It seems there are billboards like this going up all across Cincinnati demanding “Married Priests. Now.”

My usual quick comment when someone brings up the issue of married priests (and it is almost always a progressive Catholic who does so) is:

“Well, we have to remember that if the man is married and young and he and his wife are fertile they would be living within the teachings of the Catholic Church right?”

“Well. Um. Sure. I guess”

“Right. So if they are young and fertile they’re not going to be using contraceptives so they may not have your neat and tidy 2.3 suburban children with a working mom and double income. They might in fact have a dozen kids and it ain’t really cheaper by the dozen.”

“Oh. Oh yeh. That.”

“So you’re in favor of married priests. Are you prepared to put an extra $25.00 in the plate each week to pay for an extension on the rectory, private school fees, orthodontist, college and the rest?”

“You know. I think celibacy for priests is a great idea…”

One of the most remarkable things about the married priests debate is that we already have married priests.

I am one of them.

However, in the thirteen years of my being a married Catholic priest no one–no bishop, archbishop, theologian, journalist, campaigner, married priests advocate….no one in any official or semi official capacity has sat down and asked me how it works.

No one has said, “So how do you manage the work life balance?” No one has asked the probing question, “Does your vocation to marriage clash with your vocation the priesthood?” No one has asked how my wife copes, how my kids are doing, how things are going financially. No one has asked about our long term plans…how we are planning for my wife’s retirement, how we are dealing with housing issues or anything else.

It is like we married priests do not exist.

If no one has asked me how it’s going it is REALLY true that no one has asked Mrs Longenecker. It is as if she does not exist.

Mind you, we’re not complaining. My wife Alison would hate the limelight of any kind, and I don’t really give two hoots is someone asks about my life, but you would have thought for the sake of objective research and information gathering that somebody who is interested in this issue might actually ask how it works for those of us who are already married.

The point I made about a young married man having a big family stands, but that could be overcome if the guy and his wife had a true missionary spirit and embraced poverty…because priests are supposed to be poor anyway right?

Some time I will have to tell you about an old college friend of mine who, with his wife and five kids has spent his life in the jungles of Burma translating the Scriptures into a tribal language. If we had that kind of missionary spirit married priests would be no problem! Husband and wife and kids would go anywhere to serve the Lord: the jungles of Burma or someplace even more difficult, where the people’s hearts are even more pagan and where they are locked in violence, decadence and darkness: someplace like Los Angeles…

The fact is, from a practical point of view whenever someone makes a case FOR married priests I can make a good practical case against, and whenever someone makes a practical case against married priests I can counter with a good argument for married priests.

Here’s just a few examples: AGAINST: Priests don’t get paid very much. They would never be able to support a family on the small stipend they get.

FOR: Hang on. A priest may not get paid much, but they get a house–and there are some very nice big old rectory houses around that would be just fine for a family. They get utilities for the house, maintenance, insurance and everything else paid for. They get health insurance and a retirement plan–often a good health plan and generous retirement. They get a job for life and not only a job, but a rewarding job in which they are their own boss and for the most part nobody checks up on them. They usually get a car allowance, a phone allowance and many dioceses say their food and extra medical is all paid for. I can think of a good number of men and their wives who would be happy for a job like that. Don’t forget, the woman can also get a job to help support the family, and if there are extra needs I’ve always found that parishioners are generous when they have a good priest. Would they have to eat mac and cheese, scrimp and save and maybe clothe the kids from Goodwill and take a vacation in a borrowed lake house? So what? There are many lower income families who live that way all the time, but without the security of a job for life, health cover, a secure roof over their head with all utilities paid.

AGAINST: Our priests are available to God and to us 24-7. A married man can never do that.

FOR: Your priests are available 24-7? That has not been my experience. They take days off. They have vacations. And so they should. Nobody is available 24-7. It’s true that a priest’s hours are unusual. We haven’t had a family weekend ever and Christmas Day and Easter never start until mid day because Dad is out working. But lots of men and women have jobs that take them away from home for days or weeks at a time. Lots of people work long hours and irregular hours. Doctors, First responders, Soldiers, Salesmen, truck drivers, nurses…all these people work odd hours and long hours. My time away from home and family is balanced by the fact that I am my own boss and if I need to take time away for a school play, a soccer game or drive the kids to the dentist I just do it.

I could go on.

The main practical objection to married priests is simply that the infrastructure and hierarchy of the Catholic Church is not equipped for this change. They don’t know how to do it and don’t want to do it.

There is a darker side to this. The celibate priest is bound much more closely to the bishop and his fellow priests than a married man. It’s a guy’s club and it’s pretty tight. Furthermore, the celibate priest is in a dependent relationship with the diocese much more than a married man. His whole life  and livelihood is dependent on the bishop’s whim. Without the bishop he has no visible means of support. He has not trained for another career. If he went into the priesthood as a young man he has no other work experience. Although everything was provided for him, he was never paid much so he has been unable to save for retirement or build up a nest egg. He knows if he steps out of line he will be thrown to the wolves. He’ll have nothing and be fit for no other job.

An older married man knows how to support himself and earn a living. He may have independent means and therefore not need the diocesan system so much.

Might this be one of the reasons the hierarchy is not too quick to have married priests?

Just askin’

As I have said many times before, we should cut right past the practical arguments pro and con and cut to the underlying reason for retaining celibacy: the nuptial relationship between Christ and the priest or religious.

Put simply: the celibate is married to Christ. He or she shows the whole church what that total life long commitment to Christ looks like. In return the married reveal to the celibate what marriage looks like and reflects back to them what their nuptial relationship to Christ should be.

That’s the reason the church retains the discipline of celibacy. All the pros and cons, strengths and weaknesses, human triumphs and human tragedies associated with the discipline must be seen in light of that.

How do I reconcile being a priest AND being married? The reason above helps me to do this. I see my commitment to Christ as a priest as primary. My marriage contributes to that and my commitment as a priest contributes to the strength of my marriage. If that is too much of a paradox for some people all I can say is that it works and somehow by God’s grace I think there is a complementarity there that is real, but which I find difficult to articulate.

Where do I personally stand on the issue? I think the church should be open to the ordination of more older, tested married men. On a case by case basis according to local needs, I wish individual bishops had more possibilities to put forward men they know are tried, tested servants of the church who are already married.

But my opinion doesn’t matter. It’s above my pay grade, but if anyone wants to know how it works and how it can work.

Don’t hesitate to give me a call!

Image Fr Anthony Sciarappa