Posted by: John B. Switzer, ObSB, PhD | June 21, 2012

It’s (Past) Time for the Roman Church to Ordain (More) Married Men

The energy is palpable.  People are excited.  Married Episcopalian clergymen are coming to the Catholic Church and being ordained to the Catholic priesthood.  On the first day of this year Pope Benedict XVI established the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter for Episcopalians in the United States who wish to join the Catholic Church while continuing to retain the distinctive spirituality and liturgical traditions of Anglicanism.  About a year before, the pope established a similar ordinariate for England and Wales.

The relationship between Rome (home of the papacy) and Canterbury (home of the primate of the English Church) is long, contentious, occasionally tense, and quite fascinating.  Augustine of Canterbury (not Augustine of Hippo) is remembered as the first to head that diocese back in the sixth century.  Sent by Pope Gregory the Great, Augustine is remembered as “the Apostle to the English” and he is credited with the establishment of the church in Britain.  But there was already a Christian presence in the British Isles, which has come to be known as the Celtic or Ionian Church.  Perhaps this was an ominous sign of things to come.

Cardinal Reginald Pole was the last Archbishop of Canterbury to be in union with the See of Rome.  He died in 1558.  An exhausting debate has ensued about whether or not the sacraments and priesthood of the English (Anglican) Church are valid.  As far as Rome is concerned, the issue was settled in 1896 by Pope Leo XIII’s papal bull entitled Apostolicae Curae, declaring Anglican orders to be “absolutely null and utterly void.”  According to the decree, the primary problem with Anglican ordinations (and therefore also Anglican sacraments) is defect of intention.  In other words, the English bishops who broke with Rome did not intend with the ordinations they performed to do what Rome intends and understands ordinations to accomplish.  Ergo, Rome can’t recognize Anglican orders or sacraments as valid.

It’s not all that simple, at least not to the theological mind.  There are Catholic bishops and theologians who disagree.  But many Anglicans (in the US most Anglicans are Episcopalians) have accepted the notion of questionable orders themselves.  Episcopalians, like others in the worldwide Anglican Communion, are embroiled in controversies like the ordination of women and of gay clergy.  Many are looking to Rome for certitude and stability.  Admitting married clergy from the ranks of Episcopalians and even Lutherans is nothing new, but the widespread preservation of Anglican distinctiveness in Catholic liturgy is a fairly new twist, and a welcome one for those coming to Rome from Anglicanism.

I find myself with feelings of ambiguity.  I am happy to welcome into the Catholic Church those who feel called to join at our eucharistic table.  But if they are looking for a perfect community, this certainly isn’t it.  Many Catholic theologians would argue that Rome has still never formulated an adequate reason to deny ordination to women, and we have plenty of gay clergy in our own ranks.  If Episcopalians are swimming to the shores of Rome because they are comforted by the policies of the present pope on such issues, what will happen if a new pope offers divergent approaches?

And what about the thousands of former Catholic priests who have left active ministry in order to marry?  Officially, they are not even allowed to serve as eucharistic ministers or lectors in their parishes.  In my opinion it is both unjust and unwise to refuse them a path to return to sacramental ministry simply because they are married.


  1. Purely in the spirit of collaboration and discussion – in a *catholic* spirit, you might say! – I wonder about this claim you make:

    “In my opinion it is both unjust and unwise to refuse them a path to return to sacramental ministry simply because they are married.”

    I fully concur with the unwise part. But is it *unjust* to prohibit them from priestly service? Do they have a *right* to exercise their priestly capacities (for they are indeed priests – once a priest, always a priest)? Or is there some more generalized demand of justice that they be allowed to exercise those faculties? Perhaps there is, but it’s not obvious to me either (a) that anyone has a right to be a priest; or (b) that priests have a right to exercise their faculties. I’m certainly open to the possibility that there are such rights, but at the moment I do not see any compelling argument for that claim.

  2. My good friend Dr. Dodsworth raises a good point. Sacramentally, it’s doubtful that anyone has a “right” to ordination. In addition, I understand that there are justifiable reasons for maintaining church discipline when it comes to those priests who have decided to leave active ministry in order to marry. Changing times and changing policies, however, throw new light on the issue–at least to my mind. If we are accepting our married brothers of the Anglican tradition to sacramental ministry, can we really say “no” to those who have never left our communion but who simply wanted to be married? I think my question of justice is a valid one, though I recognize the legitimacy of raising the question as Dr. Dodsworth does.

  3. John, you make an excellent point. If I understand you correctly, I can paraphrase your argument as follows:

    Let’s stipulate for the sake of argument that…
    1. priests don’t have a right to exercise their faculties; and
    2. the Church DOES have authority to restrict the exercise of priestly faculties.

    (I am not certain that either is correct, by the way.) Still, you point out that the treatment of Roman Catholic priests who have left ministry to get married is *inconsistent* with the treatment of former Anglican priests. In other words, even if we grant that Rome has the relevant authority and violates no rights in exercising it, there’s still a matter of fairness in terms of consistency. I think that’s right, and I overlooked this point in my initial comment. Good!

    • I believe that Dr. Dodsworth is correct in the fact that priest do not have a right to exercise their faculties and the church does have the authority to restrict the exercise of priestly facilities, at least according to Canon Law. Having recently taken a Canon Law class I recall this being discussed and that many of the priestly faculties must be granted by the local Bishop.

  4. As usual, Rome looks outside of itself to meet its needs (in this regard to the shortage of priests) rather than looking at the issues within its own house. The justification may be a show of openness to ones once referred to as “our separated brethren.” But in reality, the issues are much larger than that. Change is a hard thing, and while the church can uphold its doctrine in the midst of change, the fear of possibly losing power in that process seems to be too great. It will be interesting to see how this round of ebb and flow (Anglicans coming in, Romans looking elsewhere) engages the ongoing debates and internal struggles..

  5. There are areas of the world exporting priest today…And Rome looking outside itself??? It is merely bringing those that left back home. There are traditions inside the Catholic Church that allow married priest but not Bishops. Many of the mainline Prostestant churches have the same problem of recruitment and they allow marriage. Our culture & family values have shifted and put FAR less value on sacrifice than the days of old.

    • Monty, our brothers and sisters of the Anglican/Episcopalian tradition have never “left home,” unless they were previously Catholics. The split between Rome and Canterbury is several centuries old, as you know. Welcoming those who wish to be in communion with us is a terrific idea–I simply would like to see such a magnanimous welcome granted to those who’ve never left us but wished to be married while serving and sacrificing as priests.

  6. While I would fully support married men becoming priest, I am not sure that I would support priest getting married. In the Eastern Rite Churches, which are in full communion with Rome, married men can become priest. I would have no issue with this being allowed in the Roman Catholic Church, in fact, I wonder why it is not currently allowed. Frankly put, if it is allowed in large blocks (as opposed to an individually evaluated cases) why should it not be allowed universally? However, even in the Eastern Rite Churches priest cannot get married. Since it is generally not allowed (there may be an exception or two that I am not aware of), I would have a much harder time supporting priest getting married.

  7. Forgive the rambling:

    Assumption: The discussion of a married priesthood is timely because of the priest shortage in this country and is really not a disptuation about one’s “right to be a priest.” For I would agree that no one has a “right” to become a priest, married or unmarried.

    I am always conflicted when I consider the issue of whether married men should be ordained to the priesthood. First, it is my understanding that celibacy is a discipline of the Catholic Church, and there is no claim that this is essential to Holy Orders. Second, Ordination is an impediment to the Sacrament of Matrimony (rarely dispensed), but marriage is NOT necessarily an impediment to ordination (i.e. Permanent Deacons, Episcopalian Priests becoming Catholic Priests). So the argument then becomes a matter of whether the discipline adopted by the Catholic Church is a good one.

    I want to go in a different direction. We have a shortage of priestly vocations in this country, but other countries have an abundance. Since as a whole, Catholic priests are celibate (unmarried), then theoretically they do not reproduce. Therefore, priests must come from the laity, and are first formed by the laity. So, how will married priests be better formed by the laity than unmarried priests? Isn’t the issue really, that the laity, who carries the overarching responsibility to be church in the world (LG 31) — to carry out the essential mission of the church (to evangelize), simply does not hand on (tradere) the faith very well. Many Catholics raised during and just after Vat.II are decidedly under-catechized, and they have produced suceeding generations of un-catechized Catholics. Catholics who don’t know their faith have nothing to hand on. “Catechesi Tradendae,” the “National Directory for Catechesis” and “Our Hearts Were Burning Within Us” all state that adult catechesis must be the primary form of catechesis. Yet most parishes have some wonderful program for the children, and a few scraps for the adults. What happens when the kids get home and those nice ideas from Sunday School are not reinforced? In fact I would suggest there are manifold forces in our society arrayed against the Christian ideals proposed at Sunday School.

    Let’s look at ourselves (the laity). How well are we living out our calling to be Christ in the world, to bring Christ to the world, to live out our “priestly” vocation, which stems from our Baptsim? How well are we handing on the Faith?

    Essentially, the priest shortage issue may not have been the primary topic of this discussion, but it certainly is an underlying concern. If we want to fix the priest shortage issue, let’s start with lay adults.

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