Why can’t Catholic priests get married?

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Msgr. Charles PopeQuestion: I would like to know why priests are not able to marry. Is there going to be a time when they will be married and start to enjoy the exciting life of married people along with all the struggles? They need to have children and interests outside of parish walls.

Jim Hammond, Decatur, Indiana

Answer: The discipline of celibate priests is a practice of the Western Roman rite and of other rites associated with it. Priests of many Eastern rites and priests in the Orthodox Church are permitted to marry, but only before ordination. Bishops, however, in all these rites and churches, are celibate. Hence, the Eastern rites and the Orthodox churches usually draw their bishops from monasteries.

While some today want to eliminate celibacy or erode it by permitting many exceptions, there is much about celibacy that is commendable. Jesus was celibate; so was Paul. Both of them praised celibacy (cf. Mt 19:10-12; 1 Cor 7:1, 7) for those who have received this gift. The Roman Catholic Church does not require celibacy of anyone. However, if a person desires to enter religious life or priesthood, they are asked to discern first if they have received the gift of celibacy. This is because celibacy frees that person to fully live their vocation (cf. 1 Cor 7:32).

As a priest, I can surely attest that it would be foolish for me to think I could fulfill all my current duties and still have time to be a husband and father. Both vocations would suffer. Catholics who call for married priests should consider the consequences of it and that they would have to radically reconsider the duties and availability of priests. In the first place, salaries would have to be drastically increased. The average Catholic priest earns about $35,000 and lives in a parish-provided rectory offering two rooms, a private bath and some shared common spaces with other clergy. Married priests would need private homes for their families and a much larger salary. Further, health insurance, retirement plans and other benefits would increase substantially.

On top of all this, the priest would be far less available to the parishioners. For example, he might well have to decline the invitation of the women’s group to give a reflection on a Saturday morning since his kids have a soccer game. Some argue that married priests would mean more priests and availability issues could be resolved. But Protestant denominations that have married clergy suffer shortages even more than we Catholics.

As for your concerns that Catholic priests are denied the joys (and struggles) of marriage and family, this is only partly true. I do not consider myself a bachelor or unmarried. I have a spouse: the Church. Women religious are espoused to Christ, and many of them wear a wedding ring. Paradoxically, though I do not have natural children, thousands call me “Father.” The life of a priest, properly lived, is rich and fulfilling — religious, too. We are not forlorn or deprived. Jesus says, “Amen, I say to you, there is no one who has given up house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands for my sake and for the sake of the gospel who will not receive a hundred times more now in this present age: houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and eternal life in the age to come” (Mk 10:29-30). I have largely found this to be true, for God is never outdone in generosity.

Holy death

Question: Some clergy at funerals “canonize” the soul who died, speaking of them going straight to heaven because the priest was there and gave them an apostolic blessing. It seems they think that blessing guarantees the poor soul entrance into heaven.

Name, location withheld

Answer: There is certainly an important role, at the threshold of death, in the apostolic blessing, which is a sacramental. Even more so is the value of the Sacraments of Confession, Anointing of the Sick and holy Communion. However, they do not work like magic; their fruitfulness is tied to the disposition of the one who receives them. Even the absolution of confession does not take away all temporal punishments due to sin. The apostolic pardon, while conferring a dispensation from punishments due to sin, acts much like a plenary indulgence and requires freedom from all attachments to sin. Hence, even those who have received these wonderful blessings ought still be seen as likely needful of our prayers. The Lord alone is the judge of all.

Msgr. Charles Pope is the pastor of Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian in Washington, D.C., and writes for the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C. at blog.adw.org. Send questions to msgrpope@osv.com.

Msgr. Charles Pope

Msgr. Charles Pope is the pastor of Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian in Washington, D.C., and writes for the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C. at blog.adw.org. Send questions to msgrpope@osv.com.