In the run-up to the papal conclave that convened this Monday, the cup of speculation ran over. There were the bets on the identity of the next pope, but there were also predictions about what the pontiff-to-be would do, mixed with some stern advice. Chief among the words of worldly wisdom was the notion that, really, it’s time to knock off this celibacy business for Catholic clerics. There’s a priest shortage, after all, and the idea of celibacy is just weird, inhuman, and likely an invitation to the worst sort of candidate.
I object. But first, in laying out the case against the case against priestly celibacy, I should disclose an interest: I am the son of a Baptist minister and a convert to the Church of Rome. This fact has given me certain insights to separate the wheat from the chaff — or, if you prefer, the bull from its product — in the ongoing debate over priestly nuptials.
It is popular to say that the Catholic Church has no theological objection to married priests. In a sense, that’s true. Saint Peter and many of the early church leaders were married and, even today, the Church does make exceptions. Married Episcopal priests who convert are allowed to come on as Catholic priests. Some married Eastern Rite Catholics are allowed to become priests, though their married status prevents them from attaining the office of bishop.
But there is one good, practical, and, yes, theological objection to a married priesthood: It wouldn’t work. Just because the church hasn’t raised the discipline of priestly celibacy to the level of a dogma does not mean that there isn’t good reason for keeping that discipline in force.
Start with economics. Some priests take vows of poverty. And those diocesan priests who don’t take vows of poverty might as well. According to statistics provided by the U.S. Department of Labor, parish priests can expect to make between $15,000 and $18,000 a year, plus housing and benefits. Most priests do not live as though they are impoverished, but try raising a family on that salary, even if the missus has a job.
The Church could cough up this money, but it would have to come from somewhere. Married priests would mean cuts in Catholic education, cuts in Catholic charities, fewer new parishes. This might be a small price to pay to convince more people to become priests, but it would probably have the opposite effect.
Why? Because a married priesthood would set the dominos crashing. Remove the vow of celibacy and there goes the vow of poverty. The vow of obedience isn’t far behind. It may be annoying to order a 35-year-old priest to travel across the country or across the world on a new assignment, but he knew what he was getting into. But a 35-year-old priest, married with four children, has obligations to his family that may at times eclipse what he owes his church — and rightly so.
Then there’s the implementation. The Church wouldn’t go from an unmarried priesthood to a married one by telling priests that they can start dating. Instead, Rome would allow married Catholics to study for the priesthood and tell current priests that they are so out of luck. Many priests would find this situation hard to bear. Some would jump ship.
The scheme that most people superimpose over the priesthood is the Protestant model. What works for the descendants of the Reformers should work for Catholics too. There are two problems with this approach.
One, the priesthood is more demanding. With daily Mass, often at multiple parishes, a rigorous regimen of prayer and contemplation, confessional duties, hospital duties, and the general demands of ministry and administration, most priests would be de facto married to the Church, even if that was not formalized in the discipline of celibacy.
Two, the Protestant model is far from perfect. Every year, Protestant seminaries mint more new pastors than their Catholic counterparts, but the mold doesn’t necessarily stick. Good figures are not easy to be had but, anecdotally, I know many more pastors who have called it quits after a few years — often for family reasons — than priests who have decided to hang up their collars.
Right now, the decision to become a priest is a transformative experience. Those who travel down that road give something up in order to live a life of service to Church and man. Would-be reformers want to lower the price — to make the tradeoff less steep. Far better, I think, would be to convince more young Catholics that this is the kind of life they should want.
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