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The Truth, the Young, and Married Priests

By Deacon Keith Fournier
© Third Millennium, LLC
Catholic Online

A CBS News Report on the eighth day of April, 2005 confirmed what I have long believed concerning the reason young people so loved Pope John Paul II. It is simple; they hunger for the truth. They are drawn to it as metal is drawn to an irresistible magnet.

One of the greatest encyclical letters from the rich treasury of John Paul the Great is called "The Splendor of Truth". It reflects that hunger. In this brilliant exposition on the moral life, this giant in the chair of Peter used the story of the "Rich Young Man" to present the irresistible attraction and beauty of truth and our own response to its continuing call. He also presented the truth that every baptized Christian has a vocation.

Young people also respond to truth. They recognize it when it is lived and proclaimed in the lives of true and authentic Christians. That is why they were drawn to Pope John Paul II. In an age of relativism, nihilism, materialism, utilitarianism - and all of the multiple other "ism's" of the age that deny that truth even exists - this wonderful Pope embodied it, proclaimed it and demonstrated it.

The reporter asked Catholic students in a Catholic High School - outside of the purview of their teachers, their parents, or any other "authority figures" - what they thought about this Pope's "positions" on the so called "hot button issues" of our age; "whether married men should be priests", "birth control" and "women priests." These "questions" are the mantra of a Press which continues to take its lead from dissidents within the Catholic Church.

However, the answers are interesting.

As for women being ordained to the priesthood, the overwhelming majority rightly opposed it. As to artificial birth control being "allowed", not one hand went up. They knew that the Church cannot change the truth that she proclaims about the dignity and beauty of human sexuality and conjugal love because it is not hers, it is the Lords. It is written in the Natural law and confirmed by Revelation. However, as to the question of whether married men should be allowed to discern a call to priesthood - the majority supported the possible opening of the order of priests to married men.

I want to share some thoughts on this interesting report, and, what it may reveal.

As to women being ordained to the priesthood, even though over half of these students were women, very few of their hands were raised. I was not surprised; these kids were real Catholic Christians. They "got it." They understood their faith. They knew that the Church cannot change its doctrine. It is a treasure that has been handed down definitively from the Apostles and is protected in that passing down through the "Magisterium", the teaching office of the Church, acting under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. The Church cannot and will not ever change its teaching on ordaining women to the priesthood. This is authoritative doctrine.

The most recent reaffirmation of the unbroken teaching was expressed by Pope John Paul in his 1994 Apostolic Letter, Ordinatio Sacerdotalis:

"Wherefore, in order that all doubt may be removed regarding a matter of great importance, a matter which pertains to the Church's divine constitution itself, in virtue of my ministry of confirming the brethren (cf. Lk 22:32) I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church's faithful."

Priesthood is not a "job"; it is a "vocation." The priest is called to be configured to Christ the High Priest and continue his priestly mission and presence upon earth. Efforts to cheapen the priestly vocation by reducing it to some sort of C.E.O. position that everyone should be able to have because of some perceived "right", have failed. Priesthood is not about a "right" or even a "career" but rather, it is a response to a "vocation", where the one responding hears the "voice" (vocatio in Latin) of the Holy Spirit to uniquely follow and re-present Jesus Christ, God Incarnate, who came among us as a man.

This coming as a man was not because men are somehow "better" but because He initiated God's gift and redemptive action of love among us. Priests now stand in our midst making His presence real and tangible by initiating and dispensing both Word and Sacrament.

Jesus came to us, as St. Paul wrote, "born of a woman". When God chose to save, redeem and recreate the whole world, he came among us, through a woman. This woman, Mary, calls us all through her example to respond with receptivity to God's love. There is no more noble a vocation than to become the home of God Incarnate and to then bear Him for the world. Thus, Mary is the prototype of the dignity of every woman who says "Yes" to the "voice" of God. When Mary said "Yes", the Word became flesh. She is also the symbol of the call of faith that goes out to all persons, men and women, to always be receptive to God and to "bear" Him for others through word and witness.

Men and women do that differently.

Mary was not an apostle, nor was she a priest. She did not demand to become one. She heard the "voice" of God, received it, and responded in the beautiful strength of a woman fully surrendered to God.

One of the greatest contemporary opponents of ordaining women as priests was the great nun from Calcutta. Mother Theresa also changed the whole world through her response to God's call of love and her own receptivity to the Spirit of God. The "Fiat" or surrender of Mary is the singular event of the exercise of human freedom in response to God's initiation. It forever changed history. Those who push for "women priests" (an oxymoron) have often been deluded by the power paradigm of our utilitarian age. They equate function with value and worth and, in so doing, they perpetuate, knowingly or unknowingly, the idolatry of an age that seeks to turn us into human "doings" rather than human beings.

In so doing, they can also perpetuate the worst of the failures of a society that proposes a false notion of freedom as the power to control.

Now, let's talk about the issue of married men being admitted to the candidacy for the order of priest. How interesting it was that these young people were open to the idea that married men could be priests.

Are we?

It is important to note how the question is being posed today. When you hear the question posed as "should priests be allowed to marry", it can reveal either ignorance or a hidden agenda. The proper question is "should married men be allowed to pursue a vocation to the order of priests?" Notice that all of the discredited claims concerning the discipline of celibacy in the Catholic Church are once again being presented as 'facts" these days. You have heard the most prevalent- that celibacy wasn't imposed in the Church until the 6th (or 9th, or 10th or 12th or 13th...) century and that the motive for imposing celibacy was to prevent Church property from being inherited by the children of the clergy. Both fall short of the truth.

The truth is that the witness of consecrated celibacy (for the sake of the kingdom) goes back to the invitation of Jesus (Matthew 19:12) and His own witness. In His sacred humanity he was a celibate man. It is also bolstered by the witness of some of the Apostles and encouraged by the pastoral experience (see, e.g. 1 Corinthians 7) of the early Church. It forms an unbroken witness - and a treasure - both for those who embrace it and for the whole Church that has been enriched by those who have. The true original motivation for celibacy was the response to Jesus who invited his apostles to forsake marriage to become "eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom". (Matt. 19:12)

This was even more "counter cultural" in the ancient Semitic world than it is today in the West. The prophetic witness of celibacy has endured beyond the ranks of celibate clergy. It is also preserved in the inspired vowed life of monastic orders, the sacrificial witness of religious men and women, and the increasing new associations of lay men and woman, who have chosen it, not to avoid marriage, but to enter more fully into the very nuptial mystery that marriage reveals, in a unique and prophetic way.

At the heart of both Christian marriage and consecrated celibacy is the singular Christian claim that all of those who are joined to Jesus Christ are, in a real and substantive way, invited into the great "marriage", the nuptial mystery of eternal communion with God. Consecrated celibates live that nuptial mystery in a unique, prophetic way, revealing the coming kingdom in our midst.

Let's clear up another mistaken notion that has permeated the discussion of this subject. Celibacy is not the source of the purported "shortage" of priests. If one were to examine the trends, there is a growing response to the call to the celibate priesthood where the Catholic faith is being faithfully lived and courageously demonstrated; both within the Dioceses where there is a witness of dynamically orthodox Catholicism and in the new associations and religious communities that are flourishing in our day. Finally, rather than a problem, celibacy is a gift and a unique vocation.

Sometimes, the question whether "priests should be able to marry", presents itself as a offering a solution for the perceived "priest shortage". It is not. I maintain that the problem is really a distribution problem. Perhaps it is time to acknowledge that there really is no "vocations crisis" in the sense of a lack of priests but rather a distribution problem! Perhaps, as in other missionary ages, it may be time to send priests from those dioceses and communities where they are flourishing and numerous into the dioceses where the faithful deserve priests to minister to them and their families.

Perhaps it is also time to once again admit married men to candidacy for the order of priests. However, if this were to occur, it would not represent a change in doctrine. Mandatory celibacy is a discipline in the West.It is not a doctrine. To open the ranks of priesthood to both celibate and married men would simply be to restore a prior discipline. The question as posed on the six O'clock news "Should priests be allowed to marry?" is the wrong question. Its very asking reveals a true lack of understanding of both the theology and history of the celibate life as discussed above.

A priest who has vowed celibacy before ordination is, in a sacramental and theological sense, already married to Christ and His Church. He has made a vow. His marriage would be a breaking of that sacred vow and would not only be invalid under canon law; it would be akin to me, as a married clergyman, divorcing my wife!

If the mandatory discipline of celibacy were to be relaxed in the western Church, the actual question should be asked in the following way; "should married men be admitted to candidacy to the priesthood" There is more than semantics involved in this rephrasing. To properly and truthfully use an old cliché "some of my best friends" are priests, both celibate and married. They are all wonderful priests, living their vocation with dignity and holiness. Yet, even within that community of celibate and married priests, there are different kinds of ministry within the one priesthood of Jesus Christ.

The Eastern Church understands this and assigns married priests to different types of ministry than celibate priests.

Unfortunately, some are using the passing to the Father of our beloved Pope John Paul II as one more opportunity to promote their agenda of demanded "changes" in the Church. Some who are raising the issue of "married priests" are the same ones calling for the "ordination" of practicing homosexual men to the ranks of deaconate, priesthood and the episcopacy. They present "Holy Orders" not as a vocational call but as some kind of job or ecclesial political power position. It is out of this kind of error and heresy that they push for an "end" of celibacy.

Behind their efforts are other agendas or a flawed ecclesiology (theology of the Church) wherein they view the Church not from above but only from below. In this view, the Church is only a human organization and the orders of clergy are some form of power position that everyone has a "right" to occupy. They must be exposed and opposed.

Ordered service in the Church is an invitation to the Cross, a vocation, not a right or a job. It is also not some position of power but a call to serve. The clerical state is a call to a particular way of serving and to holiness. I served with great fervor of soul for decades as a married layman in both the Church and the world! When I was invited to Holy Orders, I knew that it was a call, a vocation. I also came to understand the theology that I had studied. There is an "ontological" change that occurs at ordination. In fact, my life was turned upside down and has never been the same.

Philosophers and Theologians often use the word "asymmetry" when trying to explain the great "mysteries" that are integral to the Christian faith. Very often the "answer" is not "either/or" but "both/and". At the foundation of all asymmetrical insights is the Christian claim of the Incarnation of Jesus Christ. He is BOTH God and Man. Proceeding from this central claim are many other important understandings about God, the human person, our relationships with one another, life, death and the meaning of our lives. I propose that there is an asymmetry that must be grasped if this entire discussion concerning whether married men should be admitted to candidacy for the priesthood once again (in the Western Church) is ever to bear good fruit.

We should acknowledge that there already are married clergy in the Catholic Church. I am one. I have been happily married for thirty years with five children and a grandson! I am a Deacon, the first Order of Clergy in the Catholic Church. It is followed by Priest, and Bishop. The sacrament of "Holy Orders" unfolds itself through three stages as deacon, priest and Bishop. Each order of Clergy serves in a different way.

Deacons are ordained for the ministry of Word, Service and Sacrament. In the West, we are mostly married men who serve as an order of clergy in the midst of the world. We go from the altar and the ambo right into the world. We are ordained to manifest Christ the Servant.

Though in the early Church this order of Clergy, Deacon, was often a "terminal" order (meaning that men served as deacons for a long time, often for life) and never proceeded to ordination to the priesthood, in more recent centuries in the West, it fell into "disuse" and became a "transitional order", a step along the way to ordination to the priesthood. That was all changed by the Second Vatican Council.

The ancient practice of ordaining men to the Diaconate as a "permanent" rank of orders was resumed in the West. As a result, Deacons are once again flourishing in both the Eastern and Western Church. Because most "permanent" Deacons are married, they represent a growing body of married Catholic clergyman.

The decision for marriage in our lives was made before our ordination to the clerical state. It was a separate calling and invitation just as celibacy is to those who hear its call. Some deacons embraced the invitation to celibacy out of love for Christ, in sacrificial service and in prophetic witness to His bride the Church. Those of us who are married deacons promised to remain celibate should the Lord call our wives home before us on the day of our ordination.

In the Eastern Catholic Church, we have served as clergy in an uninterrupted line back to the first ordination of the "seven" recorded in the Acts of the Apostles. (See e.g. Acts of the Apostles, Chapter 6) Similarly, our brothers, called to priesthood in the Eastern Catholic Church, are both celibate and married. That's right. There have always been married Catholic priests! In the East, following the ancient tradition of the unified Catholic Church, the decision for state in life (married or celibate) was made prior to ordination to the first order, the Deaconate.

Even though there were always married priests, it quickly became the custom (and still is the practice) to choose Bishops from among the celibate clergy.

In addition to these Eastern Catholic married priests, a growing number of ministers from other Christian communions, embracing full communion with the Catholic Church, are being ordained to both the Deaconate and the Priesthood as married men through what has been called the "Pastoral Provision.". One would not know any of this if your only sources of information were the editorials and articles in newspapers, the discussions (good and bad) on talk shows, or the simplistic recounting of the history (as well as the canonical status) of the discipline and witness of consecrated celibacy in the Catholic Church.

I believe that in the beautiful unbroken witness of the Church, the "two lungs" of East and West (as Pope John Paul II referred to them), is found the path to this discussion. It is not "either or" but "both and." There is room in the Catholic Church and the priesthood for a celibate and a married clergy, both deacons and priests. As the unbroken tradition of the East has shown, both celibacy and marriage are a response to the invitation to holiness that is the Christian life. They are both a participation in the one nuptial mystery of following Jesus Christ in the universal call to holiness, the baptismal vocation of sacrificial love.

Now that both celibate and married men have responded to the invitation to the first order of Clergy in the West, the order of Deacon, since it's reinstitution by the Second Vatican Council, the Roman Catholic Church has a history and lived pastoral witness of how mature married men can fruitfully serve as clergy. I believe that this should be carefully considered, with prayer and pastoral prudence, as the discussion of opening the order of priests is considered. I do not hold this position as a question of "dissent", I am a faithful, orthodox, Catholic Christian. I will accept the direction of my beloved Church on this issue as she follows the Lord.

I have read many recent articles on this vital issue in which the authors adamantly oppose any consideration of changing the discipline in the West to re-open the order of priests to married candidates. They seem to imply that it would mean the end of the celibate clergy. I think this is an overreaction and misses the point.

In the East, the admission of married men to the priesthood has not diminished or done away with the witness of the celibate clergy; the wonderful prophetic sign of, and vocation to, celibacy flourishes. I believe that this would also be the case in the West.

This is one more reason that I support the reinstitution of allowing married men to enter the candidacy to the order of priest. Yes, such a consideration must be approached with pastoral prudence and, once again, I fully support my Church if it is her decision to NOT open this issue for consideration at this time. However, the discussion needs to be presented in the context of solid, faithful theological and pastoral reflection and within the witness of the two thousand year experience of the Church.It is not a question of "liberals" versus "conservatives".

We need a renewal of good, solid, faithful teaching to all the faithful, lay and clergy, concerning the dignity of the human person and the beauty of human sexuality. Perhaps more than any Pope in history, John Paul II laid the groundwork for this kind of prophetic and profound renewal. The content of his teachings (compiled among other places in a volume entitled, "The Theology of the Body") on human sexuality should become the framework for this catechesis and the foundation for all catechetical instruction within the Church including in our Seminaries. This would result in healthy marriages, happy families and holy celibate vocations and communities. It would lay the groundwork for a genuine flourishing of holiness throughout the Church that could change the culture.

The call to consecrated celibacy must be presented as the sacrificial giving up of the good for the better! Therefore, marriage in Christ must also be presented as a vocational call to gospel life! Chastity must be presented as binding on all the faithful and practiced in accordance with one's state in life. Additionally, the classical "evangelical counsels" of poverty, chastity and obedience, too long considered only possible for "religious", should be re-presented as the building blocks of the universal call to holiness.

The nature of the Church as both from above and below, as a communion with God in Christ, and in Christ with one another, for the world, must be re-presented and work its way into models of governance that recognize that the Church belongs to Jesus Christ and is a communion. Further, that we have all been invited into its governance through differing kinds of participation. Both the hierarchy and the lay faithful are called to serve in her one mission in differing ways. Without sacrificing the great gift of the hierarchy and the irreplaceable role and gift of the Magisterium (the teaching office) with some newly concocted "democratic" model, the lay faithful should be invited into the leadership of those areas where they can most fruitfully serve the one work of the Church.

The principles of dynamic orthodoxy, a vibrant faithfulness to the Tradition and a freshness and openness to the Holy Spirit effecting change - not in doctrine but in certain disciplines - are not at odds with one another. They form an asymmetry that should guide us in the Third Millennium and its unique challenges. As the Conclave gathers to hear the Holy Spirit and allow the Lord to speak through them in choosing the next Pope, we need to clothe the entire process with our faithful and impassioned prayer. These Cardinals are the instrument through which God's will is soon to be revealed.

We need to hear a vision for "vocations" which emphasizes that all baptized Christians are missionaries and that every Christian should listen for and respond to the "voice" of the Lord, in differing but complimentary ways. We need to teach that the universal call to holiness is normative and binding on all men and women in accordance with their state in life. Without lessening the precious role of the call to perfection that is the priesthood and the great witness and gift of consecrated celibacy, marriage and family life in Christ should be presented as a sacrificial calling and vocation.

Deaconate in Christ should be fostered, matured and presented as a vocation.

The young people who spoke to the ABC reporter shortly after the death of Pope John Paul II are a sign of hope that the Lord is watching over His Church. They stood, rooted in the blessed tradition of their Church, faithful to unchangeable doctrine, yet stretching toward the future. One of Pope John Paul's expressions that he would use when addressing the youth was to remind them that "Christ is forever young." Perhaps it is time to re-examine whether married men should, once again, be invited to pursue a vocation to the order of priests?

Let us pray for the next occupant of the Chair of Peter. May he follow in the footsteps of Christ as so beautifully trod by John Paul II and "Be Not Afraid."


Deacon Keith Fournier is a Deacon of the Roman Catholic Diocese who also serves the Melkite Greek Catholic Eparchy with permission. He is a graduate of Franciscan University of Steubenville, the John Paul II Institute of the Lateran University and the University Of Pittsburgh School Of Law. He is an author, a human rights lawyer, policy activist and the founder of Common Good. He serves as the Senior Editor for catholic Online and a Contributing Editor for Traditional catholic Reflections and Reports.


Third Millennium, LLC VA, US
Deacon Keith Fournier - Deacon, 757 546-9580




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