The Church may soon consider again considering married men for ordination to the priesthood. In some areas, the demand for sacraments is greater than the number of priests available to administer them.
Historically, the Catholic Church has ordained married men to the diaconate and the priesthood. The decision for celibacy is made before the first ordination to the diaconate and cannot be changed once the man is ordained. It wasn’t until the second millennium that candidates were restricted to only consecrated celibate men in the Latin Rite of the Catholic Church. In the Eastern Catholic and Orthodox Church, there has been an unbroken practice of ordaining both married and celibate men.
Former Episcopal priests who joined the Catholic Church, under certain circumstances, have already been accepted for ordination to the priesthood. Reports now indicate that this question of whether or not to ordain married men may be taken up by the bishops of the Church in the next synod, expected sometime in 2018 or 2019.
While married men are not considered for ordination to the priesthood in the Latin Rite of the Catholic Church, they can already be ordained and serve as deacons. This order of clergy is ordained not to the priesthood but “unto the ministry.”
In the Acts of the Apostles 14:23, St. Paul and Barnabas, Bishops of the Church, ordained elders who would serve the people in their absence. It is from the Greek word for elder which we derive the word priest. Those ordained to the priesthood then became an extension of the Bishops. The Church today could likewise again determine to consider married men who demonstrate the maturity to handle the responsibility for the priesthood for such a role.
The ancient practice of choosing only consecrated celibates for the office of priesthood has several practical reasons, one of which is to avoid distraction and keep the priest more available for his service to the Church. Celibate priests are, in a sense, married to the Church and are expected to devote their entire being to the service of the bride of Christ. However, a married man is also expected to serve his wife and family. This may create difficult choices for a married man who is also a priest. However, the experience of the Church has also shown that married men of mature years can, and in fact already do, serve as priests with fidelity and integrity.
The proposal to ordain mature married men to the priesthood is one suggestion that the Church may consider at the next synod. Globally, there is a shortage of priests. The shortage has many reasons which vary according to place. At the same time, the Church continues to grow. These two pressures mean priests are spread thinly in some places. There is concern that many people will go without sacraments if the problem continues to worsen.
The fact that a suggestion such as this has been mentioned does not mean any changes will be made. None should assume that Pope Francis and the bishops will accept the idea. Vocations to the priesthood are still badly needed and this proposal is one of many options the Church will consider. Nor does it mean that celibacy, the voluntary choice to remain unmarried for Christ and His Church, will diminish.
Consecrated celibacy has been considered a beautiful vocation which prophetically reflects the Kingdom of God. It still is a prophetic vocation and includes not only ordained priests, but men and women in religious orders and communities. Finally, there is no suggestion that the order of Bishop would be opened to married men. The practice of ordaining Bishops only from the ranks of celibate clergy is an ancient practice in both the Eastern and Western Catholic and Orthodox Church.