BEFORE anyone, priest or married man, celebrates the news that Pope Francis is open to the idea of married men being ordained as priests, thus partly lifting the celibacy ban among Catholic clergy, parse what the pope said.
Pope Francis is just asking for a debate, not changing the rule. The plan is limited to “married men of proven faith” (“viri probati”) in the Amazon region of Brazil. The compelling reason: shortage of priests there (1 priest per 10,000) with evangelical Christians and pagan sects displacing Catholicism.
A Muslim imam spelled out at a Cebu Citizens-Press Council (CCPC) 2006 forum on standards in covering priests and religious ministers that “s-e-x” is the primary cause of problems among the clergy. (Priests present merely laughed or smiled.) Libido wasn’t mentioned by the pope in raising the idea of partly lifting the rule on celibacy.
Yet celibacy -- the “vowed, perpetual state of refraining from sexual relations” that the religious and priests undertake -- is often blamed for sex scandals that rocked the Catholic Church: priests and bishops allegedly molesting the youth or consorting with women.
Despite steadfast opposition of conservatives in the Vatican, the church might soon confront the issue of sex among its clergy. In Africa, a bishop confirmed, many have mistresses and children: “a good number keep de facto families.”
The fact is, experts tell us, celibacy is not the rule for all Catholic priests. Among Eastern Rite Catholics, married priests are “the norm,” just as they are in Orthodox and Oriental Christian churches and Coptic Catholics. Married Anglican ministers who defected to Rome keep their marital status.
Who’s to judge?
If some priests are allowed, by implicit if not open approval, to get married or hook up with women or boys, why aren’t priests who can’t bear the burden of celibacy and yet still “search for the Lord.” Who is anyone in the Vatican to judge? A paraphrase of Pope Francis’s earlier pronouncement on gay priests, which offers some hope for priests who want to marry.
The parish, to be sure, may be critical, even unforgiving. Used to the single priest in a convent whose clothes line doesn’t hang women underwear and baby diapers, parishioners may be scandalized.
Still that may be preferable to the jaw-dropping over news or rumor that the priest is shacking up with a lay volunteer.
One sticky, if minor point: Parishioners can’t distinguish a priest from a bachelor on the prowl because most priests no longer wear the clerical collar. More confusion if and when they’re allowed to marry and don’t wear the nuptial ring: what sets apart the married from the single. Would the lay woman ask, “Father, single pa ka?”
Why has the pope encouraged the debate? We’re told that celibacy is not dogma but a disciplinary rule that can be discussed.
The talk, starting with the Catholic bishops of Brazil, may lead to a vote. Which can influence a Vatican exemption on sexual relations among their priests in that country’s hinterland. Which can lead to a review of the church-wide ban, against actual practice where a priest presides over the sacraments and beds with a lover afterwards.