The Catholic church may yield on celibate priests

Pope Francis has set up a panel to study whether women could serve as deacons, a role now reserved to men.
Pope Francis has set up a panel to study whether women could serve as deacons, a role now reserved to men. Associated Press

The bishops, and other representatives, of the nine countries that comprise the Amazon region of South America met recently in the Vatican to discuss the needs of the Catholic Church in their part of the world. At the conclusion of their meetings, a report was submitted to Pope Francis that contains a number of recommendations, most notably the request that viri probati, mature married men, be eligible to be ordained priests for the remote areas of the vast regions that rarely see a priest. Since the pope had signaled some time ago that he would honor such a request, authorization is likely.

Could this be the wedge that will pry open the gate to a more universal married Catholic priesthood, a gate that was slammed shut for the Western church a thousand years ago? Some Catholics hope so. Others believe that negating what they reverence as the precious witness of priestly celibacy would be a great loss to the Church.

As one ordained a priest for the Diocese of Brooklyn, New York in 1959 and who ten years later left the ministry in order to marry, I’ve been around this issue for a long time. In fact, a generation ago I wrote a book on the topic, highlighting the organizations that had sprung up with the objective of promoting a married priesthood. For a number of years, large numbers of Catholics, especially from the ranks of the thousands of us who had resigned from ministry, felt that change was just around the corner. With our wives and growing families, we attended conferences at which speakers presented theological and pastoral reasons why a married clergy was desirable — and inevitable.

Decades passed. Conservative popes not only were unsympathetic to a married priesthood but were uneasy with the changes that had already been authorized. The season of hope that followed the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), was followed by retrenchment. Gradually, the groups promoting a married priesthood lost momentum, members, and hope. In their publications, increasing amounts of space was devoted to obituaries as the pioneer generation passed from the scene.

Will married priests in the Amazon revive movement and motivate a new generation of American men to step forward and speak up, men who would love to be priests — with their wives at their sides?

But wait a minute!

No sooner had the reforms of Vatican II triggered hopes for a married priesthood than the Women’s Movement in the broader society transformed the consciousness of many Catholic women. They asked what until then had been unthinkable: Why can’t there be women priests? The ordination of women to the priesthood in the Episcopal Church served as a model and precedent. Women began to accuse those advocating a married male priesthood with sexism.

As head of a worldwide church, Pope Francis is walking a tightrope that has an electric current running through it. He is challenged with the task of reforming the Church without alienating so many that a schism is precipitated. Not only are many Catholics in the United States opposed to a married priesthood – and most definitely to women priests — but whole nations in Africa and Asia are profoundly conservative.

And those far off countries have an impact on the Church here. Whereas the United States has a priest shortage, countries like Nigeria, India, and Vietnam are producing a surplus. American dioceses, including Raleigh and Charlotte, short on local vocations, welcome priests from such countries to staff their parishes.

What lies ahead?

Of course, the whole structure of a celibate male clergy could collapse in a few years like a house of cards. However, it’s more likely that the Amazon will see a smooth transition to a married priesthood. Bishops in other regions of the world will request the same permission. In time, the rule will become universal. A few decades from now, Catholics will scratch their heads, wondering what the fuss was all about.

William F. Powers lives in Chapel Hill. He is the author of Free Priests: The Movement for Ministerial Reform in the American Catholic Church, and Tar Heel Catholics: A History of the Catholic Church in North Carolina.