By John Hewko
Originally published in The Washington Post, March 26, 2002
My grandfather was a married Catholic priest. And so were my
great-grandfather and his father. There probably would have been a fourth
generation of Catholic priests in my family, except that my grandfather had
three daughters. Three generations of married priests who were as Catholic
as the pope.
As the debate heats up within the Roman Catholic Church over the celibacy
of priests, many Catholics are missing the fact that the church already
permits married priests. It has done so, at least with respect to Ukrainian
Catholics such as my grandfather, for more than 400 years.
Although in the 16th century most Ukrainians were Orthodox, a significant
portion of the Ukrainian lands had been incorporated into the Catholic
Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. In 1596, the Ukrainian bishops and the
papacy entered into the Union of Brest, pursuant to which the Ukrainians
agreed to join the Catholic Church and to accept fully the authority of the
pope on all matters of faith and dogma. In return, the Ukrainians were
permitted to retain their Orthodox liturgy and rites and to continue the
tradition that priests (but not bishops) could be married.
The popular view of many in the United States that a Catholic priest
cannot be married stems from the misperception that the terms Catholic and
Roman Catholic Church are synonymous. In fact, the Universal Catholic
Church, under the pope's tutelage, is comprised of many particular churches,
The vast majority of Catholics in the world belong to the Roman (or
Western rite) Church, which does not permit its priests to marry. But
numerous Catholics belong to one of the many Eastern Catholic Churches;
these include the Ukrainians, the Maronites, the Chaldeans and the Melkites.
They are not Orthodox and are no less Catholic than members of the Roman
rite. But their priests can be married.
Although the spiritual and scriptural arguments that support celibacy are
noble and complex, the concept of mandatory celibacy is not rooted in
theological considerations, nor is it a dogma of the Catholic Church.
Rather, it gathered momentum in the Middle Ages in response to a number of
historical factors, became firmly entrenched with the Council of Trent in
the mid-1500s and is today an obligatory disciplinary rule imposed by the
Roman Catholic Church on its priests.
But times have changed. The institution of priesthood and with it the
church are in intense crisis and face an acute shortage of clergy. Since
1970, the number of men studying to be priests in diocesan seminaries has
decreased dramatically, from more than 17,000 in 1970 to 3,400 in 2001, and
in religious-order seminaries from more than 11,000 to 1,500.
Although there are indications that the situation is improving in selected
dioceses, the time is ripe for a frank and open discussion within the Roman
Catholic Church in this country as to the wisdom of mandatory celibacy.
Celibacy has served for many centuries as a powerful symbol of dedication to
faith and vocation, and priests who have voluntarily, unswervingly and
selflessly followed its call deserve our highest praise and admiration.
Celibacy has also removed from priesthood the potential distractions of
married life, the responsibility of raising children and the financial
burden of maintaining a family.
The institution of celibacy has functioned reasonably well over time, and
there is an inherent danger in taking radical action during a crisis that
may be only a short-lived occurrence in a historical period marked by
spiritual and moral decline.
Yet some change is needed. By all accounts, my grandfather was a
dedicated, compassionate and very popular priest. His wife, children and
grandchildren were generally not a distraction but a source of additional
strength, experience and wisdom. In the Ukrainian Church the families of
priests are often a wellspring of future clergy, and the wives of priests
make an invaluable contribution to the spiritual and charitable life of the
parish and local community.
Many young Catholics have the talent, energy and inclination to enter the
priesthood but are denied access because, after considerable reflection,
they honestly doubt their ability to adhere to celibacy. Although the option
of celibacy should be kept open for those priests who want it, the shortage
of priests is real, and the pool of potential candidates would increase
dramatically if mandatory celibacy were abolished.
The beauty of any such reform is that there is little need to gaze into a
crystal ball and experiment: The Catholic Church today already has married
priests and they appear to be doing quite well.
John Hewko is an attorney and a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment
for International Peace.