Every now and then, a typical Catholic asks Father Dwight Longenecker for his take on whether Rome will ever ordain more married men as priests.
This is logical, since Longenecker is a former Anglican priest who is married and has four children. He was raised as a fundamentalist Protestant, graduating from Bob Jones University in Greenville, S.C., and now leads Our Lady of the Rosary Catholic Church in that same city.
These conversations begin with the layperson cheering for married priests. Then Longenecker mentions the “elephant in the room” — the 1968 papal encyclical “Humanae Vitae” defending church doctrines forbidding artificial contraception. Surely bishops would strive to ordain men who, with their wives, would defend these teachings. Right?
“They might have a dozen kids,” says Longenecker. “Who’s going to pay for them?”
The typical Catholic assumes the bishop will do that. Actually, parishes are responsible for their priest’s pay, even when his children go to Catholic schools and off to college. That might require parishioners to put more than $5 in offering plates.
The typical Catholic then says: “I don’t think having married priests is such a good idea.”
Longenecker is ready for more chats — in person and at his “Standing on my Head” website — after recent remarks by Pope Francis to the German newsweekly Die Zeit.
Asked about the global shortage of priests, Francis expressed a willingness to consider ordaining “viri probati” (tested men), such as married men already ordained as deacons. While “voluntary celibacy is not a solution,” he added, “We need to consider if viri probati could be a possibility. ... We would need to determine what duties they could undertake, for example, in remote communities.”
This latest Pope Francis sound bite was not surprising, since Vatican officials have often discussed ordaining more married men, said Longenecker, author of 15 books on Catholic faith and apologetics.
“This is all coming from his perspective, from South America,” said Longenecker, referring to the pope’s years in Argentina. “Catholics there can go a year without seeing a priest. Then he shows up on a donkey, after a long ride from somewhere else. ... The crisis is even more pronounced than here.”
So far, Longenecker has written a stack of articles addressing questions about married priests. One crucial fact is that celibacy for priests is a matter of church discipline, not doctrine. The pope could change this discipline and bishops could petition for changes to be considered.
Meanwhile, churches in the East — Orthodox Christians and Eastern Rite Catholics loyal to Rome — have maintained ancient traditions allowing married men to become priests, with celibate monks and priests serving as bishops. In the West, the celibate priesthood discipline evolved through the centuries, until the First Lateran Council made it a requirement in 1123. In 1980, Pope John Paul II created a pastoral provision in which some Protestant clergy, such as Longenecker, could convert and become Catholic priests.
Catholic laypeople need to know that a “viri probati” option would almost certainly lessen the shortage of priests, but it wouldn’t be a “magic bullet” for all the challenges facing the church, noted Longenecker. And there is no guarantee that married priests would — as many parishioners seem to assume — “understand married people’s problems better than a celibate man.”
Married men are not automatically great husbands and fathers. The wives of pastors face their own challenges — positive and negative — as do their children. Married priests, just like other priests, may struggle with exhaustion, stress, workaholism and sin.
“Marriage is not the magic bullet that makes everyone live happily ever after and instantly makes all men wonderfully sympathetic pastors,” argued Longenecker on his website. “Guess what? Married clergy run off with other women (and men). They neglect their wives and kids. They are just as mystified as any other man about the strangeness of love and the demand for self-sacrifice. ... I’m not saying that all married priests are skunks. I’m just saying that marriage is not an instant fix.”
The bottom line: “A good, mature married man with a good marriage and his feet on the ground would be a good priest. But the same goes for a celibate man. If he is a good, mature, well-adjusted person, he’ll be a good priest.”