Opinion: Married Catholic priests? Yes and (mostly) no

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It was a blow to Roman Catholic liberals when the Vatican announced last month that it would welcome, en masse, conservative Anglicans who share the pope’s opposition to female clergy and traditional views about homosexuality. But there was a silver lining for liberals: The fact that in welcoming married Anglican priests to the fold, Pope Benedict XVI was perhaps opening the door to married priests within so-called Latin Rite Catholicism. (Eastern Rite Catholics, who recognize the pope’s authority but follow rites similar to those of Eastern Orthodoxy, do ordain married men, though Eastern Catholics in the United States were pressured to conform to Western practice so as not to ‘scandalize’ their Irish Catholic neighbors).

But the publication this week of the decree implementing the overture to Anglicans suggests that the slope to married Catholic priests isn’t that slippery. After saying that married former Anglican priests could be ordained as Catholic priests, the ‘Apostolic Constitution’ stops short of adopting the Anglican practice of routinely ordaining men who want to become priests.

While authorities of the new church-within-a-church will abide by ‘the discipline of celibate clergy in the Latin Church, as a rule,’ an ‘ordinary’ (a bishop or former Anglican bishop) may also ask the pope for permission to ordain married men ‘on a case-by-case basis.’ This could be a face-saving way to perpetuate the Anglican tradition of a married clergy without saying so, or it could be a warning that married Anglican laymen will be ordained only rarely. Either way, the new Anglican body within Catholicism will not have the autonomy enjoyed by the Eastern Catholic churches.

The more stinging rebuff to Roman Catholic advocates of married priests is this rather mean-spirited provision of a companion document: ‘Those who have been previously ordained in the Catholic Church and subsequently have become Anglicans, may not exercise sacred ministry in the Ordinariate.’ In other words, if you left the Catholic Church and now want to return alongside other Anglican priests, you are treated worse than an Anglican priest who never belonged to the Catholic Church in the first place.


Perhaps the purpose of this provision is to prevent married Roman Catholics who want to be ordained as priests to pretend to convert to Anglicanism so that they can go back through the revolving church door and be accepted as married Catholic priests. But how likely is that? And if the church is willing to incorporate Anglican traditions that don’t violate Catholic doctrine (as opposed to a mere regulation like mandatory celibacy), why not treat the new Anglican Rite exactly as the Eastern churches are treated? The only justification for that inconsistency is to stifle discussion about ending mandatory celibacy for Roman Catholic priests.

-- Michael McGough