The vow of clerical celibacy, where men who take Holy Orders relinquish their right to marry in order to devote themselves completely to the Church, is one of the most well-known aspects of the priesthood. However, most people haven’t heard of these little-known Catholic priests that are allowed to married.
“Clerics are bound to celibacy which is a special gift of God by which sacred ministers can adhere more easily to Christ with an undivided heart and are able to dedicate themselves more freely to the service of God and humanity.” – Code of Canon Law 277 §1
In the very earliest years of the Church, the clergy was comprised of largely married men. The earliest reference to forbidding clerics to marry comes from a document written at the Synod of Elvira circa 305-306 A.D.
“It is decided that marriage be altogether prohibited to bishops, priests, and deacons, or to all clerics placed in the ministry; whoever does this shall be deprived of the honor of the clerical office.” – Canon 33, Synod of Elvira circa 305-306 A.D.
Starting from the Fourth century, clerical celibacy became the norm as a form of spiritual discipline and functioned to ensure the independence of the Church. Today, the charism of celibacy has been held and reaffirmed by the Church as a priceless gift from God. However, because clerical celibacy is an ecclesiastical law and not a doctrine, exceptions can be made by order of the Pope.
In 1980, Pope Saint John Paul II issued a document from the Holy See through the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith that set up the “Pastoral Provision” concerning Roman Catholics converting from the Anglican tradition.
Under the pastoral provision, clergy from the Episcopalian or other Anglican traditions can convert to Catholicism and remain married. These married priests and their parishes under the pastoral provision were entered into the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of Saint Peter in 2017, also known as the North American Ordinariate.
Along with Anglican traditions, the Eastern Catholic Churches typically allow the ordination of married men. In June of 2014, Pope Francis rescinded a long-standing decree that these married priests from the Eastern Catholic tradition could not serve outside their home rites, allowing for married priests to minister in North America and elsewhere.
When asked about possibly changing the Church’s position on clerical celibacy, Pope Francis said that “optional celibacy is not a solution.” Currently, the two possibilities that allow for married priests within the Church are Anglican-converts and Eastern Catholic priests. However, Pope Francis has said he would think about the possibility of letting viri probati , married clergy, in remote areas that have few priests.
“We have to think about whether viri probati are a possibility. Then we must also determine what tasks they can take, for example, in remote communities.”