Opposition to ending the requirement of celibacy for Catholic priests is strong — but isn’t it strange that, despite this requirement, there are so many married Catholic priests who seem to be doing as good a job as unmarried priests? If celibacy is so vital, why do married Catholic priests exist at all? This isn’t something that the Roman Catholic Church is anxious to advertise. They’d much rather keep the matter quiet in order not to “confuse” rank and file Catholics.
In this context, “confuse” seems to mean “let them know that when we say that celibacy is a requirement, we don’t really mean that it is necessary.” In effect, then, greater control over Catholic believers is maintained in part by ensuring that information which might cause them to question the decisions of the hierarchy is not publicized too widely. Like any organization, the Catholic Church depends upon the ability to control followers in order to ensure its survival.
Most married Catholic priests are part of the Eastern Catholic Churches, also known as the Eastern Rite, who can be found in places like the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia, the Ukraine, and other nations along the border between Western and Eastern Christianity. These churches are under the jurisdiction of the Vatican and they recognize the authority of the pope; however, their practices and traditions are much closer to those of the Eastern Orthodox Churches. One of those traditions is allowing priests to marry.
Some estimates place the number of married priests at around 20% of all Catholic priests in the world. This would mean that 20% of all Catholic priests are officially and legally married, even though celibacy continues to be a requirement. But marriage is not limited to priests who are part of the Eastern Catholic Churches — we can also find about 100 Catholic priests in America who are married and who are part of the Western Catholicism that comes to mind when most think of Catholicism.
Why are they married? They got married while serving as priests in other Christian denominations, usually the Anglican or Lutheran churches. If such a priest decides that he would be better off within Catholicism, he can apply to a local bishop who then submits a special application to the pope, with decisions being made on a case-by-case basis. If accepted, he is certainly not expected to get divorced or otherwise separate from his spouse, so his wife comes right along as well. This exception to the celibacy rule was created on July 22, 1980.
Thus, a current Catholic priest who wants to get married must choose between marriage and the priesthood (even though celibacy isn’t an essential feature of being a priest), while a married Lutheran priest can apply to become a Catholic priest and keep his wife — he doesn’t have to choose. Naturally, this causes some hard feelings for those Catholic priests who leave the clergy in order to pursue marriage; yet others are hoping that the presence of such married priests will eventually allow priests who have left to marry to eventually return.
Former priests who marry are currently allowed to do some things for the Catholic Church, but not everything — and with the growing shortage of priests in the United States (the number of priests has declined by 17% since the 1960s, even as the Catholic population has increased 38%), the church may be forced to tap this resource. It’s a natural conclusion, after all, because they are experienced and many are eager (and there are around 25,000 of them). That, however, will require dropping mandatory celibacy — it doesn’t make any sense to require priests to be celibate if they can get around the rule by simply leaving, marrying, and then coming back.
Will Priests Ever Marry?
The rules about clerical celibacy will not change any time soon. John Paul II helped ensure this by making great efforts to foster and encourage very conservative forces within the Catholic Church, perhaps with an eye towards preserving his legacy. Pope Benedict XVI certainly isn’t going to shift into a more liberal direction. Then there is the fact that world Catholicism is not as liberal as many think.
We tend to hear the views of American and European Catholics, both of which tend to be more liberal than conservative, but there are many more Catholics in Latin America, Africa, and Asia; their numbers are growing faster than in the northern hemisphere, while their religiosity tends to be much more conservative and charismatic. These Catholics aren’t as likely to approve of changes like allowing married men or women to become priests.
If the the Catholic hierarchy in the Vatican has to choose between maintaining the celibacy requirement and annoying northern Catholics or abandoning celibacy and annoying the much more numerous southern Catholics, which do you think they will end up going with? Just as the imposition of celibacy was done largely for reasons of political and religious power, the retention of celibacy will be decided on for similar reasons.