Why don’t Roman Catholic priests marry?

Before I answer this specific question, I have to present a little background on how the Catholic Church perceives itself in Christian history.  The Catholic Church, like the Orthodox Church, considers itself an “Apostolic Church” – that is, it finds its roots all the way back in the time of Jesus and the Apostles and has continued on to this day.  Yes, there was an historical break in unity between Catholics and Orthodox – most definitively around the year 1054, and only “recently” begun to be healed in 1964 when Pope Paul VI and the Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras I of Constantinople mutually lifted the excommunication imposed by their ancestors and vowed to work to restore unity between the two ancient traditions that trace their roots to the Apostolic Age.  And yes, there were more separations from the Catholic Church during the Protestant Reformation – when a number of zealous, faithful Christian leaders (some originally Catholic) became increasingly frustrated with clear evidence of corruption and serious deviations from the teachings of Christ and the Gospels in the Catholic Church, led calls for reforms, and finding those calls rejected (and themselves sometimes persecuted or even killed), founded new communities of Christian believers: Lutherans, Calvinists/Reformed Churches, Wesleyan/Methodists, Baptists and so on. (The Church of England – Anglicans/Episcopalians – is another story; perhaps for another Question of the Week?)  Among other disputes, one source of disagreement was over the issue of a married clergy.

In the Catholic understanding,  from the time that Jesus chose his twelve disciples, priests/leaders of the worshipping community consisted of both married and celibate (unmarried) men.  For example, we know that Peter, the apostle whom Jesus chose to lead the others (“You are Peter [Petras or rock]” and upon this rock I will build my church.” (Matt. 16, 18), was married, because in the Gospel of St. Matthew, we read about the time that Jesus cured Peter’s mother-in-law (Matt. 8, 14-15); many priests, bishops and even popes throughout the first ten centuries of Christianity were also married.  At the same time, many also remained single/celibate, following the example of Jesus and St. Paul.  For many centuries, there was no particular rule regarding the marital status of clergy.  Both “states of life” were considered by believers to be valid expressions of one’s vocation to “serve one another in works of love.”

There is no historical agreement on when the Roman Catholic Church made celibacy mandatory for priests (and therefore, bishops and popes).  Some date it back to the 500s; others to the 1000s; still others to the 1200s.  Whatever be the case, it seems that the main factor driving the decision was the fact that the clergy, being able to pass on property and other forms of inheritance from generation to generation, had become so wealthy that corruption had become endemic to the clerical state.  The only way to end it was to end the means of passing on inherited wealth within families.  There was no theological basis for imposing mandatory clerical celibacy; it was merely a “discipline” of the church, not “dogma,” imposed for practical reasons.

Fast forward to 2013:  What about today?  Where does the Catholic Church stand on mandatory celibacy for its priests today?  In fact, there ARE Catholic priests in the Eastern Catholic Churches (Ukrainian, Armenian, Melkite, Maronite, etc.) who are married, and there are even Roman Catholic priests who are married – priests who have become Roman Catholic when they have left the Anglican/Episcopalian Church (married, with or without children) and joined the Roman Catholic Church.  For now, the discipline still remains for all others.

But….  Archbishop Pietro Parolin,the person whom Pope Francis chose to be his new Secretary of State, recently pointed out, as I did above, that priestly celibacy is not a dogma (solemn teaching that cannot be changed) of the Church, but merely a discipline (a human-made rule that can be changed), after careful thought and planning.  When he was still Archbishop Jorge Bergoglio of Buenos Aires, Argentina, now Pope Francis was quoted as saying that perhaps the rule on celibacy could be lifted “not universally but in certain cultures” where it would be more favorable received.

Bottom line:  Stay tuned, folks!

Thank you, Michael Hovey, for answering our question this week!