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Friday, October 28, 2011

Married Catholic Priests?




For some reason reporters like to ask married Catholic priests whether the Catholic Church should change the rules and to allow the ordination of more married Catholic men.  When I ask reporters why they don’t ask celibate Catholic priests what they think about it, they look at me funny, like it never occurred to them.
Maria Antonia asked me what I think about opening the Catholic priesthood to married men several different ways in an interview for Channel 9 News November 27.  She is a very good news reporter and interviewer, and I think she really wanted to know.  She asked the question a number of different ways, and I answered it a number of different ways.  The snippet that was chosen for broadcast is something I really said and really believe.  I do believe that the idea opening the priesthood to married men deserves deep thought.  But they didn’t broadcast my answer to the next question: If I could make the decision for the Catholic Church today, would I open the priesthood to married men?  No. 
As a married Catholic man I am very grateful that the Catholic Church deemed that it was appropriate to ordain me as a Catholic priest, but I would still be Catholic even if I were not ordained.  There are about a hundred or more former Episcopal priests as well as former Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian and other protestant ministers who have been ordained as Catholic priests and many of them are married.  In addition we have some Catholic priests who are widowers and have children and grandchildren; we have many Eastern Rite Catholic priests with wives and children, and we have many, many ordained deacons with wives and children.  So we are getting a lot of experience with married Catholic clergy.  We have gifts to offer, and limitations, too. 
When married and celibate priests gather, the question of changing the rules of celibacy hardly ever comes up.  A celibate priesthood has been a great gift to the church for 1500 years, and every time the church has gone through a period of spiritual renewal, the gift of celibacy has been renewed and the church has been reinvigorated.  We certainly do not want to introduce a change to this great gift, which the pope, most bishops and most current priests support and find life giving, unless we have done some deep conversation, study and prayer.
Does being married and having children make me a better priest?  I don’t know how to measure that.  It makes me different, but I cannot say that it makes me better.  I have never been a priest without being married and having children.  It is part of who I am, and I have no way of telling how I would be different if I were celibate.  There are many times when coming home to Valerie and the kids gives me a sense of balance in my life, especially when going through difficult times at church.  But it also works the other way.  I am sure there are times when I was not as available to Valerie and the kids as I could have been if I church needs and pressures had not intruded.  I find that if I have more than two or three evening meetings a week, family life really suffers.  Fr. Steve Cook, Pastor at St. Peter’s, told me that he spends six or seven nights a week with parishioners in their homes or at meetings at church.  There is simply no way I could match that.  His parish is blessed to have a celibate priest.  Does that mean that my parish suffers because St. Therese has a married one?  I don’t know.  It is possible.  Right now I’m the only priest they’ve got, and there’s no way to test whether I would be a better pastor for them if I were celibate.
Episcopalian Bishop Robert Folwell gave me some advice that I have tried to live by, even as a Catholic priest.  He said, “Put God first, your wife second, your children third, and the church after that.”  What would it mean if most Catholic priests were unavailable to their flocks because they need to have family time?  Catholic priests are “married” to the church in a way.  Some Catholic priests call their breviary their “wife.”  Their lives are very different from the one I have lived. It may be essential that Catholic priests be able to put the needs of his flock next after God.  It deserves much thought.
Would married Catholics find it easier to relate to a married priest when discussing their own family issues?  People have occasionally told me that.  But no priest, single or married, can ever say, “I know how you feel” or “I know what you are going through” even if we have experienced something similar. None of us knows what it is like for the other person until they tell us.  We do our best to meet people in their need and to be as helpful as we can, perhaps a little from our own family experience, but mostly from what we learn from the person herself or himself and from what we have learned from helping others, always dependent upon God’s help.  It is easy to forget that all priests have families: parents and siblings, cousins, nieces and nephews.  We are probably just as likely to have experience with divorce, to have relatives who are single and married, straight and gay.  Whatever our family status we try to assist the person in the way that is appropriate for them.
Would having more married priests help the Catholic Church, especially through the troubles the church is facing now?  No.  There is no evidence that a person’s marital status makes a person more or less likely to abuse a child.  The Catholic Church is one of the safest places a child can be, and even safer with the new safeguards instituted by Bishop Finn recently.  All priests, employees and volunteers that work with children are background checked, trained and re-trained.  The safety of children is of first importance.  If child abuse is suspected, we call the police first and then our ombudsman will investigate.  Other institutions – public schools, sports leagues, scouts – all have problems and work hard to be safer.  But the Catholic Church is held to a higher standard because we hold ourselves and call others to a higher standard.  When we fail or appear to fail it is doubly troubling and very public.
People who say we should have more married priests are trying to be helpful.  When there is a tragedy, people often say things with the best of intentions.  Perhaps they say things they have heard other people say, without really thinking deeply about it.  Those who have experienced a tragic loss can easily remember the things that were said by people who were trying to be kind.  Saying that God doesn’t give us more than we can bear or that God needed another angel may contain some truth, but it is not helpful to the person experiencing the tragedy.  Saying that married priests would help the Catholic Church is similar.  It is meant to be helpful.  There may be some truth in it.  But it is unrelated to the current circumstances.
Should the Roman Catholic Church start ordaining more married men?  I think we should ask our celibate priests what they think about it.  How does this gift of celibacy make them better priests?  We should also ask the Catholic faithful if they have to share a priest with his wife and children, and that their priest is no longer “married” to his flock.  It is an idea that deserves much study and deep thought.  The Catholic Church does not make decisions like this quickly, without deep thought, study and conversation.  Perhaps the best we can say is that our current married Catholic clergy who are deacons, former Episcopalian and protestant clergy, and Eastern Rite priests could help with that study, deep thought and conversation.