Why Can’t Catholic Priests Marry?
I am often asked, “Why can’t Catholic priests marry?” This is certainly a long-standing debate and one that rages throughout history. According to Pew Research, 60 percent of Catholics believe priests should be allowed to be married.
Pope Francis seems to be giving this issue real consideration. Politically, it would be a big movement for the Catholic church and, as such, he is treading carefully. But he has opened the door by suggesting perhaps priests could be married in those areas where there is a shortage of priests, such as the Pacific Islands and parts of South America. These are both places where there has been a significant rise in Catholicism.
A term being used is Viri Probati, which means “Men of proven Virtue.” The term is being used as a bridge to ending the marriage ban. Many in the Vatican are discussing this transition. But, as with all large organizations, change comes slowly.
It’s about discipline
The issue of having married priests has been with the church since at least 305 AD. At the Council of Elvira, married priests were asked to maintain a lifestyle of abstinence. Later, in 325 AD, at the Council of Nicaea convened by Constantine, a proposal to forbid married men to become priests was rejected.
It wasn’t until 1139 AD, at the Second Lateran Council, that an edict came out against married priests.
It is important to note that having unmarried men be priests is a discipline and not a doctrine. This means the pope can more readily change the rules.
Of all the reasons I have read in favor of this enacted discipline, the most prominent is the creation of a group “set apart.” Garry Wills suggested in Under God that the ban on marriage was adopted to lift the status of priests at a time when their authority was being challenged by nobles and others.
Separation of Church and State
In other words, the idea was to create a group that was freed from the politics of the twelfth century—a form of separation of church and state. In the preceding thousand years, the papacy and the church were influenced by political powers who sought to gain an advantage by controlling the church.
There is also ancient history from before Jesus’s time that has influenced the church. Early Druid priests were asked to not marry. This was also true of other pre-Christian religious sects. The thought was based on maintaining purity and a commitment to living a higher life.
Early Protestant reformers rejected the concept of having clergy not being married. It was viewed by Luther as a deviant lifestyle. Other than small groups like the Shakers, most Protestant sects still hold this position. It should be noted that Luther himself, a former Catholic priest, married a former nun whom he’d rescued from a German nunnery.
In 2012, a small scrap of parchment was discovered that quoted Jesus as saying, “My wife…” Scholars have reviewed this scrap and determined it was from antiquity and authentic. Does this mean Jesus had a wife? Maybe, but more likely it was the start of a quote about Jesus and the church. Jesus, in Revelations, is compared to a bridegroom, and his bride is New Jerusalem—the church of believers. So, while there has been speculation for centuries about whether or not Jesus was married, it is doubtful that he was.
Paul, in his letters, discussed marriage, and while he didn’t come out on either side, he left it up to the individual but cautioned that marriage could affect our following of Christ.
Biblically, there is no guidance about whether clergy should be married. The issue is one of custom and discipline.
It would be easy to say that those of the Catholic faith should follow the Protestant direction. However, the Protestant tradition was created by individuals like Luther who believed it was okay for clergy to be married and that to not marry was an invitation to lead an aberrant life.
Pope Francis currently holds the key to solving this issue. Because marriage by the clergy is not a doctrine, it could, in theory, be changed fairly easily. But tradition is not easily broken. There is still a large minority who believe that priests should not marry.
Pope Francis himself has said that chastity on the part of the priest is a real gift to the church. But, at the same time, he recognizes its potential impact on morality in terms of priestly conduct and the recruitment of future priests. He also realizes that this is a sensitive subject that could cause a schism in the church if not handled carefully.
Personally, I do think priests should be given the option to marry if they feel they can best serve the church through marriage as opposed to a life of celibacy. But that is a very Protestant view. There is something to be said for those who would choose to stay single as a symbol of their virtue.
The days when noblemen and kings could influence the church are long past and perhaps the rule is no longer needed.
There are places in the world that are growing in Christ that do not have enough clergy to guide them. Marriage can be a detriment to recruiting priests. Pope Francis recognizes this and has floated a trial balloon to potentially relax this discipline in those areas. Perhaps it is his way of easing the rules so that, eventually, all priests would be permitted to marry.
Pope Francis currently holds the key to solving this debate. I do not envy his position. Regardless of his own feelings, he has constituents on both sides of the argument who believe strongly in their views. This is a river he must try to navigate for the sake of the church.
Blessings, until next time,
Bruce L. Hartman
Dr. Bruce L. Hartman is the author of Jesus & Co. and Your Faith Has Made You Well.
Photo by Sandy Millar on Unsplash