2017

Should Married Men be Ordained to the Priesthood?

By Tom Wells *
Byzantine Church / Credit: Radu Bercan / Shutterstock.com
Byzantine Church / Credit: Radu Bercan / Shutterstock.com

There are many and widely varied arguments as to whether or not married men should be ordained to the priesthood. My purpose here is not to engage in these debates, but to focus on something more fundamental – what is the question of ordaining married men to the priesthood really about?

Celibacy is the norm for the priesthood in the tradition of the Latin Church. Among the Eastern Churches, celibacy is highly esteemed, but a strictly celibate priesthood did not develop in the East as it did in the West. The Latin Church’s tradition of a celibate priesthood is a thousand years old, starting with Pope Gregory VII (Roman Council VI, Can. 3). The notion of a celibate priesthood did not originate with the pope, but he did solidify the tradition for the Latin Church. The two traditions, a celibate priesthood in the West and the ordination of married men to the priesthood in the East, are complimentary and should be treated with mutual respect and reverence. The question of ordaining married men to the priesthood is a question of a Church’s particular tradition.

In 1967, shortly after the second Vatican Council, Pope Paul VI wrote an encyclical entitled, On the Celibacy of the Priest. This encyclical was a response to those who were asking the Latin Church to reconsider celibacy as the norm for the priesthood. After reaffirming the Vatican Council’s support of the Eastern tradition (e.g. Presbyterorum Ordinis, 16), a tradition the pope says “…the Holy Spirit has providentially and supernaturally influenced” (On the Celibacy of the Priest, 38), he goes on to state the following: “the Church of the West cannot weaken her faithful observance of her own tradition. Nor can she be regarded as having followed for centuries a path which instead of favoring the spiritual richness of individual souls and of the People of God, has in some way compromised it, or of having stifled, with arbitrary juridical prescriptions, the free expansion of the most profound realities of nature and of grace” (On the Celibacy of the Priest, 41). 

This statement of Pope Paul VI is important for understanding what the question of ordaining married men to the priesthood is about: “the Church of the West cannot weaken her faithful observance of her own tradition.” The faithful observance of tradition means to remain in continuity with what has been handed on in the Church over the centuries. It is not a blind or arbitrary adherence to the past. It is not conservatism or mere resistance to change. Tradition develops like an acorn that grows into an oak tree or a baby that grows into an adult. The pope insisted that priestly celibacy is in continuity with the Latin tradition. He rejected the idea that the Latin Church, having followed the tradition of celibacy for centuries, has acted in a way contrary to the good of individual souls and the people of God.   

It is important here to distinguish between the traditions of particular Churches (i.e. ecclesial tradition) and Apostolic Tradition. The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains it this way: “The Tradition here in question [Apostolic Tradition] comes from the apostles and hands on what they received from Jesus’ teaching and example and what they learned from the Holy Spirit. The first generation of Christians did not yet have a written New Testament, and the New Testament itself demonstrates the process of living Tradition. Tradition is to be distinguished from the various theological, disciplinary, liturgical, or devotional traditions, born in the local churches over time. These are the particular forms, adapted to different places and times, in which the great Tradition is expressed. In the light of Tradition, these traditions can be retained, modified or even abandoned under the guidance of the Church’s magisterium” (CCC, 83). The Latin tradition of celibacy, as the norm for the priesthood, is a discipline (CCC 1580), and as such, falls into the category of “traditions born in the local churches over time.” As the Catechism teaches, such traditions can be changed “under the guidance of the Church’s magisterium.”  

All this raises some very important and complicated questions. If a thousand year old tradition of a celibate priesthood is to be changed, what about the tradition’s theology, spirituality, ethos and practice of priestly celibacy that have become so intimately intertwined in the life and history of the Latin Church? One would have to consider, among other things, the popes, bishops, saints and theologians of the Latin Church who have supported a celibate priesthood over the centuries. If the norm of a celibate priesthood is going to be dropped, what is the explanation for doing this? How could a thousand year old tradition of a celibate priesthood, with all that has developed around it and with all its fruits, come from anywhere else than the Holy Spirit? This is not an argument for or against a celibate priesthood in the Latin Church, but it does present the question in its proper context.

The tradition of a celibate priesthood in the Latin Church is highly significant. Not everyone, however, understands or appreciates the importance of tradition. Continuity with tradition is difficult for moderns to understand, particularly in a world where relativism is the norm. Rather than viewing progress as the development of tradition, the modern paradigm tends to modify tradition to fit with contemporary ideas, wants and desires, or to dismiss the notion of tradition entirely. Continuity with tradition, however, is essential to the life of the Church and her faith.  

Perhaps an example using another ecclesial tradition will illustrate the point. In the East, the use of icons is very ancient, dating back to the early fathers of the Church. In theory, however, Eastern Churches could replace icons with statues, but what is the reason for doing this? Is it as easy as saying that icons do not appeal to modern artistic sensibilities? Anyone who understands the profound meaning and importance of icons in the East will quickly acknowledge that the question of replacing icons with statues is not so simple. Given the tradition of icons, that is, the profound theology, the spirituality, ethos and practice of using icons throughout the centuries, particularly in liturgy, how will replacing them with statues be explained? How is it in continuity with the Eastern tradition? While it is theoretically possible to replace icons with statues, it is difficult to imagine how this could be done without doing serious harm to the Eastern Churches. This is not an argument for or against replacing icons with statues, but it does indicate what the question is about and the extent of the difficulty involved. In a similar way, the question of changing the tradition of a celibate priesthood as the norm in the Latin Church would have to deal with the tradition as it was received, solidified by Pope Gregory VII, and developed over the last thousand years. The Latin tradition of a celibate priesthood, given its length, its breadth and depth, is far too significant to ignore. 

What is the question of ordaining married men to the priesthood really about? It is about the distinctive traditions of the particular Catholic Churches, how the Holy Spirit has providentially and supernaturally influenced these traditions, and why continuity with local Church tradition is so very important. The diversity of particular Catholic Churches and their respective traditions is a gift of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 12:4ff). Arguments either for or against the Latin Church’s practice of priestly celibacy must stand in the river of Latin tradition.

Tom Wells is a married, Eastern Catholic seminarian beginning his third year in the theologate at St. Cyril and Methodius Byzantine Catholic Seminary in Pittsburgh, PA. He holds a BA in Religious Education and an MA in Pastoral Studies from the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas.

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.