By Msgr. Owen F. Campion
In mid-August I concelebrated the funeral Mass for a longtime friend. Among the other clergy present was the pastor of a Ukrainian Catholic parish.
Ukrainian Catholics are in every respect members of the Church, and the Church recognizes them as such. They fully acknowledge the pope as the successor of Peter and head of the Church. They believe all that the Catholic Church teaches.
However, their liturgy was never in Latin. And most incidentals, such as priestly vestments and the design of churches, are different from those with which Roman Catholics are familiar.
For many people, the most obvious difference is that priests of the Ukrainian Church may be married. So, married men function as priests for Ukrainian Catholics, and they do so with every blessing of the Church.
Essentially, the difference between them and Catholics of the Roman tradition lies in history. Their ancestors were not evangelized by missionaries from Rome, as were the first Christians in France, Germany and Ireland, among other places. History unfolded differently.
Centuries ago, the Church of the Roman tradition adopted the custom, and then the mandate, that priests do not marry, and, indeed, under long-standing Church law, they may not marry unless the pope dispenses them from this particular rule.
Recent popes have dispensed many priests from the obligation of celibacy. However, no priest of the Roman tradition may function if he has been dispensed and has married, even though he is otherwise in the good graces of the Church.
For the past 50 years or so, successive popes have allowed Protestant clergy who are married and who then convert to Catholicism to seek ordination as Catholic priests and to serve as priests. The number of these cases is not that many, but wherever it occurs, it inevitably brings the question of why these former Protestant clergy can act as priests despite being married, whereas Catholic priests who marry, even with Church permission, cannot act as priests.
To answer this question it helps to understand the essence of the priesthood and the obligation of celibacy.
As the priests of the Ukrainian and other Eastern-rite churches, Christian history and the former Protestant clergy who become Catholic priests show, celibacy is not essential to the priesthood, and the Church has never said that it is essential. (Because of this, popes dispense priests from celibacy.)
However, the Church has maintained that for a priest’s spirituality, celibacy is a great value. The reason for celibacy is not just pragmatic, in that an unmarried priest would have more time to give to his ministry.
In this discussion, the most compelling point is that priests of the Roman tradition freely choose celibacy, and they voluntarily and solemnly pledge themselves to lifelong celibacy.
Seminary training is long and intensive, partly so that no man approaches the decision to be celibate without fully understanding its implications for him.
The Church wants candidates for ordination to choose celibacy because they wish to be celibate. Indeed, in the ritual itself of ordaining deacons, the sacramental step just prior to priesthood, the bishop asks the candidate outright if celibacy is his free choice. Before the bishop and congregation, the candidate responds that indeed it is.
By dispensing priests from celibacy, popes allow them to withdraw this pledge.
What about marriage vows? The Church cannot undo marriage vows validly made, because marriage is of divine origin. So, the Church honors the marriage vows of Protestant clergy who convert and are ordained as priests. It cannot ignore this vow or allow, let alone urge, these men to forsake their marriage vows.
However, if they are ordained priests of the Roman tradition, they vow not to remarry should their spouse die, thereby choosing celibacy should their circumstances change.
Msgr. Owen F. Campion is the associate publisher of Our Sunday Visitor. This column originally appeared in the Oct. 11 issue of OSV.