The Times They Have Been a' Changing: Married Roman Catholic Priests
Roman Catholic priest Martin Carter, 63, poses with his wife Annie
It is surprising to me how few Roman Catholics realize there are married priests and some have been around for several decades. - Fr. Rick
Being a Catholic Priest—and Married
The pope has created a new diocese for bringing Episcopalians into the church.
Last month, Pope Benedict announced the formation of an American "ordinariate," or special diocese for Episcopal congregations that want to move to Roman Catholicism (driven largely by Episcopalianism's liberal drift). These congregations, the pope ruled, could keep some of their Anglican liturgy. More significantly, a small but sizable number of married Episcopal priests will now become married Catholic priests.
As a married Catholic priest ordained in 1984 under a special provision set forth by Pope John Paul II (for individual priests, judged on an individual basis), I have closely followed Pope Benedict's announcement. I rejoice in this catholic and generous gesture by the pope and am overjoyed that these priests and their families will be welcomed into the Catholic Church. But that is not to say it won't bring its own share of challenges.
My experience as a married Catholic priest for 28 years brings to mind several thoughts, both practical and spiritual. First, the church must support new priests' families financially. During my first years as a married Catholic priest, there were times when we could not pay the heating bill. When I was ordained, it was made quite clear to me that I should not look to the church as my main source of income but rather to a full-time job outside of the church. My parish duties have thus always been secondary.
Secondly, the new priests must be prepared for the spiritual struggles that come with the territory of being a married priest in the Catholic Church. It is difficult for children of priests to hear everyone call their father, "Father." It is one of my regrets that I could never be a "normal Dad" who was able to attend school functions and sporting events. Priests' wives often bear the brunt of this special status, for they must allow their husbands to be "priest" at a real cost to themselves and their children.
Through the years, I have been the object of a few snide remarks by clergy. There have been uncomfortable confrontations with some who are more traditional than the Tradition. But for the most part, my priesthood and ministry in the Catholic Church have been a source of great joy and grace.
The married priest is not spared the sacrifice that is at the heart of the priesthood. That sacrifice comes not from the vow of celibacy. It comes from what is given up as husband and father for the sake of Christ's church. Sacrifice is at the heart not only of the priestly life but also of the life of every Catholic. How could it not be so when the primary symbol of our faith is the love of God displayed on the cross of Jesus Christ?
Despite my situation—which is similar to that of other married clergy who have entered the Catholic ranks since the 1980s—I am a firm supporter of the celibacy of the Catholic clergy. Its basis is not found in councils or popes but rather in the person of Jesus Christ. The heart of the Catholic priesthood is sacrifice, and celibacy, in imitation of Christ, frees the priest to give himself totally to the church and its people.
Though many priests do live this life of sacrifice, it is also obvious that celibacy is used by all too many priests to live a life that is selfish and closed off. The sexual scandals of the past decade are a glaring example of the perversion of celibacy.
And the very structures of a parish priest's life often prevent him from achieving the freedom that should be the fruit of celibacy. The lack of deep spiritual friendship between priests; the unreal world they inhabit, at least from the viewpoint of a typical American family; the careerism that is the noxious fruit of the bureaucratic world of the chancery—all this works against the priest using his celibacy to be free for his people.
Reform of the priesthood is sorely needed today. The answer is not married priests. The answer is priests who understand the sacrifice that is at the center of their lives—whether they are married or not.
Father Cipolla is the chair of the classics department at Brunswick School in Greenwich, Conn., and a parochial vicar at St. Mary's Church in Norwalk, Conn.