Married Catholic Priests? I Am One

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A priest covers his head with a book as Pope Francis celebrates a Jubilee Mass in Saint Peter’s Square at the Vatican on April 3, 2016. Pope Francis recently signaled that he might be open to discussing the possibility of married Catholic men being ordained as priests. Tony Gentile/Reuters

Pope Francis—ever fond of stirring the pot—has made headlines again recently with a remark during an interview with a German paper suggesting a new openness to married priests.

Married priests in the Catholic Church? It's not really new. I am one. As a former Anglican minister, I have been ordained as a Catholic priest under a special measure called the Pastoral Provision even though I have a wife and four children.

Related: This is what Pope Francis said about married priests

Through this process a married man who has been ordained in the Anglican Church (and sometimes the Lutheran and Methodist churches) is granted a dispensation from the vow of celibacy in order to be ordained as a Catholic priest.

The reason I was permitted to be ordained is that celibacy for priests is a discipline of the church, not a doctrine. That is why exceptions can be made and the rule could be changed.

Pope Francis's current suggestion is that an exception might also be made for older, married Catholic men to be ordained.

In fact, the Eastern Orthodox churches (and the Eastern Rite churches in communion with the Vatican) have had married priests for a long time. Their discipline is that married men may be ordained, but priests may not marry. In other words, Father McGee can't start dating, but married Mr. McBee could ask to be ordained.

This aligns with St. Paul's instructions to single men that they "remain as he is" (I Cor. 7.25-27) and his instructions to Timothy, on the other hand, that priests and deacons should be the husband of only one wife (I Tim. 3). In other words, validly married men could be ordained.

St. Paul also says that his opinion that the unmarried remain so is not mandated from the Lord (I Cor. 7.25). Because it is only Paul's opinion the rule could be changed. Should it be changed? Should we allow married men to be ordained?

Ordaining older married men would seem, at first glance, to solve a lot of problems, not only in the developed countries where, arguably, the mandatory vow of celibacy is one of the greatest deterrents to increased vocations, but it would also be a great help in Africa where celibacy is culturally unheard of, and in South America where the priest to people ratio is huge.

It might also help to solve some problems of the modern priesthood in the West. So many of our priests are isolated and alone and too many problems surround the men who struggle with celibacy. So is the answer to allow married men to be ordained?

Not necessarily. Having married priests would certainly help the vocations crisis, and married men might relate better to married people. However, believing that married priests are the answer assumes that they are mature, happily married men. With a bit of reflection anyone can see that marriage in and of itself does not automatically make a man mature, self-giving and happy.

In my experience of married clergy in both the Evangelical Churches and the Anglican Church, marriage is not the magic bullet for the lack of vocations. Having married clergy will not necessarily solve the vocations crisis, nor will it necessarily improve the priestly ministry, and it certainly won't be the solution to the priestly sex abuse problem.

Some celibate priests may have personal problems, but why do we imagine that married men are problem free?

Married ministers are often workaholics. Marriage doesn't magically make a man mature. Some married ministers have sexual problems just like celibate men do. Married clergymen have drink problems. Married clergymen struggle with porn and same-sex attraction and abuse children. When a clergy marriage breaks down it is usually disastrous. The scandal and pain of betrayal surges through the whole church like a tsunami.

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Bishop Robert Guglielmone, far right, with Father Dwight Longenecker and his wife and four children at the dedication of the new Our Lady of the Rosary Church in Greenville, South Carolina. The Reverend Dwight Longenecker

I don't mean to paint a horrible picture of married clergy. I'm just reminding people that it's not all quite as happy and wonderful as they seem to think.

There are other practical problems. Catholics say they want married clergy, but do they want to pay for them? Priests live on a pittance. As a married man with a family I get by because I earn an extra income through my writing and speaking. In addition to this, my wife runs her own business. Not all married priests and their families can do this.

On the other hand, older married men would bring a lifetime of experience to the role. If they have stable marriages, and if they have taken early retirement they might also be financially independent. In the developing world the ordination of older men could provide simple and natural support for the local Catholic community.

There are problems with celibacy for priests, but there will be problems with married priests. Problems, like the poor, we will have with us always, but with good humor, hard work and generosity people of faith have overcome greater problems than these.

The Reverend Dwight Longenecker is the pastor of Our Lady of the Rosary Church in Greenville, South Carolina. Visit his blog, browse his books and be in touch at DwightLongenecker.com.

Married Catholic Priests? I Am One | Opinion