Catholic Priests have never been allowed to “get married”

I do wish the Princes of the Church would be a little more careful about how they say things.

One could have every sympathy with the opinion of Cardinal Keith O’Brien reported in the Herald Sun, but it is entirely false to claim, as he is reported to have done, that:

“There was a time when priests got married, and of course we know at the present time in some branches of the church – in some branches of the Catholic church – priests can get married,” he added.

There was, as far as we know, never a time when “priests got married”, either in the Church of the West or of the East. We know what Cardinal O’Brien thinks he is saying, but even today, no ordained priest of the Catholic Church (or deacon for that matter) can “get married”.

What the Church is completely free to do is to choose to change the law regarding the ordination of married laymen. But once they are ordained, that’s it. The unmarried must stay unmarried, and the married, if widowed, cannot remarry. That has always been the law of the Church, and (while it is true to say that we have no record of Jesus himself giving any such command in the Scriptures) it is an unbroken tradition as long and as solid as the tradition that women cannot be ordained to the priesthood.

About Schütz

I am Catholic, married to Cathy, father of Maddy & Mia. Since 2002, I have been the Executive Officer of the Ecumenical & Interfaith Commission of the Archdiocese of Melbourne. I was once a Lutheran pastor, but a "year of grace" and soul-searching led me into the Catholic Church. It was a bumpy ride, but with the support of my (still Lutheran) wife, I was finally confirmed on June 16, 2003.
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18 Responses to Catholic Priests have never been allowed to “get married”

  1. William Tighe says:

    Absolutely true! The only exception in any ancient (pre-Reformation) church body is with the Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church of the East, and of the Assyrians (the so-called “Nestorians”). Among them, married and remarried (in widowerhood) can be ordained to the diaconate and priesthood, and their deacons and priests can marry and remarry (in widowerhood) after ordination. Since the 12th Century their bishops have had to be monks, and hence celibate, but before that time the same discipline (of marriage and remarriage) applied to their bishops.

    This was not, however, an “apostolic,” or even “primitive,” custom among them. Rather, it was an innovation (perhaps to conciliate the intensely pro-natalist Zoroastrian Persian regime, which subjected them to periodic persecution) which was enacted by one synod of Seleucia in 484 AD, and confirmed by another in 496. Before those synods, the only men eligible for ordination in the Perso-mesopotamian Church were men who were both unmarried and had never, since their baptism, been married.

  2. Felix Alexander says:

    When ordained priests do get married, what happens? Is the marriage void, or do you get a married priest? (I’m asking about the possibility of the action, not the legality of it.) I’ve heard of some priests getting laicised so they could get married—I assume that mean it’s perfectly possible to have a priest get married in Catholic theology, it just isn’t permitted, and it’s never been permitted.

  3. Alban says:

    Not wishing to foster an argument here, rather passing on some information. The pastor of our parish is a former priest of the Polish National Catholic Church. As we recognize the validity of their sacraments, there was no ordination (even conditional) when he was received into communion with the Holy See.

    My point is this: when he was ordained in the PNCC he was unmarried and, in accordance with the canon law of the PNCC had to remain so for at least 2 years afterward. He met his wife 3 years after ordination and married some 18 months later. So, although the Catholic Church does not permit clergy to marry it recognizes that marriage can occur after ordination.

    • Schütz says:

      Welcome to the Commentary table Alban! (how about dropping me an email to tell me who you are?)

      That is certainly a very interesting case. I think…and this is only me thinking here…that his marriage would be regarded as valid because he was not under Catholic Canon Law at the time of his marriage. The problem with any priest of the Roman Rite (or of the Eastern Rite, I would suspect) in marrying is that it is contrary to Canon Law, and hence legally invalid. Your priest’s ordination was valid in the Polish Catholic Church, his marriage was also valid. Entering into full communion with the Catholic Church did not invalidate his marriage. However, were his wife to die, he could not remarry. This example, though interesting, does not alter my point that Catholic priests have never been allowed to marry.

  4. Alban says:

    If I may make a correction to your comment “After laicisation the man is not regarded as a priest.” As with Baptism and Confirmation, Ordination brings about an ontological change which cannot be repeated or undone. Properly speaking, a priest cannot be laicized for he is always a priest. What happens is that he is removed from the “clerical state” and forbidden to identify himself as a priest or exercise priestly ministry except “in extremis”; this is why a “laicized” (sic) priest can still hear confession and give absolution in an emergency such as an accident or heart attack. Of course, he is also free to marry which, once again, proves what I said in my previous post.

    • Schütz says:

      Well, yes, that is what I meant by the fact that he is not “regarded” as a priest. Of course, ontologically, he still is. I know that.

      • Peregrinus says:

        Which I think is significant, because it means that there is no ontological impediment to a priest marrying. A priest can validly marry, if the church permits it. In fact, with the exception of laicized priests who are regularly released from the obligation of celibacy, there has always been a universal, or near universal, discipline of not permitting it, but it remains a discipline, and not an ontological necessity. So O’Brien is correct to this extent; the church could chose to permit (unlaicized) priests to marry.

        • Schütz says:

          But it would be a complete novelty. And go against several biblical injunctions ( at least as they were interpreted by the Church since ancient times). I can’t think of a parallel. Perhaps the ordination of young boys – ontologically possible but the church has never allowed it and never will.

        • Schütz says:

          And I don’t know if I have my labels right, but the “could… If….” scenario sounds dangerously positivistic.

        • Schütz says:

          To demonstrate the facileness of the argument: It is ontologically possible to go skydiving without a parachute, and could be permitted, but that still would not make it a good idea.

          • Peregrinus says:

            Of course. Allowing priests to marry may or may not be a good idea. We’ll never know if we decline to consider the question on the basis that it’s not been done much in the past.

            • Schütz says:

              Not much? Not been done at ALL in the past in the Catholic Church.

            • Peregrinus says:

              As Alban has pointed out, it’s routinely done for priests who have been laicised – who are, of course, still priests.

              (And in this context it’s noteworthy that being laicised and being dispensed from the obligation of celibacy are, canonically, two separate processes. A priest who has left ministry and who wishes to marry needs to complete both processes.)

            • Schütz says:

              What is the meaning of the word “laicised”, Perry? Is it merely a legal fiction?

            • Peregrinus says:

              A laicised priest is a priest (not an ex-priest, but a priest) who has been released from the obligation of priestly ministry, and who is also subject to a prohibition on engaging in priestly ministry (except in cases of grave necessity). A laicised priest may apply to be released from his commitment to celibacy and that release may or may not be granted. The very fact that he has to apply for it, though, underlines that he is still a priest, as does the fact that release is sometimes refused.

              Laicisation is a canonical process, but it has no sacramental significance (unlike, say, ordination, which has both canonical and sacramental significance). A laicised priest can be readmitted to ministry without, obviously, the need for re-ordination or convalidation of ordination. (Though I doubt that this happens often.)

              PS: I believe there have also been cases of permanent deacons who find themselves widowed, and with young children, have been permitted to marry again while still ministering as deacons. Since deacons are subject to the same obligation as priests not to marry after ordination this again provides an instance of where the church has varied the obligation.

  5. Gareth says:

    How much the actual Cardinal was taken out of context in this article we do not know, but to think this man is actually entering the conclave when he cant even get a basic piece of Catholic theology (celibacy does have apostolic origin) right scares me.

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