The recent comments of the Vatican Secretary of State-designate saying priestly celibacy is a matter of discipline, not doctrine, are neither authoritative nor at variance with the Church's current teaching.
Reporters have jumped on an off-the-cuff remark by Vatican Secretary of State-designate Archbishop Pietro Parolin, in which he said that celibacy for priests was a discipline of the Church and not a dogma, thereby leaving the matter open to discussion.
The statement is unremarkable. Clerical celibacy has always been a discipline, not a dogma – it is therefore open to revision and change. The eastern rite Catholic Churches have married priests, and exceptions have been made for married former Anglican priests as well as some Lutheran and Methodist ministers. When they convert to Catholicism, the may receive permission from Rome to be ordained as Catholic priests. I am one such priest.
However, some reporters have jumped on Archbishop Parolin’s comments, saying that he has “declared” celibacy to be “merely a discipline,” as if Parolin has issued some sort of official decree which has changed Vatican policy. These comments are framed in a context of “Progressive Pope Francis” and his “change-oriented papacy.” In fact, there is nothing new in Parolin’s comments; they were no more than an off-the-cuff explanation. He did not say that the celibacy rule was changing or even that it was up for discussion.
Nevertheless, celibacy for priests can be discussed, and is discussed regularly in the Church at the highest level. If the topic is brought up for discussion again, the Church’s leaders will be considering certain factors that most commentators will miss. First, it should be made clear that the discussions will not be about whether priests need to have sex or whether they need to have a wife and family. The discussions will not be along the lines of “If priests could marry, they would not be child abusers!” Such subjective erotic and emotional opinions will not be on the table.
The discussion on priestly celibacy will not be driven by the highly sexualized Western culture. In the developed world, which often seems addicted to sex, celibacy is seen as a sick alternative. However, it is our culture that is sick: marriage is disintegrating, and the family is reeling from attacks from an epidemic of pornography, prostitution, divorce, promiscuity, and sexually transmitted diseases. If celibacy for priests is discussed, it is not because the sex-addicted developed world is demanding a change.
Instead, the discussion will focus on the need for the Catholic discipline to adapt in a suitable way to different cultures around the world. The Catholic faith is mushrooming in Africa, Asia, and South America. The African culture in particular does not have a long standing tradition which venerates celibacy. In many parts of the developing world, a man is expected to marry and celibacy is seen as a strange, foreign imposition on their culture. The result is widespread concubinage and disregard for the discipline. The question is, “How much should an indigenous culture adapt to Catholicism, and how much should Catholicism adapt to the indigenous culture?” The question of celibacy for priests is therefore part of a larger discussion on evangelization and inculturation.
Another factor which impacts the discussion on celibacy for priests is the Catholic Church’s relationship with the Eastern Orthodox. The Eastern Orthodox discipline is that an ordained priest may not marry, but married men may be ordained. In other words, if a man is already a priest, he must remain celibate. He is also expected to be part of a monastic community. However, it is possible for married men to be considered for ordination. This aligns with St. Paul’s instructions in 1 Timothy that an elder should be the “husband of one wife” and that he must have an orderly and decent household. In other words, men whose marriages are tried and tested may be considered for ordination.
If the leaders of the Catholic Church re-consider the discipline of clerical celibacy, they will most certainly keep in mind the Eastern Orthodox discipline that priests will not be allowed to marry, but some married men may be ordained. There is no sign that change is on the horizon, and in his book, On Heaven and Earth, Pope Francis (then Archbishop of Buenos Aires) admitted that the discipline could be changed, but said that he was in favor of maintaining clerical celibacy and took a fairly hard line, saying that “any priest who could not maintain the discipline should leave the priesthood.”
However, the matter could be opened for discussion and if a change happens I predict that individual bishops will be allowed to decide if they wish to ordain already married men. There are some strong arguments in favor of such a change. It would strengthen the Catholic Church’s relationship with the Eastern Orthodox by adopting their discipline on the matter. From a practical point of view, it would increase the number of men available for the priesthood. In addition, we should recognize that life spans are increasing. People are active longer. A large number of older married men might be ordained to serve the church. A man in his fifties could have another thirty years of service to offer.
There would also be some negative results of such a change. A man who wants to be a priest and be married would simply marry first and plan to be ordained later in life. We would then see a shortage of young, vibrant, and energetic priests. The leadership of the church would eventually suffer because bishops need to be drawn from those men who have had a lifetime’s experience of serving the Church, and who have gained the knowledge, wisdom and experience to govern her. If men only come into the priesthood in their fifties, there will be a shortage of experienced leaders. Finally, who would decide on the age when a married man may be ordained? Would only older men be qualified? If so, why? Could not younger married men be ordained? If that were possible, other problems about supporting a young man and his family start to arise.
The decision is complex and above my pay grade. If the discussion takes place however, it will be one which considers all the complicated cultural and historical factors as well as the practical concerns. It is also a discussion that may send shock waves across the secular world, but in my experience as a married Catholic priest, it won’t shock the faithful very much. Most of them will see it as a positive development in the faith rather than a threat.
Fr. Dwight Longenecker is a married, former Anglican priest who has been ordained as a Catholic priest under the Pastoral Provision. He serves as a priest of the Diocese of Charleston in South Carolina.