A few days ago the blog Catholicism Pure and Simple posted excerpts from an article about a possible push in the next synod to allow married priests. Those who aren’t Catholic or Orthodox will probably not find it or this post interesting. But I did, in particular because of my recent experiences. I’ve been attending a few different Eastern Catholic parishes for a long time now, and at several of the parishes the priest (also pastor) was married. Having had regular occasion to see married priests in action, and also having experiences with celibate priests (both New Mass and TLM alike) for most of my life, I imagine I have a somewhat different perspective than most Catholics. With that in mind, I wanted to offer a few thoughts of my own on the subject.
To begin with, I do not think that married priests in the Western Rite represent the end of the world. Having seen both systems in action, I can assert with a fair measure of confidence that married priests are just as effective in their pastoral and sacramental duties as celibate priests. In fact, I dare say that the married priests I have experience with are more orthodox and better pastors than a fair number of the celibate Western Rite priests I have encountered. From what I can tell their personal experience with marriage and children gives them an insight there in pastoral matters that celibate priests lack. Further, the Eastern Church has had married priests since the beginning, and it has not proven to be any kind of detriment.
At the same time, I fully appreciate the value of celibate priests. The married priests I have had for pastors have all been pastors at smaller parishes. It would be much more difficult for a married priest to be a pastor at a larger parish without running into time issues with his own family. Also, their own outside perspective on marriage can be very valuable as well- they can be detached in vital way. Time, though, is the biggest factor, and it is no surprise that this is mentioned by St. Paul in his letter to the Corinthians. Celibate priests can devote all their time to pastoral care in a way that married priests can’t.
Taken together, I not only have no problem with married priests in the Western Rite, but I think it could prove beneficial. Something that is important to keep in mind is that the Western Rite tradition of only celibate priests is just that- a small “t”, human tradition. It is not Sacred Tradition, much less doctrine. It is pastoral discipline. Furthermore, that tradition has been around for less time than married priests were permitted in the Western Church.
However, I am apprehensive about this new “push” for married clergy. I think that the authors of that article may be right that there is more behind it. I suspect that some may be using it as an avenue to try and change actual doctrine, rather than pastoral discipline. If that is the case, and I suspect it is, then caution is the order of the day. It is important to do the right thing for the right reasons, otherwise it soon stops being the right thing.
One further note- I do not see married priests as being a panacea to “cure” the priest shortage here in the West. At least, not by itself. That problem is deeper, and much of it is rooted in series problems with Western seminaries. Until those problems are fixed, the kind of married men you would want to be priests won’t make it through to ordination. In other words, the same negative filter would be applied to them as well as to non-married men.