One of the questions that I sometimes receive, and was recently asked by a visitor after a weekend Mass, is how I am able to be both married and ordained as a priest, when the discipline of the western Church is that only celibate men can be ordained priests? That is a good question, one that both Fr. Longenecker (who, as you know, is also married) and I have had to answer from time to time.
The most ancient tradition of the Church is that married men can receive the Sacrament of Holy Orders as deacons or priests, but that once ordained, a deacon or priest cannot marry. This tradition continues in the Catholic Churches of the east where married men can be ordained to both diaconal and priestly ministry.
For many reasons, both spiritual and cultural, the Catholic Churches of western Europe eventually began to limit ordination to celibate males. This discipline of priestly celibacy was made the norm in the 11th Century and prevailed in the west until recent times.
In the mid 20th Century, Pope Pius XII granted dispensations from the norm of celibacy to some clergy converts from Lutheranism. After Vatican II, the diaconate was restored as a permanent ministry into which married men can be ordained. Later on, Pope St. John Paul II established the Pastoral Provision which made ordination to the priesthood for some married former Protestant ministers, mostly Anglican and Lutheran converts, a possibility as well, on a case by case basis. This was how it became possible for Fr. Longenecker (a former Anglican minister) and me (a former Lutheran minister) to be ordained Catholic priests. At this time, the Church does not grant dispensations from celibacy to men who were baptized into the Catholic Church as infants or adults, nor for converts who had not previously served as ordained Protestant ministers.
OLR is one of the few Latin Rite parishes of the Catholic Church in which all of the ordained ministers here, both deacons and priests, are men who have been called to the vocations of ordained ministry as well as Holy Matrimony.
Should all priests be allowed to marry? That is a question, as the saying goes, that is “above my pay grade.” Although I am grateful that the Holy Father granted me the needed dispensations and permissions to be ordained to priestly ministry, I deeply respect and support the ancient discipline of priestly celibacy, remembering, at the same time, that mandatory celibacy of priests in the west is a tradition, not a dogma, and traditions can and do change. If and when the Holy See allows a broader permission for married men to be ordained priests – and that’s a BIG “if” – much study and prayerful discernment will need to precede such a decision, as well as a deep consideration of the many practical and theological matters underlying the question. In the meantime, all of us are called to obedience to the discipline of the Church and to prayer as the Holy Spirit guides and leads the Church, remembering that He is the Spirit of Truth and that in all things we can follow the teaching of the magisterium with confidence.
Fr. Richard Ballard