Frequently Asked Questions about Married Roman Catholic Priests
1. I thought that Roman Catholic Priests could not be married, that they had to be celibate. How can a priest be married?
The Roman Catholic Church was founded upon the Apostles by Jesus Christ. Most of these apostles—“the Twelve” whom Jesus called to “follow him”--were married men. In fact, the leader of the Apostles, who became the “first Pope,” St. Peter was married. We read in the Gospels how Jesus visited Peter’s home and how he cured Peter’s “mother-in-law.” It is clear that Jesus did not have any hesitation in selecting married men to be the first Pope and bishops in the establishment of His Church on earth. History shows that at least 39 popes were married. In fact, many of the deacons, priests and bishops of the Roman Catholic Church were married prior to the establishment of universal celibacy in 1139 A.D.
Since Vatican II, the Roman Catholic Church has restored a married Permanent Diaconate; as well as the reception of married Episcopalian and Lutheran ministers into the Catholic Priesthood, while maintaining their families as they became practicing parish priests. Furthermore, in 1993 Pope John Paul II declared that “Celibacy is not essential to the priesthood.” In fact, celibacy is merely a human rule--an ecclesiastical rule that is not divine law. Celibacy can in no way can be equated with the Ten Commandments or the commandments of Jesus as given in the Gospels. The Pope could easily eliminate the legal requirement of celibacy with the simple “stroke of a pen,” and it would in no way diminish or undo the sacrament of Holy Orders that has already been received by those who serve as deacon, priest or bishop.
2. What is the most important law in the Church?
Canon 1752, which appears at the end of the current Code of Canon Law, announces the most important and governing law for the Church: The salvation of souls is the supreme law of the Church. There is no greater ecclesiastical, or human-made law. This particular code places all other rules and practices as secondary to the one, overarching and preeminent requirement—the salvation of a person’s soul!
3. What if I need help from a priest?
Canon 213 states: The Christian faithful have the right to receive assistance from the sacred pastors out of the spiritual goods of the church, especially the word of God and the sacraments. This particular rule clearly states that you have an indisputable right to receive the sacraments or pastoral assistance from any priest. Coupled with the Canon 1752, the ordained priest, whether they are celibate, married, retired, dismissed, or even excommunicated, has a mandatory duty to provide you with all of the spiritual assistance you need—sacraments, celebration of the Mass, blessings, or Christian burial!
Although the current practice of the Roman Catholic Church is to limit public ministry and leadership to the celibate ordained, or those former Lutheran or Episcopalian ministers functioning as Catholic Priests, the fact remains that validly ordained priests of any status have a duty to respond to you. The current vocational crisis has left many parishes without priests, and too many individual priests “covering” more than one parish community. The salvation of the people remains the supreme law of the Church, and the current ministerial practice of the institutional Church contradicts this law because so many people go without the sacraments or Mass, and the priests serving in parishes are severely overworked to the point of exhaustion and burnout.
4. What if a priest refuses to help me?
Canon 843 states: Sacred ministers may not deny the Sacraments to those who opportunely ask for them, are properly disposed and are not prohibited by law from receiving them. Once again, when united with Canon 1752—the law of salvation—no priest may deny you the sacraments or any pastoral assistance.
What if he does refuse? Then he has placed himself in a very dangerous position in regards to ministerial practice within the Roman Catholic Church. No priest is permitted to arbitrarily deny a sacrament to anyone! In fact, as Canon 843 makes very clear, denial can only be given in very strict, narrowly defined and finite condition—that they be prohibited by law from receiving them. For example, the priest refuses to officiate at your wedding because you are under legal age.
What if the priest says that “I am not denying you the sacrament, only delaying your reception of that sacrament?” In my lengthy experience as a priest and former seminary professor I can assure you that such a statement is often a creative and legally dubious way of avoiding the violation of Canon 843. In all honesty, this priest is really meaning that he is denying you that sacrament!
What can I do? You do exactly what you are doing now…contact a married Catholic priest, or a priest in one of the Independent Catholic Churches that have valid orders. You do not have to be denied your right to follow the invitation of Christ to receive his gifts of grace and grow in holiness of life!
The legacy of our married priesthood survives in the Code of Canon Law. At least 21 of these laws clearly establish the validity of the married priesthood and the sacraments they administer. The necessary requirement for a married priest to exercise their priestly ministry is simply, merely to be asked by the faithful to help them. When you, a member of the People of God, approach a married priest and ask for one of the sacraments, or for the celebration of the Eucharist, or any pastoral assistance—that married priest is empowered by your invitation to do what the Church has ordained him to do! Christ has provided the grace of Orders for the life and holiness of the Church.
5. What are ex-priests?
That is a very interesting question, especially since they don’t exist! The term “ex-priest” is a misnomer. Often this expression is meant to refer to those Catholic priests that have departed active ministry within the institutional Roman Catholic Church. These are men who for one reason or another, or though one means or another, have ceased to serve the hierarchy in formal, public pastoral assignments. Some men will leave active ministry through their own will—for example, they cannot live a celibate life in peace anymore, and they desire to find fulfillment and love in a married relationship--something that I have done. Others will be forced to leave; maybe because of a conflict with the leadership, an issue of health, or some criminal or immoral act. Some will seek to be dispensed from their vows and obligations as a priest—an act called “laicization.” Only the Pope may grant that request. Some will merely walk away; and a few will accept excommunication to be free of their obligations as a priest.
What is important is that “once a priest, always a priest!” Canon 290 states: After it has been validly received, sacred ordination never becomes invalid. All of us learned during our seminary training the latin expression Sacerdote ad aetnernam! That is “You are a priest forever!” Along with Baptism and Confirmation, the sacrament of Holy Orders imparts to the recipient a “character” (that is, a gift of grace) that cannot be undone or repeated. The teaching of the Church is that reception of these three sacraments “alters” the soul of the recipient to conform most intimately and permanently to the image of Christ. Such a gift of the Holy Spirit is never withdrawn by God. Therefore, once you are ordained a priest, you can never be anything but a priest. An “ex-priest” is fictional!
6. I have tried to have a Mass offered at my local parish, but the priest said that he has no room on his calendar to accept my intention, or he has said that he will only accept three intentions from any single parishioner in a given year. Do you accept Mass intentions?
It is quite unfortunate that given the limited number of priests ministering in the local community, that this has adversely affected their ability to accommodate your desire to have a Mass offered for a special intention. It is not uncommon for parish secretaries to limit the number of intentions accepted in the Mass calendar for the current year since only one paid intention may be offered for each Mass. In addition, the Church requires that the Pastor offer certain intentions for Mass each month--the Pro Populo (for the People), and the Pro Defunctis (for the Dead).
Life does not always work on our schedule! It often happens that special needs arise that require our immediate attention, for example the sudden illness of a loved one. We cannot foresee such events, and yet we have a faith-filled need to respond by asking the priest to offer a Mass for the good of the needy person.
Remember that every intention that is offered by anyone attending a Mass—that means every intention that you bring to prayer at the Liturgy—is acceptable to God! The “paid” intention is merely a contractual arrangement with the priest presiding at a particular Mass to take your particular paid intention as his personal intention while celebrating the Eucharist. The “paid” intention in no way means that there is only one intention accepted by God in the Liturgy, because every intention offered in faith and obedience to the will of God is acceptable to the Lord.
To respond to the needs of individuals who seek the comfort of having me as the priest of a daily Mass to offer as “my personal intention” their specific intention, I will gladly accept paid mass intentions upon request. More importantly, I will always remember the intentions of those whom I minister too in all of my celebrations of the Eucharist.