Clerical celibacy and clergy wives

Taken from the Catholic Universe 17 November 2013



The topic of clerical celibacy has been hotly debated on the letters page of the Universe of late and I’ve been intrigued to note the general theme has been overwhelmingly in favour of the notion that the Catholic Church ought to change her discipline regarding whether or not priests may marry.

It’s an issue in which I have a degree of personal investment; as my bio notes, my husband is currently in the process of formation awaiting ordination to the Catholic priesthood, following fourteen years of ministry as an Anglican vicar.

While one might automatically assume that I would be a natural advocate for a married priesthood, the reality is that I find discussion of the subject rather uncomfortable for a variety of reasons, not least because I am not wholly convinced that a married priesthood is in the best interests of the church, and because I find myself agreeing with St Paul not least in terms of the divided heart. Which arguably makes me something of a hypocrite!

From the point of view of a clergy spouse, one of the most irritating aspects is that the whole debate centres around the man himself and the benefits to him and thus his vocation of priesthood, of being married, many of which raise the canard of the benefits of a regular sex-life. The pedophile scandal has propagated a flawed narrative which holds that if a man is married he will therefore be enjoying frequent bouts of sexual activity and therefore less likely to go out and abuse children.

Leaving aside the fanciful notion that marriage is a guarantee of regular sex, statistics demonstrate that married men are just as likely to commit sexual offences as those who are single. There is no evidence to suggest that healthy heterosexual men develop erotic attractions to children or adolescents as a result of abstinence and even if there were, this would not excuse the heinous crime of sexual abuse. The other disturbing aspect of this line of thinking is that it validates the misguided idea that sex is a basic human need, on a par with food, water, shelter and rest. I’m yet to hear of the case of a man or woman who died as a direct result of lack of sex, and it’s more than a little insulting to the many millions of people who manage to live happy and fulfilled lives of celibacy, to suggest that there may actually be something wrong with them for not desiring sexual intimacy. The message that sexual intimacy is a necessary part of adult life runs is in direct opposition to Catholic teaching and one we should strongly reject.

 From my perspective, what I find enormously offensive about all of the arguments surrounding married priests is that no matter how well-meaning people are, they inadvertently take on a misogynist tone, in that the clergy wife herself is never considered as person, she is always reduced to the status of a chattel and often by those who would no doubt otherwise consider themselves bastions of a progressive attitude. It is beyond abhorrent to be referred to as some sort of faceless sexual object, there to fulfil one’s husband’s sexual needs in order to make him a more rounded person. Christ set the standard of celibacy, I don’t remember anything in the Gospels about needing to use women as either sexual or domestic objects in order to build up the Kingdom of Heaven.

 What is never mentioned and definitely needs to be borne in mind is that being a clergy wife is a tough call and a vocation in and of itself. Wives have to innately understand the demands of priesthood, this is not merely a job to put bread on the table, it is an indelible mark on the soul, your husband has responsibility for the care of souls and therefore it requires more self-sacrifice than in other marriages. On a practical level you have to accept that your husband probably won’t be there most evenings, a phone call or knock at the door means that children’s parents evenings will need to take second place to administering the sacrament to the sick or dying, weekends will be a wash-out, especially during the summer wedding season, you’ll need to run an open-house, keep a well-stocked larder, take full responsibility for childcare and accept the fact that your husband will not be able to retire until he is 75. In addition you will feel under constant scrutiny and pressure to be modelling the perfect example of family life and domesticity at the same time as trying to make oneself as inconspicuous as possible, in order not to be seen to be trailblazing a path or making some kind of political point about the merits of a married clergy.

Being married to a priest means that one needs to be able to support and not impede his ministry, so that on the terrible day of judgement, I will not be complicit in having prevented my husband in shepherding his flock. That’s not a responsibility, I, or any clergy wife I know, take lightly.

I never imagined I would wind up married to a Catholic priest, but life as an Anglican vicar’s wife has been a good preparation for the role. Convert clergy wives go into this with their eyes open and have to endure a great deal of personal upheaval and sacrifice before their husbands are even ordained.

 The laity may well believe that Father ought to take a wife. But whether or not he can find one that not only wants to marry him, but is prepared and equipped to deal with the unique and demanding life of being Mrs Father, one which has a potential to strain a marriage, is another matter entirely.

12 thoughts on “Clerical celibacy and clergy wives

  1. “I’m yet to hear of the case of a man or woman who died as a direct result of lack of sex,…”

    Uriah the Hittite would be one case in point. However, as most women do not need to cover up an unplanned pregnancy foisted on them by a King, it would probably not do to make generalisations based on the case.

    BTW talking about this issue in terms of “allowing priests to marry” is not that helpful. Priests will never be allowed to marry in the Catholic Church, nor for that matter will deacons, without dispensations granted in very exceptional circumstances. The issue is whether married men will be permitted to be ordained as priests. Even if the rules on celibacy for the priesthood were changed, a priest would not be able to marry once ordained.

    Having worked closely with celibate priests for many years as a married deacon, I do not believe that ordaining married men to the priesthood would be wise or helpful for some of the reasons you have pointed out.

    1. Yes I take your point about the difference between allowing priests to marry and ordaining married men, it’s a distinction that both the media and the laity do not make.

      You may enjoy my follow-up column this week.

  2. And if we are there for the purpose of satisfying our husbands sexual desires I wonder how this will interact with our need to follow Catholic teaching by being properly open to life and the practice of NFP, which I am quite happy to do, although the Church will have difficulty accommodating us as our Diocese, for one, does not have large presbyteries available, and we do not have independent means.

    1. Although the Church dispenses from the requirement of celibacy in certain circumstances, many learned canonists do not believe that implies a dispensation from clerical continence as well. If your husband is also in a position of discerning a call to Holy Orders, I suggest you recommend to him that he checks out the position on the latter point before you enter into a commitment you are not even aware of.

      1. I find that line ridiculous. To render the marriage sexless is to ensure it is no marriage but a mere plutonic friendship. It would deny a sacrament within which promises were made about openess to life. Sorry but the whole “no sex in your marriage” line smacks of childishly viewing sex as icky and naughty and not placing it in its true and sacred context.

  3. Whether you find it ridiculous or not is neither here nor there. Continence within marriage for the right motives was highly regarded in the patristic era and Pope St Leo the Great attests that it was a canonical requirement for all those clerics of higher order than subdeacon.

    The Congregation for Clergy has this essay by Roman Cholij on the Vatican website which deals with the origins of clerical celibacy and continence:

    As for the current position in Canon Law, Dr Ed Peters has a number of papers and articles on his blog dealing with clerical continence:

    He is firmly of the opinion that married clerics are still called by the Church to a life of perfect and perpetual continence. As he is a Referendary of the Apostolic Signatura, I suggest his opinions need to be treated with more seriousness than merely being dismissed as “ridiculous”.

    1. Further helpful resources I have found online include the following (for those who are interested!):

      Gary Selin, On the Christological, Ecclesiological, and Eschatological Dimensions of Priestly Celibacy in Presbyterorum Ordinis, Sacerdotalis Caelibatus and Subsequent Magisterial Documents (S.T.D. dissertation, Catholic University of America, 2011)

      Anthony K. W. McLaughlin, The Obligation of Perfect and Perpetual Continence and Married Deacons in the Latin Church (J.C.D. dissertation, Catholic University of America, 2010)

  4. Caroline

    thanks for this – As someone in the process of discerning a vocation to the permanent diaconate I have referred my wife to your previous items on being a cleric’s wife – Not sure if I should send her a link to this one or not :)?

    For others who have commented with regard to clerical continence for permanent deacons this might be of interest: – I certainly found it helpful!

  5. “… and it’s more than a little insulting to the many millions of people who manage to live happy and fulfilled lives of celibacy, to suggest that there may actually be something wrong with them for not desiring sexual intimacy.”

    Just because someone manages to live a fairly fulfilled and happy life as a celibate doesn’t mean they never desire sexual intimacy. (And anyway, we’re all sexual beings, whether or not we ever express that in the ‘usual’ way.) I’m an evangelical singleton who knows this all too well. The evangelical church – can’t speak for the Catholics – often seems to think its faithful singles (who, for whatever reason, haven’t got married – and no, it’s not because some of us are too picky) are magically asexual. Not true. We’re faithful to biblical teaching, but the desire for sex is all too real. Not a need, as you said: sure, we won’t die if we don’t get it. But by heck, celibacy is not a walk through a rose garden. To quote Samuel Johnson, ” Marriage has many pains, but celibacy has no pleasures.”

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