success stories

Good Catholics, Good Priests — and Married

by John Hewko

in the Washington Post

My grandfather was a married Catholic priest. And so was my great-grandfather and his father. There probably would have been a fourth generation of Catholic priests in my family, except that my grandfather had three daughters(the youngest being my mother). Three generations of married priests who were as Catholic as the pope.

As the debate within the Roman Catholic Church over the celibacy of priests heats up, many Catholics are missing the fact that the church already permits married priests. It has done so, at least with respect to Ukrainian Catholics such as my grandfather, for more than 400 years. This precedent goes back to the 16th century.

Although at the time most Ukrainians were Orthodox, a significant portion of the Ukrainian lands had been incorporated into the Catholic Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. In 1596 the Ukrainian bishops and the papacy entered into the Union of Brest, pursuant to which the Ukrainians agreed to join the Catholic Church and to accept fully the authority of the pope on all matters of faith and dogma. In return, the Ukrainians were permitted to retain their Orthodox liturgy and rites and to continue the tradition that priests (but not bishops) could be married.

The popular view of many in the United States is that a Catholic priest cannot be married; it stems in large part from the common misperception that the terms Catholic Church and Roman Catholic Church are synonymous. In fact, the Universal Catholic Church, under the tutelage of the pope, is comprised of many particular churches or “rites.”

The vast majority of Catholics in the world belong to the Roman (or Western rite) Church, which does not permit its priests to be married. But there are numerous Catholics who belong to one of the many Eastern Catholic Churches; these include the Ukrainians, the Maronites, the Chaldeans, the Melkites and others. They are not Orthodox and are no less Catholic than members of the Roman rite. But their priests can be married.

Although the spiritual and scriptural arguments that support celibacy are noble and complex and go back to the earliest days of the church, the concept of mandatory celibacy is not rooted in theological considerations, nor is it a dogma of the Catholic Church. Rather, it gathered momentum in the Middle Ages in response to a number of historical factors, became firmly entrenched with the Council of Trent in the mid-1500s, and is today an obligatory disciplinary rule imposed by the institutional Roman Catholic Church on its priests.

But times have changed. The institution of priesthood and with it the church as a whole, are passing through a moment of intense crisis and face an acute shortage of clergy. Since 1970 the number of men studying to be priests in diocesan seminaries has decreased dramatically, from more than 17,000 in 1970 to 3,400 in 2001, and in religious order seminarians from more than 11,000 to 1,500.

Although there are indications that the situation is improving in selected dioceses, the time is ripe for a frank and open discussion within the Roman Catholic Church in this country as to the wisdom of mandatory celibacy. Celibacy has served for many centuries as a powerful symbol of dedication to faith and vocation, and those countless priests who have voluntarily, unswervingly and selflessly followed its call deserve our highest praise and admiration. Celibacy has also removed from priesthood the potential distractions of married life, the responsibility of raising children and the financial burden of maintaining a family.

The institution of celibacy has functioned reasonably well over time, and there is an inherent danger in taking radical action during a crisis that may be only a short-lived occurrence in a historical period marked by spiritual and moral decline.

Yet, despite these arguments, some change is needed. By all accounts, my grandfather was a dedicated, compassionate and very popular priest. His wife, children and grandchildren were generally not a distraction but a source of additional strength, experience and wisdom. In the Ukrainian clergy, the wives of priests make an invaluable contribution to the spiritual and charitable life of the parish and local community.

There are many young Catholics who have the talent, energy and inclination to enter the priesthood but are denied access because, after considerable reflection, they honestly doubt their ability to adhere to the demands of celibacy. Although the option of celibacy should be kept open for those priests who want it, the shortage of priests is real, and there is little doubt that the pool of potential candidates would increase dramatically if mandatory celibacy were abolished.

The beauty of any such reform is that there is little need to gaze into a crystal ball and experiment: The Catholic Church today already has married priests and they appear to be doing quite well.