Tomorrow there will be a Vatican meeting to discuss mandatory celibacy after the renegade Archbishop Milingo ‘ordained’ four married men. Pope Benedict has called a meeting to discuss the implications of Milingo’s actions. I expect Rome will take a hard line and continue to insist on mandatory clerical celibacy. To do anything else would look like they were actually taking Milingo and his band of activists seriously wouldn’t it?

On the other hand, could the Pope actually be considering a change in the rules? As I am a married man–about to be ordained and celebrate my first Mass exactly one month from today–I’m not a little interested in the question. There are already over 200 married former Anglican priests who are now Catholic priests. The Eastern rite Catholic churches have married priests. It’s possible. If Rome were to change the rules what are the options?

1. Maybe Rome will allow ‘viri probati’ to be ordained. ‘viri probati’ are respectable, older married men. Probably not. This option was rejected by a synod of bishops in 2005.

2. The Church will allow priests to apply for a dispensation from their vow of celibacy to marry. This is very unlikely.

3. Perhaps Rome will allow dispensations from the vow of celibacy by priests who left to get married. As far as I understand, this would be possible as long as each individual case were examined, the priest was laicized properly and there was no scandal associated with his marriage.

4. Married deacons may be dispensed from the vow of celibacy to be ordained as priests. This could happen, but it would undermine the already existing ministry of the permanent deacons and the whole concept of the permanent diaconate would have to be re-examined. Furthermore, permanent deacons have not been trained for priestly ministry–many would need to be re-trained.

The whole question of mandatory celibacy is worth studying. Donald Cozzens’ new book tries hard to be balanced, but can’t help pushing an agenda. At the other end of the argument is Cochini’s book Apostolic Origins of Priestly Celibacy. A good summary of this line of argument is Fr Ray Ryland’s (himself a married former Episcopal priest) recent article in Crisis magazine.

Cochini’s book makes a strong case for celibate priesthood being the norm far earlier than the twelfth century. On the other hand, Cozzens shows that not only priests, but numerous bishops and popes were not only married, but were actually canonized by the church.

At the end of the day several things have to be kept in mind. First, there are Scriptral arguments and ancient traditions on both sides. Second, neither side of the argument over mandatory celibacy must push to raise this issue from a discipline to a doctrine. Thirdly, if this is the case, Holy Mother Church has the authority to change the discipline as the Spirit leads.

Conservatives have to remember that things can change and do change. The Spirit does continue to lead the Church into the fullness of Truth. The life of faith is full of surprises. We have to be prepared to accept change and be open to the Holy Spirit’s lead. On the other hand, those who wish for change should remember that change that simply follows fashion is empty and vain. Who marries the spirit of the age will soon be a widow.

As for me…I face my own imminent ordination to the Catholic priesthood with fear and trembling. I am unworthy and ask, if you are reading this note, to pray for me.