A priest with grandchildren; a question on tattoos

By Jenna Marie Cooper

Question Corner

Q: My new parish priest's wife died before he became a priest. He sometimes even talks about his grandchildren during the homily. Why is this allowed? He obviously wasn’t always celibate, and I thought priests had to be celibate? (Portland, Maine)

A: Latin Rite Roman Catholic priests are, indeed, expected to be celibate. As canon 277, 1 of the Code of Canon Law tells us, they are “obliged to observe perfect and perpetual continence for the sake of the Kingdom of heaven and are therefore bound to celibacy. Celibacy is a special gift of God by which sacred ministers can more easily remain close to Christ with an undivided heart and can dedicate themselves more freely to the service of God and their neighbor.” A quick note on terminology: in canon law, continence means refraining from all sexual relations, while celibacy refers to being unmarried. Chastity, a term not mentioned in this canon, means expressing one’s sexuality in ways appropriate to one’s state in life or refraining from sexual activity if one is a member of the clergy, in religious vows, or single.

However, priestly celibacy is not a retroactive requirement. Provided that he is otherwise suitable, a man can be ordained to the priesthood if he is presently unmarried and willing to commit to a life of chaste celibacy going forward -- even if he had been previously married or is a father to children. Of course, if a previously married man aspires to the priesthood, and generally during his formation period, there will be additional, careful discernment concerning any possible family obligations he may have (e.g. men with minor children are generally not admitted to seminary formation because, in such a case, he would already have serious preexisting obligations as a natural father).

Incidentally, married Catholic clergy are not quite as extraordinary as you might expect. Permanent deacons, while not priests, have still received the sacrament of Holy Orders and are, therefore, still considered clergy; and most of the permanent deacons we have in the United States are married men. The various Eastern Catholic Churches have a tradition of married priests. There is also a pastoral provision that allows former Anglican priests and Lutheran clergy who have converted to Catholicism to discern a vocation to the Catholic priesthood, allowing for the possibility of their ordination even if they are married.

But one major caveat in this discussion is that, while it can be possible to ordain already-married or once-married men, a man cannot validly marry after he has been ordained. This means that married Eastern Catholic priests, permanent deacons, or previously married Latin rite priests, cannot re-marry if their wife dies. In the case of your pastor, a widowed man who later becomes a priest obviously would not be allowed to marry again.

Q: Is a tattoo a good way to develop a devotion to Our Lady? (Madison, Wisconsin)

A: Tattoos are certainly not one of the Church’s devotions. Mutilation of one’s body is not laudable.  In canon law, if a man desires to become a priest or deacon, the fact that he has a tattoo may require him to obtain a written dispensation in order to receive and to then exercise Holy Orders.

That being said, the concept of whether a tattoo could be useful for a specific lay person to develop a devotion to Our Lady depends on that particular individual; his or her particular life circumstances and cultural context; their personal spirituality; and his or her unique spiritual needs. - - -

Jenna Marie Cooper, who holds a licentiate in canon law, is a consecrated virgin and a canonist whose column appears weekly at OSV News. Send your questions to [email protected].