13Jul A married deacon can be a father but not ‘Fr.’

In many parts of the world the Catholic married deacon is a familiar figure. He can be seen baptising children, presiding over weddings, officiating at funerals and preaching at masses. His presence may come as a surprise to some as he will be seen serving the community in works that were  once considered only the domain of the celibate priest.

Yet while all these services are necessary and celebrated with great fervor and zeal they cannot answer the greatest need of parishoners which is the right to assist mass on a regular basis in their own local parish. Due to a shortage of priests parishes in many countries are being clustered thus obliging people to travel to neighbouring parishes for mass. This can be a bit traumatic for some for whom their old parish carries fond memories of Baptisms , first Holy Communions, Confirmations and the weekly Sunday mass.

A married deacon goes through a preparatory course similar to the study program for those being ordained to the priesthood. Inevitably the question will be asked: “Why not ordain married men priests seeing that there is a shortage of priests”? The answer to this is because they have a wife they are not suitable. This negative attitude towards women seems to be looking back to the past history of the church when manicheism brought about an obsessive anti-sexualism which painted a depressing negative picture of women, of sex and matrimony. In AD 401 Saint Augustine wrote: “Nothing is so powerful in drawing the spirit of a man downwards as the caresses of a woman”. Likewise too Saint Jeronimo would also write: “All sexual relations are impure” and “married life only knows suffering”. Tertulian would speak of “the sad happiness of having children”. Jeronimo, Ambrose and Innocent I would say that priesthood and matrimony are imcompatible because you cannot reconcile holiness and matrimonial sexuality. These words of the above saints paint a very narrow picture of sexual morality which is contrary to a real understanding of marital intimacy as something that is holy, sacred and blessed by the Sacrament of Matrimony.

However in the beginning of Christianity the church was closely bound to the family. The Ministry of the Word, The Breaking of Bread and other religious services were carried out in the homes of the Christians. The bond between family life and church was so close that the qualities looked for in a good ecclesiastical minister (bishop, priest, deacon) were the same as those of a good father of a family (1 Timothy 3, 1 – 7, 12). The apostolic period presents us with mature men who as parents were models of government in their own families and because of these good qualities were chosen as deacons, priests and bishops. There is never a mention of incompatibility nor aversion between women or sexuality in relation to these offices.

If celibacy was essential for the Christian life it would have been a crucial fact in the life of the Apostles who were predominantly married men and especially too if we take into account the mentality of the Jewish culture at that time. If celibacy was necessary Christ would have treated this subject with affection. He would have referred to it repeatedly, but nothing of the sort happened. In fact the opposite was true. Peter, the first Pope was married, he had a mother-in-law. In relation to other themes Christ referred to them frequetly, such as the Eucharist, justice, love, prayer, truth and matrimony itself. Some though will point to Christ’s words in Mathew 19, 12: “There are eunuchs who have made themselves that way for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven”. If we want to apply this text to celibacy we can say that it is a reference in passing provoked by the disciples giving vent to their sentiments and so it appears as peripheral. Christ did not worry about this, as a matter of fact attention is to be called to the climate of total liberty: “Let anyone accept this who can”. If we want to apply this text to celibacy we can conclude the following, that celibacy as a “sine qua non” condition for the priesthood is made by man.

Today we are faced with a shortage of priests. There is a limit to the number of masses a priest can physically say in one day and this becomes more difficult the older the priest is. Even though there may be deacons helping out they cannot say mass. On the missions where parishes are very large both in size and numbers, one priest just cannot get around to all the communities especially on a Sunday, The Lord’s Day. Of course Celebrations of the Word are life giving and spiritually nourishing but to be true to our belief that the Eucharist is the apex and center of a community no amount of deacons can ever subsitute this. Pope John Paul II in his encyclical ‘Ecclesia de Eucharistia’, chapter 3 no 32 writes: “When a community is deprived of a priest a just remedy should be sought so that the Sunday celebrations be continued, and the religious and laity who guide their brothers and sisters in prayer exercise in a praiseworthy way the common priesthood of all the faithful based on the grace of Baptism. But these solutions should be considered temporary  while the community awaits a priest”.

Bernard Haring once said: “The People of God have a god-given right to the Eucharist. On the bases of human law, to deprive them of the Eucharist, is , objectively, gravely sinful”.

It would demand great conviction and courage on the part of Bishops to ordain mature married men. Yet they are the pastors of their flocks, they know what are the spiritual needs of their people. They are responsible before God to ensure that devotion to the Eucharist is not lost and this can happen with the passage of time if the communities right to the Eucharist is made impossible due to the shortage of priests. It maybe though that Rome has a hidden agenda with relation to the married deacon program. Maybe it wants people to become accustomed to seeing married men doing most of the things that priests usually do as a step towards the day when we may have celibate and married priests working side by side for the good of the community.

The married deacon is permanent in the sense that it is not simply a stage on the way to the priesthood. This maybe so but what about the needs of the faithful today? Only priests can say Mass. Those of the older generation will recall the time when the Eucharistic fast was from midnight, then it was changed to three hours and now it is one hour. These changes were introduced in answer to the needs of the faithful in the modern world. So for the good of the faithful can we not also offer another model of priesthood, that is the married man. This might lead to an increase in vocations as not everyone is called to be celibate. In the meantime whole generations will be brought up without frequent access to the Eucharist. Yet statistics show in various countries that people are already open to a married priesthood. In Ireland 87% are in favour as shown in a recent survey. So why wait when the command of Our Lord is so clear: “Do this in memory of me”. This is a call to celebrate the Eucharist and if a community is deprived of this regularly, this is unthinkable.

23 Responses

  1. Joe O'Leary

    Absolutely sensible. The Vatican has been resisting this wisdom for decades, pinning all its hopes on a new generation of specially conditioned seminarians. But the failure of that project is now apparent.

  2. Chris McDonnell

    I recently offered ACP for posting the Mission Statement on behalf of the Movement for married clergy (UK), If space can be found for that Statement to be posted you will find a clearly stated case for the option of choice existing for those offerings themselves for ordination which I am sure many could support.

  3. Liam

    Both marriage and a Call to priesthood are two different vocations. You are either called to one or the other not both. A man cannot serve two masters.

  4. Eddie Finnegan

    Liam, I suppose you’d find the Douai-Rheims version more congenial and up-to-date, so we’d better stick with that expression to go back to the sources rather than anything more new-fangled or protestant-tinged:

    “It behoveth therefore a bishop to be blameless, the husband of one wife, sober, prudent, of good behaviour, chaste, given to hospitality, apt to teach . . .” I Tim.3:2

    “Deacons, likewise, are to be men worthy of respect, sincere, not indulging in much wine, and not pursuing dishonest gain.” I Tim.3:8
    “A deacon must be the husband of but one wife and must manage his children and his household well.” I Tim.3:12

    So bishops, like Simon Peter before them, and deacons were subject to much the same selection criteria. And it seems priests (when their role was developed long after Paul and Timothy’s time) weren’t subjected to anything more specific or onerous than what was expected of bishops or deacons. Look after your wife and kids and household (and when your mother-in-law isn’t feeling in top form, look after her too as Peter did) and if you can’t do all or most of that, you’re not fit to be an apostle, a bishop, a deacon (or a priest whenever the invention/development of that role proves necessary or convenient).
    And as for “it behoveth a bishop, the husband of one wife, to be chaste,” well, Liam, it surely behoveth myriads and millions of us mere lay marriéds to be fairly chaste, too.

    Of course, when you quoted your clincher: “A man cannot serve two masters” you may well have been thinking of other problems relating to the introduction of same-sex marriage. Now I don’t think Paul had come on to that in Chapter 3 of 1st Timothy.

  5. Soline Humbert

    Marriage, like priesthood, is a sacrament: It embodies Christ’s saving love. It’s not about serving a human being instead of God. How can one sacrament be an impediment to another one?
    That’s why there are married priests in the church now, as there were for a very long time from the beginnings of the church.
    Perhaps you are confusing marriage with Mammon/Money: one cannot serve both God and Mammon. And money, with power, remains a permanent temptation in the church.

  6. Pól Ó Duibhir

    Do you mean two mistresses?

  7. Ann Lardeur

    So many of current debates on various topics hinge on early church history, the knowledge of which can sometimes be lacking. It applies to this particular subject too. Celibacy was originally the vocation of monks who were not ordained. The Eucharist and Sacraments were celebrated for monastic communities by the local priest. If I remember timing correctly it was only around the 4th century that the abbots began to accept ordination purely to serve their community; thus they were no longer reliant on kind offices of local clergy.

    It was gradually after this period that the two vocations began to be conflated, and monkish celibacy came eventually to be imposed on secular clergy. There is no reason why they should not be separated again. Eastern Rite churches have retained married priests, but I believe, subject to correction therefore, that bishops are chosen from unmarried clergy only.

  8. Andy

    Eddie, that thing about the bishop being the husband of one wife is interesting – it was issued because at the time there were fellas presenting themselves for ordination that were playing around with women and had more than one wife. So the advice is not that the bishop should be married, but that if he is involved with women, he should be married to just one, in fidelity. That’s why it says they must be a husband of just one wife. But Christ and St. Paul both advocated a higher standard – celibacy for the Kingdom.

    Soline, the priests in the early days left marital relations aside, at least in the day(s) before saying Mass. Plus Peter and the others left their wives altogether as they had a new mission.

  9. Ann Lardeur

    Andy – please produce evidence for your statements like Peter and other left their wives. Do you think the Jesus who cured Peter’s mother-in-law yet made his wife an abandoned woman? ‘fellas’ did not present then themselves for ordination – they were CHOSEN as leaders of the community.

    For centuries Popes were instructing priests to leave their wives – which is evidence that they had them to leave. Whilst disguised as conflict between sex and sanctity the other hidden agenda was church property being passed to the children. No wives, no children, church retains everything. In 1095 Pope Urban II ordered wives and children of priests to be sold into slavery. Guess where the proceeds went!

    I have just remembered there is an extremely good article on the history of celibacy on this very site. Put “O’Loughlin” into the search box and it will appear.

  10. Andy

    The flip side of the coin is that, by being celibate, priests couldn’t keep it ‘in the family’. Can you imagine the Murphys or the Maguires retaining the priesthood generation after generation in a village or diocese because of inherited Church property, priesthood, and bishoprics?!

  11. Perry

    This is a bit of sidetracking here.

    But I am very curious when reading about various topics here on the site and other similar places.

    Whatever the issue – married priests, women priests etc etc etc.

    The effect/impact on a man who cannot marry and be an ordained priest.

    A woman who might feel that women, like Mary, are as capable of true priesthood as men.

    And on.

    These things can be profoundly spiritually abusive to various individuals. Clearly all are not equal in Christ.

    Why do you remain with the RCC ?

    I am trying to figure that one out for myself which is why I ask.

    What does the RCC give you that you cannot get elsewhere ?

    If allowed, maybe another thread.

    Thank you


  12. Mary O Vallely

    A good question, Perry,one I have often asked myself. Why remain in the RCC? I’ve certainly been challenged these last 5 years as my younger daughter is working as an evangelical missioner in India and I went to her (re)baptism in our local Baptist Church where I listened with a mixture of great pride and sadness as she gave her public testimony. I love the Baptists here. They give such great Christian witness and I feel humbled by their honest goodness but I am uncomfortable with many of their beliefs and I do not always enjoy their services.
    Why do I stay in my own church then? Hard to explain but I simply love and believe in the Mass and no one does ritual like the RCC (though maybe the British Royal Family come a close second!) and I just feel “at home” literally in my own cathedral. Not a very profound answer and I willingly admit I am woefully ignorant of scripture and basic theology so I am embarking on a course in Dromantine this September to make up for my lack of knowledge and my -perhaps- still shallow faith. Heart pounding but exciting all the same.
    Re-reading that it does make me sound shallow indeed as if it were the peripherals of my surroundings, the candles and incense etc; that draw me in. They do though. They help me to feel closer to God. Familiarity and an atavistic streak uniting me with my dead ancestors? I don’t know. I just haven’t found any other church which feeds my soul the way my own does.
    One difference between the evangelicals and ourselves is that I believe a RCC member should be a questioning person and should be open to listening to any voice of sincerity because the Spirit moves within each honest and searching voice. The Baptists believe that there is no salvation outside of Christianity. Their absolutism terrifies me.
    Now, Perry, hope I’ve started the ball rolling and that you get more succinct and erudite answers to your question. Maybe it should be on a separate thread?
    Look forward to reading them. Et tu, Perry? Why are you still a Catholic?
    Mary V

  13. Ann Lardeur

    Andy – if they did not pass churches and church offices down the generations then Ireland was the great exception to what went on in the rest of christendom.

  14. Jim McCrea

    Liam: I’m sure you will want to apologize soon to the priests int he various Eastern Rites of, yes, the CATHOLIC church. And shall we not forget the “newbies” in the Orneryariate?

  15. Ann Lardeur

    Liam – in addition to Jim’s reference to the Ordinariate, in the early 1990s under the leadership of Cardinal Hume a goodly number of married Anglican clergy, with families, were ordained as Catholic priests in England and Wales.

  16. Perry

    “Look forward to reading them. Et tu, Perry? Why are you still a Catholic?”

    In all veritas Mary I am not sure I am Catholic. Although if Catholic does speak of, mean ‘universal,’ then I do believe in universal redemption – healing for the whole race and the Creation.

    Through one man all sinned and through one all men are redeemed; to paraphrase.

    I have to admit too that I found other denominations less inclusive than the Catholic. It evolves very slowly – but there is some forward movement at least. I read something on the meaning of ‘outside the catholic church there is no salvation’ and it seemed to me you have to be really far outside.

    Why am I Catholic if I am. I’d have to say it has something to do with Calvary. I like the things like candles and all of that too. But it’s Jesus on a Cross – looking at this and wondering what, why, where, when, how…… who are you ? I can’t do that with a corpus (?) less Cross. “No greater love than this….. ” I want to understand this.

    You know that painting of Dali’s ‘Christ of St John of the Cross’. As St John suggests in the gospel – Christ is alpha and omega – beginning and end of all – the all in all. The Cross with Christ is like the gateway to the eternal as surely as we are told it is folly.

    Power through powerlessness.

    That Mary stood there speaks volumes to me on many levels. And the women there too.

    As a wee aside. Someone was talking to me about altar girls the other day – them being inappropriate. I ate nails. I said that the women were there at the Cross more than the men – and if the Mass is a re presentation of Calvary – then women, girls, those gorgeous children have more right to be there than he did. The crown of nails on his head spelling, “Misogynist capitalist schwein hund.”

    I am not sure Mary. It’s something to do with Calvary – trying to understand the ‘Mass’ in that context, and that Mary stood there too. That’s what holds me. I have thought to leave and still wonder – and have looked at other possibilities. But I also like what the Dali Lama recommended – that I try to become the best Christian/Catholic I might instead of looking elsewhere.

    I believe the Body of Christ to be infinitely bigger, greater than the RCC – and that it, the RCC might be on a journey to realising this.

    And listening to a chinese couple today speaking. The wife dying of cancer and what their faith meant to them as she journeys to Life.

    It reminded me of the real power and strength it has been in my own life.

    Not very erudite either Mary – but it’s something about Calvary. And it’s no morbid fascination. Like your man in that song said, “I wanna know what Love is……. and I want You to show me….. ”

    When I am lifted up I will raise ALL to Myself, 🙂

    I love this too:

    For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now. 23 And not only this, but also we ourselves, having the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body. 24 For in hope we have been saved, but hope that is seen is not hope; for who hopes for what he already sees? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, with perseverance we wait eagerly for it.

    Our Victory in Christ

    26 In the same way the Spirit also helps our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we should, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words; 27 and He who searches the hearts knows what the mind of the Spirit is, because He intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.

    28 And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose. 29 For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many brethren; 30 and these whom He predestined, He also called; and these whom He called, He also justified; and these whom He justified, He also glorified.

    31 What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who is against us? 32 He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him over for us all, how will He not also with Him freely give us all things? 33 Who will bring a charge against God’s elect? God is the one who justifies; 34 who is the one who condemns ? Christ Jesus is He who died, yes, rather who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who also intercedes for us. 35 Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?

    36 Just as it is written,

    37 But in all these things we overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us. 38 For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

    Especially the last part. NOTHING can separate from the love of God.

    Not even ‘anathemas’ or ‘canon law’ 🙂

    Jesus descends into ‘hell’ and preaches to the spirits there.

    So even if the RCC seems ‘hell’ish at times – I think it possible that love is realisable there too. Love is poured forth from a Cross – not a silver platter.

    Like I said though Mary – I may not be Catholic at all – of that Roman variation.

    Something about Calvary.

  17. Fr. Kieren

    I think we need to be honest and acknowledge that there are married Catholic priests, both in the Latin and Eastern Rites, there always has been and there always will be. Now when I refer to married men in the Latin Rite being married priests, I don’t mean the Ordinariate or former Protestant ministers, I mean those who have left active ministry to marry – they are still priests! I have good friends, priests now married, who had to make a decision between their ministry and the woman they love, and my heart breaks knowing that they still have so much to offer in their priestly ministry they can no longer fully exercise.
    I know the arguments for and against celibacy, and as a celibate priest recognise that this discipline is not theologically intrinsic to the ministerial priesthood, yes the charism of celibacy does exist, but we do not all possess it, and it is often a challenge, a daily challenge to live out this discipline. I believe there is a place for married priests, although I struggle to find a practical solution. In the UK there are now 80 Ordinariate priests serving a congregation of 1000 (give or take), how will those 80 and their families be fininacially supported? In my parish there exists 3000 Catholics served only by me, all with different expectations and demands on me. One of the questions I ask is what are the expectations of the laity on the clergy, and does that expectation need to change, if married priests are to be introduced?
    There are no theological objections to married priests, if there was they wouldn’t exist. Therefore I can only assume that the objection is practical.
    As I said, I am a celibate priest, happy (but sometimes struggling) in the promise I freely took when ordained a Deacon. I apologise with the rambling and lengthy post.

  18. Ann Lardeur

    Thank you, Fr. Kieren, for your honest and moving post. I too know of some wonderful priests to have made the choice to marry; one particularly who spoke on Radio 4 some years ago(The Choice I think). He went on sabbatical to the USA and told how he spent a lot of time weeping. He came home early unable to pray himself to remain in Ministry. I feel for those who have stuck with their vow of celibacy but have now seen married ‘convert’ clergymen being reordained as catholic priests.

    There have also been awful tragedies. There was a student from the ‘Indian Sub-Continent’ studying for his theology degree a year or two behind me. I was concerned by the hours and intensity of his working and tried to persuade him not to be too hard on himself. He ended up in a North London psychiatric hospital and eventually committed suicide. It was then that I learned he and a nun had fallen in love but decided to stick with their vows. Poor woman, it must have been difficult for her to cope with.

  19. Fr. Kieren

    Thanks Ann,
    I remember many years ago, a discussion within the junior clergy of my diocese. We pointed out that in seminary many of us were prepared to make the promise of celibacy, however after ordination there was very little support helping us live it.
    I have no axe to grind regarding former Protestants being ordained, but feel that the Church could perhaps reach out in charity to those no longer in active ministry. There are priests often sitting in the pew watching and willing to resume their ministry given a chance. I often wonder what a parish priest must feel running around like a headless chicken, when in their congregation exists ordained priests unable to help.
    I am not complaining, well maybe a little, I have never regretted the promises I made.
    As I said in my earlier post, It seems to me there is no point shouting for the full introduction of married clergy, until we honestly address the practical problems. I know that might sound daft, but maybe it is the way forward.
    In the CofE there exists non-stipendary ministers, could we not welcome back those who have left the active ministry under a similar model?

  20. ger gleeson.

    I also know two good ordained priests, who fell in love and got married. Both are now pillars of their respective parishes, and with their beautiful families, contribute enormously to all parish activities. I have no doubt if either of them were allowed to leave the pew on a Sunday morning and celebrate Mass, the celebration would be similiar to the day they were ordained.

    Why oh why does our Church condemn so many good men to Purgatory in this life? Why oh why does our Church operate double standards?

  21. Ann Lardeur

    Kieren – complain a little – or a lot if necessary. One of our big problems has been parishioners have not seen their priests as human, and priests have kept up the front that they are super-human. We may talk about sharing one another’s burdens, but they cannot be shared if they are not admitted. I have been fortunate and priviledged to be able to share mutual confidences with a number of priests over the years, and I think we have both been better for it.

    I am about to ramble if moderator allows.

    I was involved in a diocesan pilgrimage to Rome years ago, and there were big difficulties with the organisational side. Because I had organised pilgrimages for our deanery, and I knew Rome to some extent, I was asked the night before departure to take charge of any folk on my flight who were not with a priest from their parish. Likewise at my hotel (2 flights and 2 hotels were involved and the hotels were far apart!!). I worked my socks off trying to make sure my flock got maximum benefit without them realising the flaws. I also had people confiding in me, I remember one lady particularly who had recently lost her husband. Towards the end of the week we had a Mass of Reconciliation at St. Domitilla’s church, after which the priests stood round the walls hearing individual confessions. I went to my usual confessor and poured out all my anger and irritation. He put his hand on my shoulder and said “Me too”. I nearly broke my heart that he could give me absolution and I could not do the same for him. He had to turn to the next priest – I doubt he said more to him than he did to me.
    By the way, problems continued until the moment the coach left Rome for the airport. As we were leaving the Borgo I was asked to go towards the back of the coach. ‘Last straw’ was in my mind. Just the opposite in fact – my folks had taken a collection to show their appreciation for what I had done for them

  22. Ann Lardeur

    I have been thinking about the question Fr. Kieren raised in post 17 which we have not really discussed. “What are the expectations on the clergy, and does that expectation need to change if married clergy are to be introduced?”

    I think a slightly shorter question needs discussing ‘What are the expections on the clergy, and does that expectation need to change?” but at the same time the question “What are the expections on the parishioners?” With fewer clergy, larger and more scattered parishes, clergy are under huge pressure which is taking a toll on health (often undisclosed until they fall sick, break down, have to retire early, or die early).

    Most people have no idea what it is really like, some of us have glimpses. One holy friend of mine asked me if I thought a priest had a difficult life – in her mind he said Mass, prayed, and ‘attended all those meetings’. When I said, ‘Yes, he deals with raw things; the dying and bereaved, and that could be parents with longed for infant being stillborn; marriage breakdown, people at the end of their tether, etc.’ the response was I never thought of that. It does not occur to people that when a priest holds the babe he is baptising he might wish it was his. (One of the most beautiful baptisms I have attended was that of the first grandchild of an Anglican Priest. He cradled him so tenderly and kissed him on the top of his head.)

    At an induction the parishioners make promises too. How do we best fulfil them? What is the vision of the clergy?

    My way is to be honest (honesty grows profusely in my garden) – complement them where they are good, comment when things are wrong (I have heard some rubbish in homilies which I cannot let pass. People learn from what Fr. says, and if it is untrue they have been misled), share my knowledge which is not always appreciated. One newly ordained priest pointed out the years he had spent at Seminary. I refrained from pointing out I had spent exactly the same number of years studying for my theology degrees, concentrating mainly on scripture and early church history, without having to cover all the other areas seminarians have to study. They call me Ann – I call them by the first names as the Good Book says “Let no one call you Father”.

    How can we have an equal sharing and partnership in building The Kingdom when Canon Law makes the priest responsible for everything in his parish. I heard a priest probably 30 years ago saying the only solution to proper parish growth as a community was a change in Canon Law.

    Regarding Kieren’s point on priests who have left and married; as an interim measure pending greater consideration of married priests it might be easier to persuade Rome to let them resume their earlier status of Deacon.

    Also consider women as Deacons. One priest friend was asked in his former parish if there were any parishioners who would be suitable as deacons. His reply “Several excellent candidates, but they are all women”.

  23. Ann Lardeur

    Interesting that discussions have moved on to other areas without anyone picking up suggestion of opening diaconate to women.

Scroll Up