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Wives of newly minted Catholic priests be careful

Wives of newly minted Catholic priests be careful

Sara Ritchey of the University of Louisiana, Lafayette, looks at the medieval tradition and the current state of Roman Catholicism and advises the wives of former Anglican clergy who become Roman Catholic priests to be very, very careful. Because underneath the doctrine of mandatory priestly celibacy is an understanding of human nature that fundamentally hostile to women.

Now as then, the church’s critics and defenders are rehashing arguments about the implications of having married priests in an institution that is otherwise wary of them. But in the midst of these debates, we should pause to ponder the environment that the priests’ wives might expect to encounter. After all, the status of the priest’s wife is perhaps even more strange and unsettling than that of her ordained Catholic husband….

It seems that the tangible reminder of the priest as a sexual being was, by this way of thinking, a danger to the integrity of the Sacrament itself.

…The priest’s wife was an obvious danger. Her wanton desire, suggested the 11th-century monk Peter Damian, threatened the efficacy of consecration. He chastised priests’ wives as “furious vipers who out of ardor of impatient lust decapitate Christ, the head of clerics,” with their lovers. According to the historian Dyan Elliott, priests’ wives were perceived as raping the altar, a perpetration not only of the priest but also of the whole Christian community.

And the family of the priest were seen as competitors to the material welfare of the Church:

The priest’s nuclear family was also seen as a risk to the stability of the church. His children represented a threat to laypersons, who feared that their endowments might be absorbed into the hands of the priest’s offspring to create a rival clerical dynasty. A celibate priest would thus ensure donations from the neighboring landed aristocracy. Furthermore, the priest’s wife was often accused, along with her children, of draining the church’s resources with her extravagance and frivolity. Pope Leo IX attempted to remedy this problem in the 11th century by decreeing that the wives and children of priests must serve in his residence at the Lateran Palace in Rome.

So, Ritchey says, in addition to the general disorientation that typical Roman Catholic congregants might experience, there is a long history of institutional and theological hostility towards women.

[Roman Catholic] priests’ wives should beware a religious tradition that views them, in the words of Damian, as “the clerics’ charmers, devil’s choice tidbits, expellers from paradise, virus of minds, sword of soul, wolfbane to drinkers, poison to companions, material of sinning, occasion of death … the female chambers of the ancient enemy, of hoopoes, of screech owls, of night owls, of she-wolves, of blood suckers.”


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Rod Gillis

Sara Ritchey has an interesting and compelling point of view. “Because underneath the doctrine of mandatory priestly celibacy is an understanding of human nature that fundamentally hostile to women.” I think celibacy is a product of hostility towards women’s sexuality, rather than the other way around. There are also traces of this in conservative Anglo-Catholicism, at least in my part of the world.

Chris Arnold

There have been Roman Catholic clergy with wives ever since Pope John Paul II’s “pastoral provision” in 1980 (and actually for 25 years before that). It would have been good for Ritchey’s op-ed to actually consult with these women to find out their experiences. As it stands, the piece is fearmongering.


From what I gather re Byzantine Catholic priests’ wives, their, um, fecundity IS expected.

If any of these Ordinariate priests’ wives are of child-bearing age, and aren’t cranking ’em out (esp if father IS lecturing the flock re “Welcoming Life” and the “Evils of Contraception”), woe unto her! O_o

JC Fisher

Chris Hansen

While I realise that all these things were said of priests’ wives when celibacy was not mandatory, I think that the Ordinariate will be different. The priests’ wives will probably socialise with each other, for example. I would be very surprised if there was much cross-communication between the Roman half and the Ordinariate. The Ordinariate was set up to be the Molokai of the Roman Catholic Church, to keep the leprous Anglicans from consorting with “real” Roman Catholics.

I will concede that there is still an official strain of thought among Roman Catholic moral theologians that virginity is somehow superior to the married state. But I don’t think that, theologically speaking, the fact that these former Anglican priests are married will affect the Romans’ view of the sacrament of Orders, which does not require celibacy.

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