I knew an eccentric Englishman who had the delightful knack of mixing his metaphors. This tendency was especially pronounced when he was upset. One of his most memorable mix-ups was when he was worried about some innovation and he spluttered, “Why that would be the thin edge of the iceberg getting its toe in the door!”
I’m a Catholic priest. I have a wife and four children. I was able to be ordained through a special system called the pastoral provision, which was set up by Pope St. John Paul II to enable married former Anglican (and sometimes Lutheran) ministers to receive a dispensation from the vow of celibacy, allowing them to be ordained as Catholic priests. The permission was extended under Pope Benedict XVI to former Anglicans in other countries around the world.
In addition to “pastoral provision priests,” there are some married priests ministering within the three personal ordinariates set up by Benedict XVI to provide a unique “church within the church” for people from the Anglican tradition. Furthermore, permission for married men to be ordained has been part of the tradition of several of the Eastern rite churches for a long time.
The fact of the matter therefore, is that we already have married Catholic priests. We are very few in number, but is our existence “the thin edge of the iceberg getting its toe in the door”?
Some Catholics argue that these exceptions to the rule of celibacy for priests will bring about a change in the historic discipline. Liberal Catholics push for the change, seeing it as the first step toward women priests and the whole secular agenda. Consequently, some conservative Catholics look askance at married priests, worry that it is indeed “the thin edge of the iceberg getting its toe in the door” and resist any change to the rule.
It is vital for both sides in the debate to understand that the issues of married priests and women priests are completely separate. Priestly celibacy is a matter of church discipline. The sex of a person being ordained is a matter of church doctrine. The distinction between discipline and doctrine is rarely understood by most Catholics, and it is certainly not understood by the woman and man on the street.
Church discipline has to do with how things are done, not why they are done. Examples of matters of discipline questions are, “Do we need to fast on Fridays,” or “What liturgy is it acceptable to use?” The Church has the authority to change the disciplines.
Women priests are a matter of doctrine, not discipline. Pope St. John Paul II decreed that the Church does not have the authority to ordain women as priests. This decision was based on the study undertaken by Pope Paul VI and was rooted in fundamental understandings of Church authority and the sacraments. John Paul’s decision was then deemed “infallible” by Pope Benedict XVI when working as the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Apologist Jimmy Akin explains these decisions and provides links to all the documents on his website here.
Pope Francis has affirmed the teaching of his three predecessors when he has stated, “The door to women’s ordination is closed.” Therefore, we can assuredly conclude that having married priests is not “the thin edge of the iceberg getting its toe in the door.” Married priests are a possibility. Women priests are not a possibility.
The question remains, therefore, “Should the church change her rules and allow priests to marry?” While it is possible that the rules could change, it is very unlikely that priests who have already taken a vow of celibacy would be permitted to marry. What is more likely is that a limited permission would be given for some bishops to admit men to the priesthood who are already married. In areas where there is an acute shortage of priests, bishops may be given permission to ordain what the church calls viri probati — which means “tested men” — in other words older men whose marriages are stable and who are proven to be reliable, mature and wise.
Canon lawyers will have to quarrel about how this can be done, but others suggest that as an act of mercy, another group of men — priests who left the ministry and married — might be readmitted to ministry on a case-by-case basis.
Married men as Catholic priests could work, but I can speak from experience that the demands are great on the man and his marriage. Furthermore, from the experience of the Eastern rite churches and Protestant groups, it’s safe to say that having married priests on a large scale may cause more problems than it solves.
That’s why I predict that a change will not be happening anytime soon.
Fr. Dwight Longenecker is a former Evangelical, then an Anglican priest, and now a Catholic priest. Visit his website at dwightlongenecker.com to browse his books and be in touch.