A Married Priest? - Part I
From Father Phillip Johnson
“I didn’t know a married man could be a priest? . . . Do you have children? . . . What do they think about your being a priest? . . . Will you and your wife live in the rectory? . . . What led you to leave the Lutheran ministry and become a Catholic? . . . Did your wife convert too? . . . Are your children now Catholics?” These are but a few of the questions I have been asked in my first few days as your new priest. The questions are natural and I welcome them, especially because they provide an opportunity to better understand the teaching of the Catholic Church about the sacrament of Holy Orders (ordination) and the nature of the priesthood. I begin here a brief series of articles to answer your questions and provide you with an introduction to your new priest.
Catholic Diversity . . . .
First, let's place the question in the wider context of the Church’s holy tradition of priestly celibacy – recalling a few facts about the long history of the Church and about the diversity of the world-wide Catholic Church.
Some will be surprised to learn that the Roman Catholic Church consists of twenty-two autonomous churches. By far, the largest of these is the Latin Church. Almost all Catholics in North and South America, Western Europe, and Africa are members of the Latin Church (sometimes called the Latin Rite Church). This is the Church you know and call simply “the Catholic Church”. But perhaps you have heard of the Ukrainian or Armenian Catholic Church, or about Maronite Catholics in Lebanon, Malankara Catholics in India, or Melkite Catholics in Syria and Egypt. These are but five of the other twenty-one Catholic Churches.
Altogether these twenty-one Churches are called the Eastern Catholic Churches, as distinct from the Western Catholic Church (the Latin Church). They are all a part of the Roman Catholic Church, because their bishops are in the apostolic succession, they have a full sacramental life and worship, and they are all in full communion with the bishop of Rome, the pope. However, these Eastern Catholics are governed by their own code of canon law, they have traditions that are distinct to their own heritages, and they worship according to rites (liturgies) other than the Roman or Latin rite. If you went into one of their churches on a Sunday to receive Holy Communion (which, as a Latin Rite Catholic, you are free to do), the liturgy would seem more like that of an Eastern Orthodox Church. But don’t confuse the Eastern Catholic Churches with the Eastern Orthodox Churches, who are not yet in full communion with the Catholic Church.
Now to the point at hand. Among these twenty-one Eastern Catholic Churches, all Bishops must be celibate, and, of course, their monks and consecrated religious men and women are vowed to celibacy. However, it is common for a priest to be married as long as he is married before he is ordained. An unmarried priest may not marry.
It is in the Western or Latin Church that the rule of celibacy for all priests developed (more on that development later). This diversity in the world-wide Catholic Church reminds us that celibacy is not a matter of the unalterable Faith of the Church. AsPope Paul VI stated, celibacy "is not, of course, required by the nature of the priesthood itself. This is clear from the practice of the early church and the traditions of the Eastern rite churches.” It is however, a very ancient and holy tradition that belongs to the heritage and piety of Western Catholicism.
Exception to the Rule . . .
In the Roman Catholic Church of the West (Latin Church), the pope can grant an exception to the rule of priestly celibacy (a) for the sake of pastoral need (b) in cases in which a married ordained Protestant minister enters the Catholic Church. When was this exception first granted? In 1943, at the appeal of some German bishops, Pope Pius XII granted special permission for some married Lutheran clergy to be ordained to the Catholic priesthood. In 1967, Pope Paul VI called for a study of the circumstances in which such exceptions might serve the Church. It was in 1980 that Pope John Paul II allowed a special exception for Episcopal (Anglican) priests who entered the Catholic Church. Since then, the Vatican has considered exceptions, on a case by case basis, for clergy from other denominations. This is now a matter of Canon Law. The rule stands; in certain cases, at the discretion of the Holy Father, an exception can be granted.
On October 30, 2009, the holy father signed the “rescript” allowing that exception in my case. I am deeply grateful to the holy father for this blessing, grateful also to Bishop Galante for sponsoring the petition that I be ordained. I pray my priesthood will bear fruit in the Church of God. At the same time, I would be sad if my case were to cause confusion about the Church’s teaching or provide an occasion for the slightest disrespect for the self-offering of so many celibate priests.
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