Are There Married Catholic Priests?

The Answer May Surprise You

Former Church Of England Bishops Are Ordained As Catholic Priests
Former Church Of England Bishops are ordained as Catholic priests. Dan Kitwood / Getty Images

In recent years, the celibate priesthood has come under attack, especially in the United States in the wake of the clerical sexual-abuse scandal. What many people—including many Catholics—do not realize, however, is that the celibate priesthood is a disciplinary matter, not a doctrinal one, and there are, in fact, many married Catholic priests, including in the United States.

Those who followed Pope Benedict XVI's overtures to disaffected Anglicans in 2009 know that married Anglican priests who convert to Catholicism are allowed to receive the Sacrament of Holy Orders, thus becoming married Catholic priests. This is an exception to the practice of clerical celibacy in the Roman rite of the Catholic Church, but just how unusual is it for the Church to allow married men to be ordained priests?

The Development of Clerical Celibacy

Not very unusual at all. By the time of the Council of Nicaea in 325, clerical celibacy had become the ideal, in both East and West. From there, however, the practice began to diverge. While both the West and the East came within a few centuries to insist on the celibacy of bishops, the East continued to allow the ordination of married men as deacons and as priests (while maintaining, though, as both Christ (in Luke 18:29 and Matthew 19:12) and Saint Paul (in 1 Corinthians 7) taught, that celibacy "for the sake of the kingdom of God" was the higher calling).

Meanwhile, in the West, the married priesthood was fading fast, except in some rural areas. By the time of the First Lateran Council in 1123, clerical celibacy was considered the norm, and the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) and the Council of Trent (1545-63) made it clear that the discipline was now mandatory.

A Discipline, Not a Doctrine

Yet at all times, clerical celibacy was considered a discipline rather than a doctrine. In the Eastern Orthodox and Eastern Catholic Churches, married priests were common, though the disciplines of the Church severely restricted marital relations. When Eastern Catholics began to migrate to the United States in great numbers, however, the Roman rite clergy (particularly the Irish) chafed at the presence of Eastern married clergy. In response, the Vatican imposed the discipline of celibacy on all future Eastern rite clergy in the United States—a decision that led many Eastern Rite Catholics to leave the Catholic Church for Eastern Orthodoxy.

Relaxing the Rules

In recent years, the Vatican has relaxed such restrictions on Eastern Rite Catholics in the United States, and the Byzantine Ruthenian Church, in particular, has begun to import younger married priests from Eastern Europe. And starting in 1983, the Catholic Church has offered a pastoral provision for married Anglican clergy who wish to enter the Catholic Church. (One good example is Fr. Dwight Longenecker, the proprietor of Standing on My Head and a married Catholic priest with four children.)

Married Men Can Become Priests

It is important to note, however, that as far back as the Council of Nicaea (and possibly as far back as the end of the second century), the Church, both East and West, had made it clear that any marriage must take place before ordination. Once a man has accepted Holy Orders, even to the rank of deacon, he is not allowed to marry. Should his wife die after he is ordained, he is not allowed to remarry.

Priests Cannot Marry

Thus, properly speaking, priests have never been allowed to marry. Married men have been and still are allowed to become priests, provided that they belong to a tradition within the Church that allows for married clergy. The Eastern rites and the new Anglican personal ordinariates are within such traditions; the Roman rite is not.

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ThoughtCo. "Are There Married Catholic Priests?" Learn Religions, Sep. 16, 2021, ThoughtCo. (2021, September 16). Are There Married Catholic Priests? Retrieved from ThoughtCo. "Are There Married Catholic Priests?" Learn Religions. (accessed June 3, 2023).