The Debunker: Can Catholic Priests Be Married?

by Ken Jennings

“Oh, my Luve’s like a red, red, rose / That’s newly sprung in June,” wrote Robert Burns, and while it’s always sad when a poet doesn’t know how to spell an easy word like “love,” it’s undeniably true that June is the most romantic month of the year. To this day, it’s the most popular month for Americans to get married, just ahead of August and May. We’ve asked Ken Jennings, the famous Jeopardy! champion and relationship guru, to puncture four matrimonial myths that have stuck around for years, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health. If you’re not ready to have all your marital misconceptions shattered, speak now or forever hold your peace.

The Debunker: Can Catholic Priests Be Married?

Last month, Pope Francis said for the first time that he might consider ending priestly celibacy. “The door is always open,” he told surprised reporters. “It is not a dogma of faith.” It’s true enough that, according to the Bible, many of the early apostles were married (Peter has a mother-in-law in Matthew chapter 8) and many priests were married over a period of a thousand years before the practice was finally banned by the First Lateran Council in 1123.

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So it’s been almost a thousand years since Roman Catholic priests were allowed to marry. Other denominations in full communion with Rome, like Ukrainian and Maronite Catholics, have married priests. But apart from these “Eastern rite” churches, priestly celibacy is the rule. It’s not widely known that there are also hundreds of married Latin rite priests worldwide. Where did they come from?

Through a loophole. After World War II, Pope Pius XII allowed several married Lutheran clergymen to continue to serve as priests after converting to Catholicism. Presbyterian and Methodist clergy have made the switch under a similar exemption. Finally, in 1980, the door was opened to Anglican and Episcopal priests, and today there are at least 80 married Catholic priests in America. At the moment, these married priests aren’t usually allowed to be pastors of parishes—but who knows, that could change. “The door is always open,” as Pope Francis has said.

Quick Quiz: In 1523, who struck a blow against priestly celibacy by marrying Katharina von Bora, a nun whom he had smuggled out of her convent in a barrel of herring?

Ken Jennings is the author of six books, most recently his Junior Genius Guides, Because I Said So!, and Maphead. He's also the proud owner of an underwhelming Bag o' Crap. Follow him at ken-jennings.com or on Twitter as @KenJennings.