In an interview with the Times of Malta, Archbishop Scicluna said, “why should I lose a good priest who wishes to have a family?” In 2017, the Pope himself already hinted at the possibility of allowing married men to become priests. Maybe times have changed and priests should be allowed to get married. But are married priests a good idea?
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Married priests – not a new thing
Although a dramatic change, married priests would be a return to early Christian tradition: nowhere does the New Testament explicitly require priests to be celibate (the state of being unmarried and, therefore, sexually abstinent). In fact, for the first thousand years of Christianity, it was not uncommon for priests to have families. St Peter, the first Pope, was himself a married man. Many early Popes also had children.
The history of priest celibacy
Despite the decrees from the Middle Ages, celibacy is not part of teaching handed down by Jesus. Celibacy forms part of the Church’s “disciplines”, teachings or guidelines put in place by the Church through her good judgement over the years, which are subject to change.
Priest celibacy is particular to the Roman Catholic Church. In fact, the Eastern Orthodox churche has married priests and married men can be ordained to the priesthood. Furthermore, a married Anglican priest that converts to the Roman Catholic Church can still be ordained as a Catholic priest. The reasons Roman Catholic priests to remain celibate are both theological and canonical.
Theological Reasons for priest celibacy
Priests are meant to serve in the place of Christ, who himself was not married. By remaining celibate and devoting themselves to the service of the Church, priests more closely resemble themselves to Christ. Early Church teachings from St Paul also advocate for celibacy. St Paul argued that by remaining single, one’s attention remains fully devoted to serving the Lord (1 Cor 7:32–35). In fact, Paul recommends celibacy especially to ministers, who as “soldiers of Christ” he urges to abstain from “civilian affairs” (2 Tm 2:3–4).
Canonical Reasons for priest celibacy
According to Canonical Law (Church law) there cannot be married priests, since when ordained, they make a promise of celibacy. The earliest written reference dates to 305AD, but it was not until 1139 that priests were explicitly forbidden from marrying.
Another reason is that priests are called to serve God. At that point, the Church becomes their highest calling. If they were to have a family, one can easily imagine potential conflicts between their spiritual and familial duties. The Vatican has so far regarded it as being easier for unattached men to commit to the Church, as they have more time for devotion and fewer distractions.
No correlation between celibacy and child abuse
An obvious thought regards child abuse scandals. Research shows that sexual abuse has a much higher percentage of occurrence in Protestant churches than within celibate Catholic clergy. Looking beyond the religious world, research shows that the percentage of abuse is much higher among non-celibates than among celibate Catholic clergy. If celibacy were at the root of things, we would expect the opposite.
Being married allows priests to understand better what their congregation experiences on a day to day basis. Sunday sermons could become more relatable, guiding the faithful on how to juggle work, home, family, and do so as a means to honour God. This could be a good move to attract more people to attend mass. The family in particular plays a central role in the Christian faith. Experience of marriage puts a priest in a better position to counsel married couples, particularly in times where family values are increasingly under stress.
A fact of reality is that the Church, including the Maltese Church, has had a harder time recruiting priests. Globally, between 1970 and 2014, the number of priests has been dropping. Even though the world’s Catholic population grew from 654m to 1.23bn, the number of priests still declined from 420,000 to 414,000. Both current and prospective priests don’t necessarily want to choose between having a life with God and having a family. It is not inconceivable that the time will come again when they can have both.
Watch: ‘Don’t expect the Church to be the opposition’. Times of Malta: https://timesofmalta.com/articles/view/watch-don-t-expect-church-opposition.1076682
Why Can’t a Priest Ever Marry? Catholic Answers: https://www.catholic.com/qa/why-cant-a-priest-ever-marry
Why Catholic priests practise celibacy. The Economist: https://www.economist.com/the-economist-explains/2017/03/23/why-catholic-priests-practise-celibacy
Why Can’t Roman Catholic Priests Marry? Graham Osborne, Catholic Education Resource Center: https://www.catholiceducation.org/en/controversy/protestant-objections/why-can-t-roman-catholic-priests-marry.html
Pedophiles and Priests: Anatomy of a Contemporary Crisis, Philip Jenkins (2001)
Research: Child sex abuse is not more common among priests: https://onlysky.media/rsnedeker/priests-arent-the-only-perpetrators-of-child-sex-abuse/