The Catholic Church’s position on celibacy and marriage, particularly in the priesthood, is pretty straightforward. But with some Catholic priests who are actually married, it’s no wonder why some are confused as to whether or not priests in the Catholic Church can really get married. Let’s try to clear all these issues and questions here.
Roman Catholic priests cannot get married. In our faith, celibacy is an essential part of the priesthood as it is a sign of one’s full commitment to God and the Church. No ordained man, both in West and Eastern Churches, can get married. But in some cases, those already married may still become priests.
Sounds confusing? Let me explain this in detail below. To make it easier to understand, let’s first discuss the two branches of the Catholic Church: the West and the East, and their position on the matter.
Western and Eastern Catholic Churches Stand on Priests and Marriage
In case you’re not aware, there are 24 Catholic Churches, all in communion with one another and recognizing the primacy and authority of the pope. From these, the Roman Catholic Church, also called the Latin Church and the only Western Church, is the largest.
As for the 23 others, they are commonly referred to as the Eastern Churches. They have complete autonomy regarding church life, having their own forms of liturgy, traditions, and codes that govern them. However, we – both West and East – have the same Catholic faith and practice the same seven sacraments.
Now, let’s focus on the Sacrament of Holy Orders. This is the sacrament where bishops, priests, and deacons are ordained and given the authority and grace to perform their sacred duties. The stand of both churches regarding priests and marriage is clearly stated in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1579-1580:
“All the ordained ministers of the Latin Church, with the exception of permanent deacons, are normally chosen from among men of faith who live a celibate life and who intend to remain celibate ‘for the sake of the kingdom of heaven’. Called to consecrate themselves with undivided heart to the Lord and to ‘the affairs of the Lord’, they give themselves entirely to God and to men. Celibacy is a sign of this new life to the service of which the Church’s minister is consecrated; accepted with a joyous heart celibacy radiantly proclaims the Reign of God.
In the Eastern Churches, a different discipline has been in force for many centuries: while bishops are chosen solely from among celibates, married men can be ordained as deacons and priests. This practice has long been considered legitimate; these priests exercise a fruitful ministry within their communities. Moreover, priestly celibacy is held in great honor in the Eastern Churches and many priests have freely chosen it for the sake of the Kingdom of God. In the East, as in the West, a man who has already received the sacrament of Holy Orders can no longer marry.”
Why Are There Married Catholic Priests?
If Catholic priests are not allowed to marry, then why are there some who are? Well, going back to the teachings of the Church, it is common for married men to be ordained as priests and deacons in the Eastern Churches. Keep in mind that this only applies to those who are already married before receiving the sacrament of Holy Orders.
For the Roman Catholic Church, there are also some exceptions to the rule regarding celibacy and marriage within the clergy. For instance, priests and ministers from other religions and Christian denominations who are already married when they joined the Catholic Church are permitted to remain married if they wish to become a priest.
Why Can’t Catholic Priests Marry?
Now that we’ve established that Catholic priests cannot get married, let’s try to explain why.
The first thing you have to understand about the practice of priestly celibacy in the Roman Catholic Church is that it’s not part of our dogma. Instead, it’s considered a regulation or discipline. This means that it’s a practice made by the ecclesial authority, and the Pope can change it if he wished. Pope Francis even confirmed this in one of his interviews.
But why is it still retained and practiced today? Well, celibacy and thus, being unmarried, are seen to offer many spiritual benefits. According to Max Thurian, there is also a theological basis for priestly celibacy. For instance, it is through such a practice that priests can emulate Jesus, who was only married to the Church, better and more faithfully. Moreover, they can focus completely on their parish and on pleasing the Lord.
Paul confirms this in the book of 1 Corinthians 7:32-34, where he said: “The unmarried man is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to please the Lord; but the married man is anxious about worldly affairs, how to please his wife and his interests are divided.” Jesus also made it clear that we won’t be married in heaven, but are “like angels” instead (Matthew 22: 23-30). So by staying unmarried, the priests are closer to our final, prophetic state.
Aside from theological reasons, Catholic priests may not marry due to canonical issues. For one, they are required to take vows of celibacy as part of a religious order. Even diocesan priests are made to make a promise.
In addition, the Church has set impediments to block the validity of marriages made by ordained individuals. From the Code of Canon Law, 1087: “Those in sacred orders invalidly attempt marriage” is considered a diriment impediment, which renders a person unqualified to get married validly. This rule applies even if the priest attempts a civil marriage, leaves the Church, joins a non-Catholic religion, or renounces his faith altogether. A priest may only get married validly after ordination if he receives dispensation from the Apostolic See. (Code of Canon Law, 1078, 2.1)
Why Can Married Men Be Ordained in the Eastern Catholic Church?
So you’re probably wondering why married men can be priests in the Eastern Church but not in the Roman Catholic Church, right? Well, because they have their own traditions, which are considered legitimate by the Apostolic See. These are traditions and customs that have been practiced for centuries. So contrary to what others might say, it’s not a type of compromise for the sake of unity. Rather, it’s a continuation of a tradition that deserves equal respect with that of the traditions of the Western Church.
Now, this isn’t to say that the Eastern Catholic Church doesn’t value celibacy. In fact, they hold it in high esteem that they choose their bishops solely from the ranks of celibate clergy.