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.