The Return of an old Tradition

The Second Vatican Council promulgated on Dec. 7, 1965, a decree on the ministry and life of priests that was entitled from its opening words Presbyterorum Ordinis. The sentence in full stated that this council "has already on several occasions drawn the attention of the world to the excellence of the order of presbyters in the church." It concludes the first of its three chapters by noting that priests should "cultivate those virtues that are rightly held in high esteem in human relations. Such qualities are goodness of heart, sincerity, strength and constancy of mind." It adds that these are the characteristics that St. Paul commends in his letter to Philippi (4:8). "Whatever [things are] true, honorable, and just, whatever is pure, pleasing, commendable, excellent, or worthy of praise" (No. 3). Significantly, the council put good judgment ("strength and constancy of mind") on a par with goodness.

Not much attention has been paid to this decree in the last 34 years except on priests’ retreats. That is perhaps because it is so axiomatic that no one can gainsay it. Yet much has been said and written about the ministry of the presbyteral order itselfto whom it should be entrusted (the aforementioned qualities being assumed) and what is to be done about the paucity of candidates for that office in the prosperous northern and western hemispheres. There has been much discussion about the reasons for the unattractiveness of the priesthood for intelligent young males in certain cultures; the crisis the church faces in many regions because the Sunday Eucharist at which the word of God is preached is unavailable; the partial solution for that crisis that the return of resigned priests to the ministry and the admission of women to the presbyteral order might provide; and the small comfort to be taken from the fact of crowded seminaries in the third world.


Not much discussed has been one practical solution that lies ready to hand. Courageous bodies of bishops and a pastorally sensitive pope could return rather easily to the oldest tradition in this casethe ordination of married men of total probity who have the gift of leadership.

A presbyter, like a bishop, is a public person in the church. No one should be advanced to either order who is ill at ease in the company of both men and women of every sort or who does not administer human affairs with honesty and perfect candor. Such integrated persons have always existed among the baptized and great pains have been taken to identify them. At the turn of the century, it is evident that better means must be employed in many parts of the world than have been resorted to in the past. The church must discover who these best candidates are and how they may be persuaded to accept ordination as servants of the people.

Permanent Deacon in the West

Not long after the council ended, a momentous change took place with the restoration of the order of the deacon who would serve for life. It came about quietly and almost without notice by Catholics at large. A cleric of the Roman rite with a wife and family was new in everyone’s experience. Such a revolutionary change might have been expected to disturb people’s consciousness or conscience. It did neither.

Well before the council, a body of writing in pastoral theology, largely European, had recalled the vigor of this diaconal order in early centuries and its gradual eclipse by the presbyterate. The suggestion was made that creating these "assistants" to bishopsthe meaning of the Greek word "deacon"would relieve the pressure on an aging and overburdened priesthood. It was hoped that men ordained to the diaconate would, because of their secular engagement, serve as a bridge between the clergy and people’s everyday lives.

There were, however, several flaws in this theorizing that the initially popular term "lay deacon" made clear. The men who had been in the lay state left it to become clerics by ordination. They were badly needed for sacred ministerial service, as the countries with a supposedly ample priesthood began to watch the number of priests shrink. And the bishops who first employed their new deacons as directors of cemeteries, business managers and the like discovered that these deacons were needed even more for sacramental service and pastoral care. One lesson to be drawn from this development is clear. The Western church is not only prepared for a married clergy; it already has one. Besides permanent deacons there is also a relatively small number of married men who had ministries in other Christian churches and are now Catholic priests.

Married Clergy an Episcopal Choice

No bishop is required to ordain deacons for his diocese. It is an option. So must it be when the first married men are ordained priests. The need is already present in more regions of a global church than not, so there is no question of what the people are ready for. Many women of the Catholic West do not wish to see even more men in the sanctuary and pulpit than there are now, but they are outnumbered by people of both sexes who wish to see someone there. The widespread desire is to have priests of the best quality rather than additional males simply because the tradition of male clerics is of long standing. There is now a golden opportunity to renew the priesthood of the West with men of a mindset that repudiates that of a clerical caste. The challenge to the contemporary church is so to organize its pastoral life that the clerical outlook is given no easy point of entry. This is the outlook that accommodates no interests beyond the church door and is anxiously concerned about what the bishop has said or done lately.

The first steps in this direction should be serious studies sponsored by the episcopal bodies of certain large Catholic populations and small, say Brazil and the United States, Indonesia and India. These studies must first assess the people’s capabilities of supporting a married priesthood. The patterns of congregational upkeep and support of priests vary widely from region to region. In some countries clergy salaries are the government’s responsibility. In others the priests live comfortably from the people’s free will offerings, while in still others they live marginally or only with the aid provided by mission-sending societies.

In secular states like Mexico, the United States and Canada the parish finance pattern will have to be altered notably. Married priests may be expected to have large numbers of children, for whom they and their wives will wish to provide higher education. It is not to be expected that the greater number of these married priests will be men who are self-supporting as many lifetime deacons are.

The augmented priestly ranks must expect the people’s support of their ministry on the same terms as at present. This must include a seminary education in depth. In that training, the scriptural and liturgical studies that contribute to preaching must be the major disciplines, complemented by catechetics and church history. Those historical studies will necessarily emphasize the theological development of doctrines and moral teachings and refer as needed to both biblical and philosophical perspectives. Equally important will be serious study of what it means to administer and to lead, so that feelings of inadequacy do not result in ill-considered decisions or arrogance. The married priest will have the benefit of an intimate, loving critic of his actions, but this is no sure protection against the major clerical flaws. Of these, the inability to consult and to follow the good counsel received is perhaps the chief.

Steps to Be Taken

How are the ranks of the priesthood in the 21st century to be populated? The life might be no more attractive to married men than it is to single men nowperhaps even less so, as the larger number of women students than men in some Protestant divinity schools might indicate. Certain changes must therefore be made to ensure that priestly service will attract the very best. Here the example of an earlier tradition may provide guidance. The ways men entered the threefold ministry in a former time will have to be studied with care.

In the first centuries, the Christian people on occasion decided that certain laymen would make admirable priests or bishops, and they made their wishes known. Their judgments were sometimes wrong, but not often. In the Western church during the first four centuries marriage was no impediment to the people’s choice of a bishop. St. Hilary of Poitiers (c. 315c. 368) seems to have been the last married bishop but by this time, for non-biblical reasons, men elected bishops were expected to terminate their active conjugal lives. The tradition that continued held that men who showed a taste for prayer, had already received an education and above all had proven leadership qualities, were urged to accept the laying on of hands. This was not a perfect system but no better had been arrived at than the voice of the people. In short, the best candidates were actively sought out rather than having bishops and people patiently wait for devout men to come forward saying they had experienced a call. Something like that has continued over the centuries but since the Council of Elvira (c. 306) and the combined enthusiasm of Pope Damasus (d. 384) and St. Jerome (c. 343-420) for a celibate life the pool of good possibilities in the West has been diminished sharply.

In the years that will soon be upon us, bishops guided by their priests and people must be busy identifying men with the gifts needed for priestly ministry, married men more than single, and persuading these men of the church’s need. No one should be led down this path while entertaining a false hope. The change in church law must be already if not achieved, at least in sure prospect. Whole episcopates must have pointed out to the Roman See what the dire needs of their people are. A pope of the future may be expected to welcome such pressure rather than resist it so that an historic decision to ordain married men will not be his alone.

A number of challenges will have to be faced by the bodies of bishops who begin to exercise the full apostolic authority that each one possesses in his own see. This authority is the more effective when it is exercised corporately. An old pastoral axiom says, Salus animarum suprema lex, "The people’s spiritual well-being is the highest law." Regional hierarchies and the Apostolic See (namely that of Peter and Paul) must take this statement seriously in the matter under discussion.

Clerical Celibacy Threatened?

One fear sure to be expressed is that the ordination of married men will bring an end to priestly celibacy. This, of course, will continue to be the vocation of some, notably those drawn to a common life under rule and vow. It will for others, however, be an option as it is today for unmarried candidates for the permanent diaconate. Married life poses the twofold challenge of perfect fidelity to a spouse and to parenthood. A celibate life makes its own heavy demands, but they are not the same. The presbyteral office would place a strain on incumbents whether married or celibate. It has been demonstrated many times over that God’s grace is sufficient to meet the challenge of the married state and the clerical office in combination.

Some may hint darkly at the possibility of new scandals in the life of the Catholic Westdivorces and adulteries. This may happen. Man is a sinner going back to the Garden. The human psyche, moreover, can become twisted in distressing ways, a matter that is distinct from sin. Therefore a firmer discipline must be exercised than heretofore, meaning that morally unworthy or psychologically disturbed presbyters must be dismissed from the ranks. The church has been loath until recently to do this to its subsequent regret. An ordained person, like the baptized and confirmed, is such till death, but some will always need to have their names stricken from the diptychs by a vigilant church.

The proposal is not to "let the priests marry," as the popular Catholic phrase has it. It is to open the order of presbyter to the married. Neither is it to advance permanent deacons to the order of priesthood. They have answered a call to serve in the diaconal office for life. Their vocation should be respected. Current legislation requires such men to observe Eastern custom, namely to remain celibate if widowed or cease exercising the order. But dispensations have been granted. Priests whose wives die untimely are often left with children who need a mother. Adhering to the longstanding Eastern custom in this matter is an olive branch, to be sure, but the move toward a married priesthood would be an even more symbolic one for both the East and the separated churches of the West.

How It Will Work

It is not a crisis measure that is being proposed here, but rather a return to an earlier tradition that will be in place for centuries to come. Bishops upon recommendation by credible ordained or lay persons will approach men already in a variety of callings, suggesting to them that they appear to have the gifts necessary for exercising the presbyteral office. The men may have given the idea no previous thought. Upon hearing the proposal they may not wish to entertain it further. But, as the result of such an approach, they and their families may wish to consider it over a longer or shorter period. The Catholic theology of vocation to any order or vow is that no one has that vocation until summoned publicly by a bishop, fellow bishops, or a clerical congregation thus empowered, to the rite of ordination or to simple or solemn profession.

In the four centuries since seminaries were introduced, some bishops when dealing with large numbers of candidates for ordination have had to rely on the recommendations of their seminary faculties in deciding to call men to the order of priest. This has meant that some conformists to the seminary regimen who have kept a low profile have escaped serious scrutiny. At the same time, a small minority of incautious bishops have disregarded the warnings of seminary professors and proceeded to ordain the unworthy. The fairly rigorous discipline of the seminary system is an adequate testing ground for the already mature. It is nothing to compare with that of the role of husband, father and breadwinner. The qualifications for bishops found in the First Letter to Timothy and for presbyters in the Letter to Titus are instructive here. Each must be "a man of one woman," able to manage a household, and have believing children whose lives are in order and are not rebellious.

There is another important questions: Will young men who feel called to a celibate life be at ease in the company of the larger number of priests who are husbands and fathers? The years of theological education in each other’s company should provide a solid indication of the answer. One predictive sign is that those celibates who are already at ease in the midst of families will not be threatened by their future minority status. The truly mature, married and single, will be able to adapt to this situation; the immature never. It is essential to discover early which is which. Some pious laymen have long had a clerical mentality, and when this becomes apparent they must be dismissed with a blessing.

All the candidates will need the same formation in depth. Some may indicate to their bishop that they wish to continue in their previous calling, serving only for sacramental celebration and the preaching that is part of it. Others will stand ready to take on the full burden of pastoral care. Because of the special importance of the homiletic art, no one should be ordained who cannot exercise it effectively. St. Robert Bellarmine charged a pope new in office whom he had taught as a young man never to ordain a bishop who could not preach. The requirement is equally valid for a deacon or presbyter. Further, no one should be advanced to priest’s orders who shows no talent for or interest in priestly work. This does not mean that the learned or scholarly priest is an endangered species, only that the only ones ordained for service in an academic role should be those proceeding to higher theological or cognate studies. There will be priests who have had distinguished careers in various fields but none should be ordainedwith a view toremaining in a secular field.

The works of women in the church concurrent with the development envisioned here will be much wider than nowan expansion of the preaching and pastoral administration already in place. If it should come to light that any candidate does not work well with women, however much married he may be, that should be the last semester of his seminary education.

Clearly, the configuration of Catholic congregational life will be notably altered by this basic change. The major alterations in church life that will undoubtedly occur can be only a matter of speculation. They will take different forms in different regions of the world, even as the sociologies of Catholic life differ around the globe. Married priests will continue to make a promise of obedience to their ordaining bishops and their successors. That obedience is bound to take a somewhat altered form when large numbers among the clergy have their families to think of and are men who have already had to make many reasoned decisions in their business or professional lives. Obedience is to be expected, but on what may have to be healthier terms than in a former day. Only infrequently will it be exacted.

The chief observation to be made about a married priesthood in the West is that it is inevitable. It may well be followed, after the passage of a good many decades, by a resurgence of priestly celibacy. The questions here are not whether the change will be a good thing or a bad or whether when it happens it will have more favorable than unfavorable consequences. Answers cannot be known with certainty. The only point here is that this change is going to happen and the worldwide Catholic communion of one billion needs to prepare for it. The move will not come about by "a stroke of the papal pen," that phrase so beloved of those who favor disciplinary change in the church. Like so much else in ecclesial discipline, law will follow custom. Bishops desperate to meet the needs of their people are already entertaining in great numbers the idea of ordaining the married. When they do it in concert and in carefully planned fashion, the solution to the people’s pastoral problem will be on the horizon. This move by some bishops may be met with censure by others in the region or by the Patriarch of the West whoever he may be at the time. More probably it will be welcomed by both out of concern for the people.

The return to tradition and change of law proposed has little to do with the "priest shortage" and everything to do with priest supply for a long time to come. It is unrelated to a new male ascendancy in a time when priestly egos are said to be fragile. If worked at carefully it will advance rather than retard the place of women in the church. It is proposed in the terms spelled out because it is pastorally motivated, sensitive to Catholic sexual and family life and a clear 21st-century possibility.

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12 years ago
Thanks for the Rev. Gerard Sloyan’s “The Return of an Old Tradition” (4/15).

I have an even simpler solution to the so-called priest shortage, even more deeply rooted in tradition. Presbyter means “old man.” A 27-year-old seminarian is not an old man. Call more younger men to the diaconate. Ordain to the diocesan presbyterate no one under the age of 55. Let the bishop choose from among lay and deacon candidates nominated by the congregations. Let none have more than one wife.

12 years ago
Thanks for the Rev. Gerard Sloyan’s “The Return of an Old Tradition” (4/15).

I have an even simpler solution to the so-called priest shortage, even more deeply rooted in tradition. Presbyter means “old man.” A 27-year-old seminarian is not an old man. Call more younger men to the diaconate. Ordain to the diocesan presbyterate no one under the age of 55. Let the bishop choose from among lay and deacon candidates nominated by the congregations. Let none have more than one wife.


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