ROME—The most confusing detail about Pope Francis opening the door to married priests, as he did in a widely publicized interview with a German newspaper Die Zeit last week, is that it really doesn’t mean that priests can get married.
Instead, when asked what to do about the global shortage of priests, the pope said he would consider the study of whether older men who are already married and heavily involved in liturgical duties in certain diocese, could actually be ordained as priests so they could deliver the sacraments. These married men priests, he said, might be considered in rural areas of the world where there simply aren’t enough priests for every parish and where Catholics are underserved.
It should be noted that there is a big, big difference between priests courting, dating, marrying and honeymooning with new brides and older married men being ordained as priests.
In the wide ranging interview, Francis said, “We need to consider if 'viri probati' could be a possibility. If so, we would need to determine what duties they could undertake, for example, in remote communities.”
For the record, married priests already exist. Back in the 1980s, Pope John Paul II lifted the celibacy rule for married Anglican, Lutheran and Protestant priests who converted and were ordained as Catholic priests. Writing in Crux, Father Dwight Longenecker, a married Catholic priest in South Carolina who was an Anglican priest before being allowed to become a Catholic priest under Pope Benedict XVI, explains what is involved.
One of the biggest issues is also surprising: jealousy. Apparently, it is hard for priests’ wives to compete against God. “It takes a strong, independently-minded woman to be a priest’s wife,” Longenecker writes. “Furthermore, the close pastoral relationships that develop between a priest and his people can lead to jealousy, extramarital affairs and divorce. Those who advocate for married priests had better be prepared for unhappy priests’ wives, marriage breakdown and how to provide for priests and their wives when the marriage ends in divorce.”
Another concern is financial. Many priests take the vow of poverty, which isn’t always realistic in families. Consider as well that priestly accommodations and expenses are paid for by local parishes. How that would work with a big Catholic family (remember, married priests wouldn’t be allowed to use birth control) remains unclear.
“When most Catholics hear I am married they say, ‘Its about time. I think all our priests should be married.’ That’s when I remind them that a married man with a family will require not only a large house, but school fees, orthodontics, college and other expenses,” Longnecker writes. “You want married priests? Are you willing to pay an extra twenty five dollars a week to help support him?”
In fact, it was the finances that partially led the way to celibacy and non-married priests in the first place. For the first thousand years of the Roman Catholic Church, priests could be married in certain circumstances. But then priests started leaving their money and possessions to their children and not to the Church, which led Pope Gregory VII to issue a decree of celibacy in the 11th Century. “For nearly a thousand years a patchwork of rules applied in various places, some allowing married men to be ordained, but only if they agreed to abstain from relations with their wives, and so on,” according to an explainer on the website catholic.org. “It wasn't until the medieval period that the Latin Rite of the Catholic Church began to require priestly celibacy. In the 11th century, Pope Gregory VII issued a decree requiring all priests to be celibate and he expected his bishops to enforce it. The decree stuck and celibacy has been the norm ever since in the Latin Rite.”
Still, if Francis is so desperate to fill the vocation void, why doesn’t he consider ordaining women? There are scores of devout Catholic women who demand clerical equality.
Kate McElwee, co-executive director of the Women’s Ordination Conference, says that while she supports the idea of married priests, she thinks it takes away from the discussion of women’s roles in the Church. “A married priesthood would be a great step for heterosexual men, and another attempt to obscure the urgency for women's full equality in our Church,” she told The Daily Beast. “We know that many people in loving relationships would be and are wonderful ministers and we welcome changes that include more people in ordained ministries. However, this conversation simply does not go far enough, and at worst, ensures that women are the last priority.”
Last year, Francis created a commission to study whether women could become deacons, which many saw as the first step towards ordaining women as full-fledged priests. When asked about that in the Die Ziet interview, he said he would personally follow up on the commission’s work when they meet this month.
Changing the rules to allow the ordination of women is apparently far more complicated than changing the rules that allow married men to become priests. Women aren’t allowed to be priests in the eyes of the Church because, according to the Catholic Catechism, priests act in the image of the male Jesus Christ, and women can never fulfill that role. Celibacy, on the other hand, is a discipline and not a matter of Church dogma, meaning that a sitting pope could change the rules to essentially make celibacy a thing of the past.