Married Clergy

I see that a Brazilian traditionalist blog linked to one of my earlier posts on the dynamics of clergy sexual abuse in the Catholic church, which was unexpected to say the least. It was linked in the context of discussing whether married priests in the Roman rite would be a positive development, which has led me to write down my own thoughts on the matter of married priests.

Let me say right off the bat that I don’t think that having a married clergy would necessarily reduce the number of instances of priestly sex abuse. Sex abuse occurs in all kinds of religious environments. No religious tradition is exempt from this scourge, no matter how conservative or progressive. What having married priests would do in this context is change the dynamics of abuse. Marriage, like celibacy, can be used to cover a multitude of sins, and in many ultra-Orthodox and conservative Protestant communities, it seems like the fact that a person is respectably married means that they can’t be a sex offender. Thus, I think sexual abuse trends in married Roman rite clergy would look like those found in Jewish and Protestant communities that also have married clergy.

Given how much current Catholic teachings on the priesthood emphasize the importance of a potential candidate having a yearning for heterosexual marriage and fatherhood, it’s a bit surprising to me that the idea of a married priesthood is so verboten among conservotrads. The celibate Catholic priesthood had always been homosocial by nature and in more than a few instances it’s been an outright gay subculture of its own. I’ve never understood why conservotrads are so shocked that so many gay men would gravitate towards the priesthood, since it’s a place where not being heterosexually married is perceived as a good thing, where a “band of brothers” mentality is celebrated (see in particular the Jesuits and the Legion of Christ), where strict religious rules would theoretically keep improper sexual impulses at bay, and to top it all off, you get to be ontologically different than the rest of the non-priestly hoi polloi. And if your sexual urges do happen to get the better of you, then that afore mentioned band of brothers will be more than happy to circle the wagons around you to keep you out of trouble (the same is true for heterosexual priests BTW). If one is really that concerned about the sexual orientation of the man behind the altar, and believes all the rhetoric about a priest as a father, then a married priesthood is the way to go. Granted, there are still LGBT people who get heterosexually married to convince themselves that they’re “normal” but that doesn’t seem to be happening as much, at least not in American Catholicism.

Supporters for married priests correctly note that such priests were the norm in the Western church for most of its early history. However, once Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire that the Western empire gradually began to look down on married clergymen (for a more in-depth discussion of this, see “The Body and Society” by Peter Brown). Lay people disliked the idea of a priest contaminated by bodily fluids in his marital bed ascending to the altar of Christ. Meanwhile, the church had a problem with the sons of priests trying to inherit ecclesiastical property. Nevertheless, clergy marriage in the West continued off and on until about the tenth century. Of course, even after public clergy marriage was eliminated, it was still quite common for priests to have families on the side, and this seems to be the case in the developing world, where the idea of celibacy isn’t popular. I think that one could argue that the “sensus fidei” ushered in the idea of the celibate marriage at a particular point in the church’s history, but now desires a married priesthood, and that this wish should be honored.

I’ve heard some conservotrads say that a married priesthood is a bad idea because a priest should be “married” to Jesus and the church, and that he wouldn’t have enough time for a wife and children. But I’m not sure how being a priest is any more time consuming than being a CEO,a police officer, an ER surgeon, or a marine, all of which are stressful jobs that make great demands on a person’s time. Yet no one would suggest that CEOs, police officers, ER surgeons, or marines should not be married or have children. Based on my observation of Anglican and Eastern Orthodox communities, it seems like many parishoners appreciate having a priest who can understand their joys and struggles as householders. When Pope Francis, for example, complains about childless people when he himself made a choice to not have children (as far as we know, at least) it’s hard to take him seriously.

As I mentioned previously, many priests in the developing world simply ignore their vow of celibacy and have families openly with the sanction of the community (see here: http://ncronline.org/blogs/ncr-today/trouble-celibacy-church-africa). While the developing world is hailed as the new frontier of Catholicism, the fact that the celibacy rule is floated so openly makes it clear that the developing world is not necessarily going to be in total lockstep with Western conservotrads on many important issues. It wouldn’t surprise me if one day in the future, when the Vatican is full of Nigerians and Brazilians, that the celibacy law is changed to reflect the desires of the developing world over the complaints of traditionalists in the West.

A set-up similar to what the Eastern Orthodox churches might work well in the Roman rite, in which the lower clergy are allowed to get married, but the higher offices are limited to those who have chosen to remain celibate. It still wouldn’t eliminate the absurdity of an ostensibly celibate pope trying to give advice on love, marriage, and babies to the masses, but it would be “traditional” enough to satisfy Western conservotrads, while also taking into account the fact that many priests in the developing world are marrying and having families anyway. Having married parish clergymen might also help ease the vocations crisis. As much of an anti-theist as I am, I recognize that a lot of people are affected by the structures and decisions of religious organizations, so if married clergy in the Roman rite will make some people’s lives easier, then so be it.

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