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Clerical marriage
July 18, 2012, 5:56 pm
Filed under: Opinion

The first of four posts on this subject.

Should priests remain unmarried? That is a point of controversy between the Roman Catholic and Anglican traditions. Let us begin by summarising the legal position in each. In the Western (Latin) Catholic Church, a man may only be ordained to the priesthood or episcopate if he is (a) single, including the case where he has been widowed; and (b) has either taken a solemn promise to remain unmarried- in the case of diocesan clergy- or has taken vows in a religious Order where celibacy is part of the rule of life. The Eastern (Catholic and Orthodox) tradition allows a married man to be ordained to the priesthood, but if his wife predeceases him, he is not to marry again. All bishops must be unmarried. By contrast, Article XXXII of the Anglican Articles of Religion states that: “Bishops, Priests, and Deacons, are not commanded by God’s Law, either to vow the estate of single life, or to abstain from marriage: therefore it is lawful for them, as for all other Christian men, to marry at their own discretion, as they shall judge the same to serve better to godliness.”

There is no absolute inconsistency between these two positions, in that the Catholic teaching is not that it is a matter of Divine Law that priests be unmarried. It is a matter of ecclesiastical policy and legislation, somewhat different as between east and west, and in any case able to be dispensed from. The Anglican position is that the choice whether to marry or not is a matter for individual discretion, as may “serve better to godliness.”

So much for legal considerations. What about the theology of the Sacraments? As far as the Sacrament of Holy Orders is concerned, no-one maintains that marriage would invalidate the reception of the sacrament. If a bishop, deliberately or inadvertently, were to ordain a married man to the priesthood, or even to the episcopate, such an ordination would be per se valid, even if, under the legislation of the Church, it were unlawful and irregular. What about the reverse case: suppose a validly ordained priest or bishop were (notwithstanding any earlier promise or expression of intention) to decide to marry. Could he do so validly?

There is not an easy or obvious answer to this question. Clearly, if the priest or bishop in question were subject to the canon law of the western Church (and in the case of a bishop, the eastern church too), such a marriage would be unlawful. As to whether it would be invalid, that depends on how one conceives the Church’s power over the sacraments, and especially this sacrament.

(To be continued)

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