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Celibate Priests: Is It Time for a Change?


Jeffrey Bruno

Philippe Oswald - published on 09/27/14

Priestly celibacy is considered a cruel archaism, responsible for the vocations crisis and pedophilia scandals. An investigation by journalist Jean Mercier dispels the myths.

For the media and a large section of public opinion, even among Catholics, there is no doubt: allowing "married priests" would be a salutary measure. They would finally become “normal” men, as both emotional and sexual relationships are deemed necessary requirements of a successful life. We will put to one side the paradox of the sudden promotion of marriage, which is elsewhere stalled and devalued—except in the case of "gay marriage" that is considered "progress” (and its promoters won’t hesitate to claim that priests should benefit from it as soon as priestly celibacy is abolished).
Nevertheless, in order to address the shortage of priestly vocations, the idea of ​​allowing the ordination of married men has made ​​its way into the Church. The question of a change, or at least a shift on priestly celibacy in the discipline of the Catholic Church is now openly asked by bishops and by Pope Francis himself.

Journalist and deputy editor in charge of religious affairs for the weekly magazine La Vie, Jean Mercier is not satisfied with such ready-made ​​ideas. After conducting a full investigation on priestly celibacy, he completed a study (full of testimonies from single and married priests, and the wives of priests) that explores the practice’s historical, theological and spiritual aspects. It is, ultimately, a study of the feasibility of the ordination of married men, one for which the Church will be grateful.

You have conducted a lengthy investigation on the issue of priestly celibacy. Have you had any surprises while working on this well trodden topic?

Jean Mercier: Yes, because I confronted popular beliefs. For example, people think that the Church should return to the practice of the first millennium—namely, the ordination of married men to the priesthood. What is less known is that they were obliged, like their wives, to practice sexual continence. Usually this "detail" is unknown!

Another misconception is that the inability to live celibacy is the cause of the departure of some priests to marry. But this obscures other issues. A priest who falls in love is often a man disappointed – by his parish, his bishop – and, thus, he finds a way out of his "domestic" crisis with the Church, even if unconsciously. This is akin to what a married man does when he leaves his wife for another woman. Celibacy seems the ideal culprit. But the conflict is often elsewhere, in the relationship of the priest with an idealized image of himself or with the Church.

It is often assumed that there are no married priests in the Catholic Church. You show us that this is not so.

JM: Yes. There are married priests in the Catholic Church, especially in the Eastern Churches, who received their model from the Orthodox churches, where there is a two-leveled clergy: parish priests, who are married, but also celibate priests, comparable to monks.

But there are also between 300 and 400 in the Western Latin Church, who are former Protestant or Anglican ministers who, although married, are ordained priests by dispensation from the Holy See. I explore this little known fact in my book. We see then, for example, that in these cases the wife must "bring home the bacon." The apostolic availability of a married priest therefore depends on the occupational mobility of his wife. And so it is complicated.

Is it not ironic that the two popes who allowed married men access to the priesthood in the Catholic Church of the Latin Rite, John Paul II and Benedict XVI, are labeled as "conservative"?

JM: It is probably because these two Popes had the image that they could do so without appearing revolutionary. However, they never intended to create a laboratory for the evolution of the whole Church. They were meeting the specific desires of converts. 

The "marriage of priests" is presented as "the" solution to the vocations crisis and "the" answer to the sex scandals that have shaken the Church. Double illusion? 

JM: Yes. The "marriage" of priests never existed, except in France at the time of the Revolution! This is very different from the ordination of married men. The vocations crisis is complex . The problem is, first of all, the crisis of masculinity with respect to the gift of self. There are only very few men willing to become teachers, for example, although they are married. 

Furthermore, the priesthood is devalued among Catholics. They do not want their son, who has succeeded in his studies and has a bright future before him, to become a priest. Here is the crux. 

And as for the idea that allowing priests to marry could avoid sex scandals among clerics, this is misleading… Pedophilia is a perversion which mainly involves married men. 

Pressed to comment on the "opening" of the Church to a relaxation of the celibacy rule, many bishops and Pope Francis himself begin by answering that it is a disciplinary measure and not dogma. But you seem to contradict them by answering that it is "quasi-dogmatic"! 

JM: Yes, because we are in a gray area between dogma and discipline. To say that celibacy is only a disciplinary rule is true in form, but not in substance. Celibacy is a tradition deeply rooted in the culture of Catholicism, and also in the minds of non-Catholics. Celibacy is the heart of the identity of the priest. It is not in pushing it aside that we will fill the seminaries. On the contrary.

Your survey addresses the historical, sociological, psychological, and theological aspects, but, in the end, is it not the mystical aspect that ultimately justifies celibacy: the priest is configured to Christ? 

JM: The priest is not only, as are all baptized persons, "another Christ." He is Jesus "himself" when he celebrates Mass and forgives sins. He totally takes upon himself the "I" of Jesus. Celibacy has meaning only in the close identification between the priest and Jesus. The priest shares, mystically, the conjugal union between Christ and the Church. This is not only a theological definition but an existential reality that priests live in different ways. 

What is your prediction as to the likelihood of the Church deciding to ordain priests "viri probati"—that is to say, “proven” married men, along with single men? 

JM: If I believe what the Pope seems to think, this development would come from the local churches, and would not be decided from above. Wisdom would have it that Rome keeps the celibacy rule, while extending the scope of the exceptions to ordain married men, recognizing highly targeted vocations discerned with great care. Nothing would be worse than to transform dozens of excellent laymen into mediocre priests. The fundamental issue of the shortage of priests is faith, that is to say, trusting that God gives joy to those who commit to the priesthood, and therefore to celibacy.

"Celibacy of priests. Should the discipline of the Church change?"Jean Mercier, DDB editions Desclée Brouwer, 350 pages.

Philippe Oswaldis the executive editor of Aleteia’s French edition. This article was originally published on September 23.

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