Why can't priests get married?

The tradition of celibate Catholic priests is Canon Law, not a dogma, which means it is not set in stone, and could change. The married priesthood is not unbiblical per se (i.e., Peter was married). However, there is much scriptural and historical evidence supporting a celibate priesthood.

There are married Catholic priests. Some have come from the Anglican Church to Catholicism. Other married priests are found in some Eastern Rite Catholic churches. These rites were part of the Orthodox split in the 11th century, but returned to the Catholic fold later and were allowed to maintain their traditions, including married clergy. However, if they were celibate at the time of ordination, their tradition requires them to remain that way. Also, Bishops in the Eastern rites are not allowed to be married. So even in the Eastern Churches marriage is only allowed in certain circumstances.

There are pros and cons to the married clergy, but one thing is for sure. The Bible says a family man needs to put his family first, not the Church. (1 Cor 7:24-35) Yet a priest is called to make service to his congregation his first priority. This makes for a difficult dilemma.

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Married clergy in denominations where marriage is allowed

In order to help us examine this question, we could look at denominations where marriage is the norm for ministers. Focus on the Family, one of the largest and most respected Evangelical organizations, has a ministry completely devoted to Protestant clergy support called the "Clergy Care Network." In the June 2007, Focus on the Family magazine had two articles called "The pastor...at home" and "Ministry spotlight." It highlighted the difficulties of being a family man and a clergy.

By far, says Shari, the most common requests the correspondence team receive [from pastors] are for prayer and guidance concerning marriage, parenting, pornography, infidelity and child rearing issues causing division between parents... (pg. 26, Focus on the Family Canada Magazine, June 2007)

...we [a Pastor and his wife] raised our boys to know that we loved the church but we loved them even more. That did not always sit well with some of our congregations' leadership, but ...the boys came first...in many cases ...pastors' kids shun the church because of the competition they felt for their parents' attention. (pg. 7, Focus on the Family Canada Magazine, June 2007)

Family has to come first. I played the music for a Pentecostal men's retreat. They gave some statistics about protestant clergy.

  • 1500 per month leave the Pentecostal ministry
  • 2/3rds quit before they retire.
  • 14 years is the average length as a Pastor (Pentecostal Assemblies of God)

The Catholic Church only has an average of 0.25% priest attrition per year, which is very good compared to the married clergy model in Protestant churches. In addition, it is not evident that married clergy are happier in their work. The Focus on the Family Stewardship Update June 2007, reports that:

  • 8 out of 10 pastors and their spouses are discouraged or dealing with depression
  • 80% of pastors say they have insufficient time with their spouses

The famous Evangelical Evangelist Chuck Swindoll says "The demands of ministry can take their toll on our home and family and then our walk with God." In other words, it is totally stressful to run a church and run a home. The Catholic Church considers the priesthood a "vocation" (a call from God) rather than a "career" (which one decides to pursue). In most careers, you can hang it up every night after work. With a vocation, it is always there whether it be a call at 3am to give last rights to a person in hospital, or in the evening to solve a marriage dispute for a couple of parishioners. A person with a vocation can be married, but it is much harder, and very different from someone who has a career.

The Catholic Church has always known that a pastor who is a family man has a heart that is naturally divided. History shows that there was always a tradition of celibate priests in the early Church, although it was not exclusive. At some point the Catholic Church may decide on more provisions for a married priest but we are currently sticking to a celibate clergy as the normal expression of this vocation.

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What did the Early Fathers of the Church say about married clergy?

The Church Fathers of the first four centuries consistently spoke against the married priesthood (Eusibius, Augustine, Tertullian, Origen, St. Cyril of Jerusalem, St. Jerome etc.). St. Epiphanius speaks of the accepted ecclesiastical rule of the priesthood (kanona tes ierosynes) as something established by the Apostles. (Haer., xlviii, 9)

"Holy Church respects the dignity of the priesthood to such a point that she [the Church] does not admit to the diaconate, the priesthood, or the episcopate, nor even to the subdiaconate, anyone still living in marriage and begetting children." (Haer., lix, 4).

The writings of the Church fathers show that, in the early Church, married priests were not the accepted norm in the main centres of Alexandria, Antioch and Rome. They were considered a "problem" that existed in the outlying regions. By the third century there were almost no married priests and several councils put the issue to rest until around the 9th century when many bishops and priests took wives and had children. The state of the priesthood fell to an all time low.  A huge problem emerged with priests "willing" Church property to their families. Up to that point, the principle of celibacy was never completely surrendered in the official enactments of the Church. In 1123, celibacy was made official, although, throughout history there have been scattered instances of abuses of the Canon Law, the Roman Catholic Church has consistently stuck to this position on celibate priests.

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What does the Bible say about being married and ministering the Word?

There is much theology around the concept of a priest being the "bride of Christ" (Jn 3:29, Rev 18:23, 19:7, 21:9, 21:17). This was considered in the Church's decision. Scripture fairly consistently awards celibacy a higher spiritual calling than marriage:

...it is well for them to remain unmarried as I am...it is well for you to remain as you are...do not seek a wife...he who refrains from marriage will do better...(I Cor., chapters 7-8 and 32-38) 

Paul says that celibacy provides "unhindered devotion to the Lord. " (1 Cor 7:35) Jesus tells us "it is better not to marry...let anyone accept this who can." (Mat 19:10-12)

Some biblical arguments for a married priesthood have been set out citing 1 Tim. 3: 2, 12 and Titus 1: 6 that a bishop or a deacon should be "the husband of one wife." A careful read of these passages points to Paul's concern about remarried priests. Catholics feel the section is aimed at removing those who are on their second marriages, rather than pushing for a married clergy. This is reflected by the Eastern Orthodox who do not allow remarriage of widowed priests. Although Paul did not expressly lay out a married priesthood he consistently held celibacy as preferable.

In Jewish law the priesthood was passed on by blood relation. Marriage was therefore necessary, but even so, Jewish priests of the Old Testament were required to abstain from sex during the periods when they were serving in the Temple for spiritual reasons. Catholic priests serve in the Temple every day.

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Some missionary work is dangerous for families and expensive to sustain

Christian missionaries who were going into dangerous anti-Christian environments had another good reason to remain celibate. They would need to be free of family ties because they were at risk of becoming martyrs and their families would be killed also, which is not very fair for the kids, to put them in harms way like that. Even in areas of relative safety, the cost of supporting married missionaries was seven times more expensive than a single priest, and you still have the problem of the divided heart between ministry and family.

This danger may not be limited to third world countries in the future of the western world. Many are anticipating heightened persecution of Catholic priests in North America, the UK and Europe. Danger is not always a reason not to get married. Police, fire fighters, military personnel have dangerous jobs, but it is another serious consideration, especially in the case of Christian persecution where the family cannot be separated from the harm like these other occupations.

Even being a parish priest with a family would be difficult on the meagre salaries priests make.

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What about the priest sex abuse scandals?

In the wake of the highly publicized sexual abuse scandals many are calling for a re-examination of the celibate priesthood. However, Evangelical law societies have shown us that, despite all the press, sex abuse and sexual addiction is more prevalent among married Evangelical Pastors than it is among celibate Catholic priests.

"Focus on the Family" reported that 21% of Evangelical/Protestant pastors had had inappropriate sexual contact with members of their congregations. Sixty percent (60%) of Evangelical pastors, most of whom are married, have a problem with pornography. In a 1984 study, 76% of pastors knew of another Evangelical pastor who had sexual intercourse with a parishioner. The challenge isn't celibacy, it's fidelity, and that is true in every denomination and also in the Catholic Church.

Most of the Catholic abuse cases involved priests with homosexual tendencies and it has certainly come to light that the Church must reexamine with seriousness its previous leniency on the entrance of celibate "same sex attracted" men into the priesthood. The Congregation for Divine Worship, which supervises priestly ordination recently came out with a very important paper on the vocations. It said that Priest candidates with "deep seated" homosexual tendencies, and those who were involved in the "so called gay culture" should not consider the priesthood. Those who have had transient homosexual feelings should be free for more than 3 years before considering a vocation. This restatement and tightening of Church vocation criteria makes sense given that 95% of the abuse cases involved relations between gay priests and adolescent boys immediately after Vatican II when some of the Church's rules became lax.

A hundred years ago the Catholic Encyclopedia wrote:

We have no wish to deny ... the very low level of morality to which at different periods of the world's history ...and in different countries calling themselves Christian... Catholic priesthood has occasionally sunk, but such scandals are no more the effect of compulsory celibacy than the prostitution, which is everywhere rampant in our great cities, is the effect of our marriage laws. We do not abolish Christian marriage because so large a proportion of mankind are not faithful to the restraints which it imposes on human concupiscence. No one in his heart believes that civilized nations would be cleaner or purer if polygamy were substituted for monogamy. Neither is there any reason to suppose that scandals would be fewer and the clergy more respected if Catholic priests were permitted to marry.

I think these words are ageless, and apply to modern North America's sex driven culture.

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What about the shortage of priests?

The shortage of priests is another compelling argument for a married priesthood, but there are many pitfalls also. One of the biggest problems for Evangelical churches is finding a good minister. Many congregations have folded because they could not find a minister. The shortage of priests has a lot more to do with the general decay of Christianity in society rather than the celibate requirement. In a healthy culture where Christianity is doing what it is supposed to do, strong Christian men are willing to come forward and give everything in service to the Gospel. We don't think we'll solve the priest shortage by simply removing the celibacy requirement. Maybe the Church of the future will be smaller, but that will not be because of the lack of priests, it will be because of the lack of faith of the people.

Pope Benedict XVI said, "It's more important to have good priests than to have many." He also has said that the Church of the future may be smaller but more faithful. He has also used the image of the “mustard seed,” suggesting a smaller presence that nevertheless carries the capacity for future growth as long as it remains true to itself.

Making a sacrifice for the Lord

In our modern developed world the idea of sacrifice is a hard concept to sell. Celibacy is a sacrifice which pays high dividends. One recent helpful thing in the shortage of priests is that the Deaconate is now becoming very popular. Many married men are becoming deacons and as such they can perform many of the responsibilities of priests. If you are married, and would like to become a priest, I recommend looking into the deaconate. You will find a fulfillment of many of those desires to minister in the Church.

Perhaps one day the married priesthood will be allowed under Canon Law. If the Magisterium decided on that I would of course accept it. But until that day I think there is much wisdom and historical precedence in the Church's current position.

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Scripture verses valuing celibacy

Matthew 19:10-12
...
his disciples said to him, "If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry." But he said to them, "Not everyone can accept this teaching, but only those to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let anyone accept this who can."

1 Cor 7:6-9
...
This I say by way of concession, not of command. I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has a particular gift from God, one having one kind and another a different kind. To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is well for them to remain unmarried as I am. But if they are not practicing self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion.

1 Cor 7:24-35
...
In whatever condition you were called, brothers and sisters, there remain with God. Now concerning virgins, I have no command of the Lord, but I give my opinion as one who by the Lord's mercy is trustworthy. I think that, in view of the impending crisis, it is well for you to remain as you are. Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be free. Are you free from a wife? Do not seek a wife... Yet those who marry will experience distress in this life, and I would spare you that. I mean, brothers and sisters, the appointed time has grown short; from now on, let even those who have wives be as though they had none,  but the married man is anxious about the affairs of the world, how to please his wife,  and his interests are divided. And the unmarried woman and the virgin are anxious about the affairs of the Lord, so that they may be holy in body and spirit; but the married woman is anxious about the affairs of the world, how to please her husband. I say this for your own benefit, not to put any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and unhindered devotion to the Lord.

1 Cor 7:38-40
...
So then, he who marries his fiancée does well; and he who refrains from marriage will do better. A wife is bound as long as her husband lives. But if the husband dies, she is free to marry anyone she wishes, only in the Lord. But in my judgment she is more blessed if she remains as she is.

Source: Catholic Encyclopedia  http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/03481a.htm

Lord Jesus, let Your prayer of unity for Christians
become a reality, in Your way.
We have absolute confidence
that you can bring your people together,
we give you absolute permission to move.
Amen