The Question of the Ordination of Lay Men and Women to the Priesthood in the Catholic Church

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The Ordination of Married Men

The Latin Rite and the Eastern Rites of the Catholic Church follow different rules with respect to celibacy. In the Latin Rite, married men may be ordained to the deaconate, but not to the priesthood and the episcopate. Marriage after ordination to any of the three orders is both illicit and invalid. The Church can grant a dispensation allowing those who have been ordained to marry. However, Canon Law requires that a person who has been granted a dispensation to marry after ordination be "laicized," meaning that he will no longer be allowed to exercise any of the functions of Holy Orders.

In recent years and decades, there have been exceptions to the Latin law of celibacy. An increasing number of married non-Catholic priests and ministers who have converted to Catholicism and have sought to become priests have been granted special permission to be ordained and function as Roman Catholic priests in North America and Europe.

In general, the Eastern Catholic Rites follow a different tradition from that of the Latin Rite. In the Eastern Rites, married men may be ordained both to the deaconate and to the priesthood, but not to the episcopate. However, widowers may become Bishops. No marriage is allowed after ordination to any of the three orders.

While the above is true for most of the Eastern Catholic Rites, for some of them Western-style celibacy has become the rule as a result of strong Latin influence. In the Syro-Malabar Rite, priests must be celibate. This had also become the rule for the Syrians in 1888, and for the Copts in 1899, except in the case of converts from Orthodoxy. The Abyssinians also require priestly celibacy, but Bishops may grant a dispensation.

Another major exception to the Eastern Catholic tradition is the restriction that has been imposed on clerical marriage in the Americas and Australia. In 1929, the decree _Cum data fuerit_ prohibited the ordination of married men to the priesthood in the Americas and Australia. One lamentable result of this decree was the schism of a large number of Eastern Rite Catholics affect by it.

Since this decree has been issued, there have been attempts on the part of the Eastern Catholic Rites affected by it to have it repealed in order to be able to practice the Eastern tradition of ordaining married men. However, these efforts have not been successful.

But in spite of this, some Eastern Catholic Bishops in North America have been able to obtain married priests, partly through immigration, and partly by taking trained seminarians to Europe for ordination, and bringing them back for service. Apparently, married priests who were sent abroad for ordination are considered to be "on loan" in North America, and therefore they do not require a special dispensation from the Holy See.

Babych, Art.  "Ukrainian bishop fights to hold eparchy." _National
Catholic Reporter_ 24 September 1993: 7.
Babych, Art.  "Lawsuit filed as two bishops battle for see." _National
Catholic Reporter_ 4 Feb 1994: 8.
"Celibacy, Canon Law of."  _New Catholic Encyclopedia_.  1967 ed.
"Celibacy, History of."  _New Catholic Encyclopedia_.  1967 ed.
Fichter, Joseph.  _The Pastoral Provisions--Married Catholic Priests_. 
Kansas City: Sheed & Ward, 1989.
"On File." _Origins_.  vol. 5.  1976.  p. 694.

Letter of the Five Archbishops

When the Church of England decided to ordain women, a large number of Anglicans decided to convert to Catholicism, though it would be greatly inaccurate to suggest that women priests were the only reason why these faithful desire to come into full communion with Rome. Among those who are making the journey to the Catholic Church are married former Anglican priests, many of whom have expressed a desire to become Catholic priests. The Holy See has announced its willingness to allow the ordination of these men as married Roman Catholic priests. This file contains a letter (June 29, 1995) written by the five Archbishops of England and Wales to all the priests of England and Wales in order to explain this new situation.

Text of the Letter of the five Archbishops of England and Wales

Dear Father,

At the Low Week meeting of the bishops' conference, it was unanimously agreed to send the following message to all the priests of England and Wales:

"At the present time the Catholic Church is welcoming into full communion a number of married clergymen of the Church of England, often together with their wives and in some cases their children. We, the bishops of England and Wales, are of one mind in our desire to welcome them.

"Many of these clergy wish to be ordained priests in the Catholic Church. We are engaged in discerning God's will for each of them. We are convinced that their ministry will enrich the church.

"With the full approval of the Holy See, arrangements will shortly be in place in this country for considering the application for the ordination to the priesthood of these former married Anglican clergy. Permission for each ordination has to be given by the Holy Father, but in these new circumstances the procedures leading to his decision have been entrusted to this bishops' conference.

"The Holy Father has asked us to be generous. We are confident that you also will welcome and appreciate these new priests when, in due course, they begin to serve in different capacities in the life and mission of the church."

This message will shortly be included in diocesan pastoral letters to all the faithful. But at this important moment in our history and at the request of the bishops' conference, we want to send in advance to you, our priests, this special word of encouragement and explanation.

Much has been said in recent years about the movement of Anglicans into full communion with the Catholic Church. Clearly many such people have long sought to lead a Catholic life within the Church of England, and they have become convinced that only full, visible communion with the Catholic Church can ensure this. Clergymen among them, whether married or single, have meantime faithfully observed the disciplines of the Church of England, and this has tested their sense of vocation to ministry.

Out of respect for that ministry, we have set in motion the process of discernment necessary for them to go forward to ordination to the priesthood. Where this process concerns married men, it will mean quite new responsibilities for our bishops' conference. This means that in the near future married priests will take their place in the presbyterate of many of our dioceses. They will not be the first examples of this, as in the last few years there have already been several cases. Yet the presence of these married priests, as distinct from the steadily increasing number of married deacons, undoubtedly does raise a number for sensitive issues.

There may be some people who think of this development as the beginning of a process of change affecting the church's discipline of celibacy. We do not see it this way. The special permissions needed in these cases are by way of exception from the general practice of the Western church of accepting only single men for priesthood. Each permission is reserved to the Holy Father and is granted out of recognition of the particular journey of faith into full communion. It is a journey which has included the discernment and reception of orders within a church with which we share much and which, of course, permits the marriage of its clergy. But each candidate has to accept the general norm of celibacy and will not be free to marry again. It is to be understood that the special procedures involving the bishops' conference in the admission of former married Anglican clergy to the priesthood will be operative for four years only.

These men, with their wives and families, are in quite a different situation from that of married laymen or married deacons within the Catholic Church who may have a desire for ordination to the priesthood. In our consideration of this question, we have been aware also of the situation of those ordained priests who have left their priestly ministry and are now married. We recognize that when married former Anglicans are admitted to the priesthood, the pain of difficult decisions and losses will be reawakened in those priests who left the priesthood to marry. We hope that you will help those who left the priesthood to marry with your friendship, understanding and support.

In fact, the circumstances of those who have left the exercise of their priestly ministry in the Catholic Church are not the same as those of the married former clergy of the Church of England. We have a duty to respect and support these latter in their fidelity to the marriage promises to which they have committed themselves prior to their asking to become Catholic priests. In practice these two vocations, marriage and priesthood, are probably not easy to hold together for either spouse, so this again calls for understanding and support.

A married priest, with wife and family, needs a different level of financial support from that of his celibate colleagues. Many of these men who are now seeking full communion are making startling sacrifices. They are not expecting a large income. Yet we must be realistic and imaginative in the arrangements we make. We ask that you cooperate generously in the proposals which will be suggested and discussed with you when the time arises.

Your welcome will mean much to these new priests. The experience of a diocesan presbyterate is one of the great strengths of the priesthood in the Catholic Church. We are sure that our presbyterate will in fact be strengthened and enriched by its new members. They will be working in many different capacities, but certainly not excluding parochial duties and responsibilities. As you probably know, they will not be given the full canonical status of a parish priest at the present time.

We would also like you to know that our discussions of these matters with the Holy See over the last few years have been most constructive and encouraging. For us it has been a positive experience of cooperation in which our judgment has been sought and trusted. We are grateful for this. The Holy Father himself has been personally involved and, seeming to sense in this an important historical moment, has shown exceptional generosity to those earnestly seeking life in the Catholic Church.

We commend these important developments to your earnest prayers that we may all have the guidance of the Holy Spirit in these developments of such importance to our church. Our duty, readily undertaken, is to pass on to you this encouragement and exhortation from the Holy Father. Be generous. We are confident that in being so we shall all be enriched.

Cardinal George Basil Hume
Archbishop of Westminster

Archbishop Derek Worlock
Archbishop of Liverpool

Archbishop Michael Bowen
Archbishop of Southwark

Archbishop Maurice Couve de Murville
Archbishop of Birmingham

Archbishop John Aloysius Ward
Archbishop of Cardiff

June 29, 1995
The text of this letter is presented here as it appeared in _Origins_, July 27, 1995 (145-6).

Statutes for the Admission of Married Former Anglican Clergymen into the Catholic Church


1.1 These statutes are drawn up by the Bishops' Conference of England and Wales in the light of the directives given by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (cf. letter to Cardinal Hume of Dec. 22, 1994, DF 142/93). They come into effect one month after receiving approval from the Holy See and shall remain in force for a period of four years from that date.

1.2 These statutes take account of the particular situation that has arises in England since the decision of the Synod of the Church of England to ordain women to the priesthood. A considerable number of former Anglican clergy, both single and married, have been or are in the process of being received into full communion in the Catholic Church, and many of them wish to be ordained as priests in the Catholic Church. In responding to these requests a number of factors have to be born in mind, including the manner in which these clergy can best serve the people of God in different dioceses and the ways in which adequate financial support can be provided.

1.3 The bishops' conference will keep this situation under constant review during the next four years.

1.4 The bishops' conference reaffirms its commitment to the law of celibacy in the Latin church.

The Commission

2.1 Three bishops shall be nominated by the bishops' conference to serve as the commission for dealing with requests for ordination from married former Anglican clergy.

2.2 The president of the commission approved by the Holy See is to act as the ecclesiastical delegate for relations with the Holy See.


3.1 Once the candidate has been received into full communion, the diocesan bishop may receive a petition for admission to orders and forward it to the commission. In doing so the bishop will provide the necessary documentation (cf. enclosures). In addition he will provide:
-- His _votum_ on the suitability of the candidate.
-- His _votum_ on the opportuneness of his admission and incardination into the diocese.
-- His proposals for the program of preparation to be followed by the candidate.
-- The pastoral duties to be entrusted to the candidate after ordination.

3.2 In coming to its decisions the commission will take note of the following:

a) Suitability of Candidate

b) Opportuneness of Admission and Incardination c) Studies and Formation d) Pastoral Duties e) Time and Manner of Ordination 3.3 When the examination of the petition has been concluded, the commission shall give its _votum_ on the case, indicating affirmative (with eventual conditions attached), negative or _casus examini Sanctae Sedis subiciatur_. If the decision is negative, the sponsoring bishop is free to appeal to the Holy See (via the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith).

3.4 The commission shall refer to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith the following cases:

a) Those of former Anglican bishops who ask for some form of recognition of their previous episcopal status.

b) Those which involve a request for ordination _sub condicione_.

c) Those of any groups who wish corporate reconciliation.

3.5 For those who have exercised episcopal ministry within the Anglican Communion, out of consideration for their previous dignity, the competent authority (the commission or the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith) shall judge the appropriateness of proposing to the Holy Father the concession of priestly ordination alone.

3.6 The liturgical formulas in those cases in which priestly ordination alone is conferred and in cases of ordination _sub condicione_ shall be decided beforehand by the Holy See.

3.7 In cases reserved to the Holy See, the commission shall transmit all the documentation to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which will add its own recommendation.

Reference to the Holy See

4.1 The cases decided by the commission shall be presented by its president to the Holy Father through the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which will add its _visum_.

4.2 The president of the commission shall present a report to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith at the end of every year on the cases received and decided as well as on the general situation.

These statutes were approved by Pope John Paul II on June 2, 1995.

The text of the Statutes is presented here as it appeared in _Origins_, July 27, 1995 (147-8).

The position of Catholic married laymen and Ordination

The married Catholic layman whose spouse is living cannot, it seems, have a vocation until she is dead.

The Question of Ordination of Women in the Catholic Church

The Catholic Church - of all Rites, together with the Orthodox Christians, has always reserved Ordination to men alone; although it is clear enough that women figured prominantly in the early Church.

Again, Jesus revealed his true identity first to the Samaritan women and his Resurrection also to the women

When the Church of England first mooted the idea it was too often the subject of ribald humour, or else was associated with a rampant feminism.

It is traditional in Vatican documents to express a tone of astonishment that matters which have been decided by papal authority are still being debated.

It remains true, also, that for many Catholics the decision that women cannot be ordained to Holy Orders is difficult to accept, in good conscience.

The Teaching of the Catholic Church can be found, detailed, in the following documents: