The Plight of Priest’s Wives


Catholic League president Bill Donohue comments on an op-ed in today’s New York Times by Sara Ritchey:

The Vatican recently announced that it is going to facilitate the process of allowing former Episcopal priests and congregations to enter the Roman Catholic Church as intact groups. “What will life be like for the wives of Roman Catholic priests?” asks Sara Ritchey. She is very worried about what will happen to these women, and ends her piece by advising that “it will be prudent for the Vatican to honor the dignity of the wives and children of its freshly ordained married priests.”

If Ritchey has evidence that married wives of Catholic priests have been brutalized, stigmatized or otherwise oppressed, she should play it. That there isn’t any is obvious. Indeed, there were married priests until the twelfth century, and no tales of woe about their wives have ever surfaced. Admittedly, Ritchey found a monk who made caustic comments about a priest’s wife. But he died in 1072. Surely even an assistant professor can do better than this.

In 1982, two years after the Catholic Church said Protestant clergymen who were married could become Catholic priests, the New York Times did a story about one of these priests and his wife. “Mrs. Parker,” the story said, “is a cheerful woman who said members of the women’s guild at Holy Trinity parish here ‘treat me just like anyone else.’” In 1993, there was an article in The Observerabout former Anglican priests who had converted to Catholicism in England, and again no complaints were reported. Indeed, as one wife put it, “If anything, I am more fulfilled now because my husband is so much happier.”

It is obvious that people such as Ritchey are really interested in having women ordained as priests—they oppose celibacy because they think it is an obstacle toward that end. Interestingly, on the opposite side of her op-ed is an editorial criticizing the Supreme Court ruling this week affirming the right of churches to determine its employment strictures. Had the decision gone the other way, lawsuits would have been flying charging the Church with discrimination for not allowing women priests. But the decision was unanimous, effectively closing the door. Looks like Ritchey’s pipe dream hasn’t got a prayer.


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  • Loud

    Im sorry, but are married pastors and ministers of protestant sects that are further away from the faith than Episcopalians and Anglicans allowed to be ordained as priests when they convert? Undoubtibly they would need more training, but is this something the Church allows? I think former protestent ministers should be able to, like how a married man can become a deacon. If not allowing priests to marry is only a pastoral law and there are some acceptible exceptions, then why couldn’t a more odrianry protestent minnister be one of them?

  • Until recently I worked in the formation program for permanent deacon candidates in my diocese. The candidates are usually married (a single man ordained a deacon can no longer receive the sacrament of marriage, but a man already married can be ordained a deacon), and the formation process goes out of its way to include the wives.

    The wife’s written permission is required at each milestone of the formation process (admission to candidacy, reception of the order of acolyte, ordination, and others), and the wives (and children) are carefully interviewed to make sure they are 100% on board with the process. Wives are encouraged (or required) to attend all retreats and milestone events with their candidate-husbands.

    If the Church is as solicitous with priest’s wives as she is with deacon’s wives, I’m sure there will be no problems.

  • noelfitz


    thank you for your post.

    It shows your solid Catholicism and good sense.

  • HomeschoolNfpDad

    People need to understand the origin of the Church’s solicitousness of the wives of its candidates to the diaconate. As it turns out, a celibate priesthood has always been the norm within the Church. So also celibacy in the admission to major orders. In the old days – and here I man the really, really old days of the first and second centuries – married men admitted to the major order of the diaconate needed the full consent of their wives before ordination because the expectation was that they would practice celibacy from the point of ordination forward. Several such men were no doubt admitted later to the priesthood and even the episcopate.

    That celibacy has always been a requirement of discipline and not formal doctrine should go without saying. But these aren’t ordinary times; most people who hear the word discipline tend to understand it as one option among many. But the Church has always thought of discipline as something serious. Nevertheless, most disciplines are optional – meaning that one almost always has the option of accepting the privilege with which the discipline is associated, or not accepting it. No one is obliged by the religious vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience except that he or she enters a religious order. No one is obliged to celibacy except that he enters a major clerical order. And of course, the legislator – meaning the Bishop, Pope, or Magisterium, depending on the specific discipline – may (or may not) choose to relax a specific discipline, as the Magisterium has clearly chosen to do with respect to the discipline of celibacy as it applies to permanent deacons.

    The challenge for married priests – and for married permanent deacon, for that matter – is that priesthood, diaconate, and husband and father are not jobs. None of these is something that one begins when clocking in at the local parish office nor ends when clocking out. One is always a priest, always a deacon, always a husband, always a father. Or else one is not. These are vocations that cannot ever be turned on or off. And so married men admitted to major orders always have to face the conundrum posited by St. Paul: “An unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how he may please the Lord. But a married man is anxious about the things of the world, how he may please his wife, and he is divided” (1 Cor 7:32-34). Anyone who has ever run roughshod over a conflict between work and family can relate to this, but again, neither priesthood nor diaconate is a job. Each is a vocation. And a man’s vocational obligations as priest or deacon are always in potential conflict with his vocational obligations as husband and father, if he is married. Each is a calling. If accepted, it cannot subsequently be refused. But sometimes the specific calls occur at exactly the same time. At that point, whom shall the priest serve: his injured penitent in dire need of confession or his injured son in dire need of a hug? Remember that these choices are not between job and family, the first of which carries temporal weight and the second eternal weight. Such choices, for a married man admitted to major orders, are always between something that carries eternal weight and something else that carries eternal weight. It is a difficult burden.

    Such men deserve our prayers, at minimum. More to the point, they deserve not to be made the subject of political discourse, as if they were mere pawns in a fight for worldly things. That is why the NYT op-ed is so nasty: it pretends that there is no difference between temporal and eternal things. Those of us who know better will always support our married clergy with prayer and sacrifice where needed.

    • HomeschoolNfpDad

      See , , and for a discussion on how clerical continence can apply to the order of the diaconate.

    • HomeschoolNfpDad

      Incidentally, the conundrum St. Paul posits in 1 Cor 7:32-34 applies equally to married Protestant clergy, if indeed they view their clerical state as a vocation and not a job. Think here of the scene in Courageous where the minister accepts the formal vows of the various married men to serve each his wife and family in the Lord. Such a minister, if he is married, must really believe that the needs of these other married couples are as important as his own needs as a married man (as the minister in that scene clearly does).

    • I did not know that in the old days Deacons were obliged to live with their wives as brother and sister. I know some saints have chosen to do so, as Friday, March 9’s Saint, Frances of Rome, chose to do with her husband (she had wanted as a girl to become a religious but married at her father’s wish).

      I have wondered in my Diocese’s Permanent Deacon program, if the new Deacon should not be encouraged to leave his career and take a job at his parish. One really is not a “part-time” Deacon. And our parish could really use, for example, an ordained liturgist (don’t tell our lay liturgist I said that!)

  • noelfitz

    As a matter of interest the Catholic Church allows married priests, in the Maronite, Ukrainian and Romanian rites. So former Anglical priests are not the only married Catholic priests.

  • HomeschoolNfpDad

    There’s nothing wrong about married priests, but being married and being a priest (or being a deacon). It’s just hard. And the Church has always elevated celibacy and virginity to a special dignity, ever since the early days. Mary is of course the model for virginity. Celibacy, though, has its roots in the Levitical priesthood, at least partially. Under Jewish law, the priest had to be ritually clean when undertaking his service in the Temple. The ritual cleanliness was required to enter the Holy of Holies. Part of being ritually clean meant abstaining from sexual relations with one’s wife during the period of service.

    From the very beginning, Catholics applied this notion of ritual cleanliness, except now the curtain has been ripped back from the Holy of Holies, and a Catholic priest can reasonably be expected to enter into the Holy of Holies (i.e. the Eucharist) every day. Celibacy is part of that, and with no curtain between the Holy of Holies and the priest — and because the priest was serving in the temple (i.e. the tabernacle of the Eucharist or the sanctuary) every day, celibacy was the only way to meet the requirement of ritual cleanliness inherited from Jewish practice.

    So it is rather interesting that the Church adopted celibacy as discipline rather than doctrine for men admitted to major orders. Still, a very good discipline. In the end, God really has to be sufficient for all of us — and for the priest in a special way in the here and now.

  • HomeschoolNfpDad

    One of the earliest episodes of relaxing the celibacy discipline for priests came in around the fifth or sixth century, when the abdication of the Western Emperor reduced the amount of centralized political control in the western provinces of the Roman Empire. What followed was a steady de-urbanization of the population in the West. Large numbers of people moved to the countryside to scrape out a living on the land. It became quickly apparent that families with several children had the best chance of coping with the difficulties that tend to arise with subsistence farming. As a natural phenomenon, this held equally for priests. And so priests were allowed to marry and have children – a concession to the need for survival.

    Indeed, this episode shows the prescience of the Holy Spirit (as if that were ever in doubt). A doctrine of priestly celibacy would have precluded such a concession to the needs of natural survival, but a discipline of celibacy can be sharpened or relaxed, as the needs of priests change over the years. Note here that it is the needs of the priests themselves which led to the relaxation of the celibacy discipline when Rome went country. This is perhaps why it would be unlikely to see a general relaxation of the discipline in the Latin Church today, unless it were spurred by a need intrinsic to the priestly state of life itself. Many argue for the need to let married men become priests due to the shortage. But a shortage of priests is the historical norm. The harvest has always been great and the laborers always few. A shortage of priests is therefore not an intrinsic problem of priestly life as the need for children and family as a survival mechanism was an intrinsic problem for priests after the Roman Emperor abdicated.

    The specific exception to the norm of celibacy for Anglican priests who convert to Catholicism is also an exception provided for a problem intrinsic to the priestly state itself. The exception applies to those converts who are already married and already priests when they convert. The exception demonstrates at least three things: 1) The Church recognizes Protestant matrimony as valid; 2) The Church offers some recognition for certain forms of Protestant ordination; 3) The Church acts primarily as a loving mother for those converts who are already married and already (in some contexts) ordained.