In general, men ordained to the priesthood vow to remain celibate, dedicating themselves fully to the Church, which is the Bride of Christ. Priestly celibacy comes from a rich tradition in the Western Church, and while it is codified in canon law for the Western rites, it is not a dogma or doctrine. Therefore, there are some cases where exceptions are made for men with families, such as in the case of those priests who have converted from Anglicanism and are already married with children. Furthermore, priests of the Eastern sui iuris rites of the Catholic Church follow the laws that govern their particular churches, which allow married men to be ordained.
The Church has always recognized that some are called to the gift of celibacy. While today we might be quick to consider celibacy as less of a gift and more of a burden, St. Paul explains that a married man or woman is constantly concerned (rightly) about the needs of his or her spouse. “An unmarried man,” says St. Paul, “is anxious about the things of the Lord, how he may please the Lord” (1 Corinthians 7:32). It is clear throughout his writings that St. Paul believes that remaining celibate to serve God and His Church is a praiseworthy choice – one that frees you, rather than restricts you. In the Western Church, celibacy increasingly became common for priests and eventually became a definitive mandate during the First Lateran Council in 1123.
Some in society would like us to believe that celibacy is unnatural or even impossible. However, we know many people who are celibate: single people who are not yet married, married couples who may have to abstain for health or other reasons, widows or widowers and, of course, those who have embraced celibacy as part of their religious or priestly vocation. Ven. Paul VI tells us, “They live in chastity, not out of disdain for the gift of life, but because of a greater love for that new life which springs from the Paschal mystery. They live this life of courageous self-denial and spiritual joyfulness with exemplary fidelity and also with relative facility. This magnificent phenomenon bears testimony to an exceptional facet of the kingdom of God living in the midst of modern society, to which it renders humble and beneficial service as the "light of the world" and the "salt of the earth." (Sacerdotalis Cælibatus, 1967, no.13). The Holy Father goes on to say that the law of priestly celibacy is meant to support priests in their vocation of complete dedication to service of the Church.
The vow of celibacy is a rich gift for the priesthood and for the Church
While the law of celibacy for priests isn’t immutable, the Catholic Church has taught and demonstrated the many ways in which celibacy is suitable and beneficial for priests and the Church:
- The priesthood isn’t merely a job; it is a call from God that fundamentally changes a man at ordination. Therefore, it is reasonable that a priest might be called to a different lifestyle than married men and women.
- In marriage, man and woman bind themselves to one another and express this love through their conjugal relations. In becoming a priest, a man binds himself more directly to Christ and, as Pope Paul VI says, “adheres wholly and directly to the Lord, and is concerned only with him and with his affairs.”
- Christ himself remained celibate, affirming that celibacy can be practiced for the sake of the Kingdom of God.
- Celibacy is a gift that a priest makes to the Church so that he may focus entirely on his ecclesial family. In fact, everyone gives something up upon embracing a vocation: spouses give up dating other people; parents give up putting their own needs first; priests give up ever marrying.
- The Church benefits from the priest’s undivided attention and charity
There are some specific situations where exceptions are made for men with families
Celibacy for priests is certainly the general rule, yet the distinction that it is not doctrine is important when considering certain dispensations from this rule. Susan Gibbs is the spokesperson for the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter – a designation for those groups of Anglicans in the United States who desire to come into full communion with the Catholic Church. Within this Ordinariate are former Anglican priests who have converted to Catholicism, often along with their Anglican congregations. Gibbs explains that out of the 30 Ordinariate priests in North America, most are married. These exceptions have been made for pastoral reasons and each man’s case is considered individually by the Holy Father.
Gibbs provides a fuller picture of how these pastoral exceptions are made: “For Anglican priests seeking to become Catholics and then Catholic priests, the norm is celibacy, as it is for all Catholic priests in the western Church. However, Blessed John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI both have allowed case-by-case exceptions for pastoral reasons when a former Anglican priest is married. For Bl. John Paul II, this was the 1980 Pastoral Provision, which allowed former Anglican priests in the US to be ordained as diocesan priests on a limited basis. For Pope Benedict XVI, it was done through the 2009 apostolic constitution, Anglicanorum cœtibus, which permitted the creation of ordinariates for former Anglican groups. (These ordinariates are similar to dioceses, but national; they allow "corporate reunion" – entire groups of Anglicans to become Catholic together, often led by their rector.)”
“That said, Gibbs explains, “Anglicanorum cœtibus makes clear that celibacy remains the norm: VI § 2. The Ordinary, in full observance of the discipline of celibate clergy in the Latin Church, as a rule (pro regula) will admit only celibate men to the order of presbyter. He may also petition the Roman Pontiff, as a derogation from can. 277, §1, for the admission of married men to the order of presbyter on a case by case basis, according to objective criteria approved by the Holy See.”
The exceptions being made for the recently formed Ordinariate are not the only ones in the history of the Church, but certainly the most timely and relevant for Catholic parishioners today. If they do have a married Catholic priest in their parish, chances are that the priest is a convert.
Demands of Two Vocations
While some men, such as the new priests of the Anglican-Use Ordinariate, balance their vocations to the priesthood and to marriage and family, this is not the norm; it is clear that these cases are extraordinary (that is, outside the norm), for the benefit of the Church as well as for the benefit of the particular priest. When one considers the challenge of balancing a job and a marriage and family, one can understand why; the priesthood is not an ordinary job, but a vocation that demands the entirety of the person who accepts it. A priest’s family is the Church: he brings the sacraments to his parishioners, he administers parishes and other ecclesial communities, he leads activities and events, he coordinates outreach to those in need. He is a spiritual father to his parishioners. In this light, it is not difficult to understand the Church’s prudential judgment in asking her priests to observe celibacy.