Pope Francis has made it clear that he opposes any change in the discipline of celibacy for Catholic priests. Except (as usual) he hasn’t really made it clear because he seems to favor allowing viri probati –older tested married men to be ordained. Some bishops in South America argue that in remote jungle regions the faithful must go without the sacraments for months or years because of the shortage of priests. Their communities are led by married deacons or catechists, and the bishops would like to ordain some of these men so the people will be provided with the sacraments.

I am told this conversation comes up in Rome on a regular basis and the pros and cons are discussed. I’m rather interested in the fact that no one has actually asked the existing married priests for their opinion…at least they haven’t asked this married priest how it is working out. Married convert priests from Anglicanism and the Lutheran church have been around now since the early 1980s. You would have thought that there might be a study done on how things are working out. I think Fr. Paul Sullins did a study from a sociological point of view, but that was his own initiative.

For the most part it seems Rome’s attitude is, “We’ve given you guys a dispensation now please be quiet and go away.” That doesn’t mean I’m campaigning for married priests. I’m not. But if the question keeps coming up you would have thought some folks in Rome might want to get us together and have a chin wag about it.

Folks might like to discuss the pros and cons. But from a practical point of view, I’ve discovered that for every argument in favor of married priests I can make an equal argument against and for every argument against, I can make a practical argument in favor.

So, for example, someone might say, “The celibate priest offers an example of a life that is meaningful and rich but which does not depend on sexual satisfaction. This person is a model and support for all people who are unmarried for whatever reason. He identifies with their problems, shares their loneliness and carries their cross with them.” 

OK. That’s beautiful, good and true. However, you might just as well say, “In this troubled age where marriage and family life are shipwrecked, the married priest and his wife and family provide a model of a truly blessed and fruitful sacramental marriage. Living in holy simplicity and by faith, they have welcomed a large number of children and together they serve the church and the church members have gathered together and given sacrificially to support their positively pro life priest. They have therefore supported and been a model for all the families in their parish.”

You see what I mean? And I could go on. The pros and cons are pretty much balanced.

Therefore it would seem to me that there should be a place for both married men and celibate men in the priesthood. It’s above my pay grade, but I don’t see why the Eastern Orthodox discipline could not be a good model. Celibate men belong to a religious order and live in community. Married men may be ordained and serve in parishes.

However, such a change would require the Catholic Church’s leadership to respond with creativity, courage and inspiration…not qualities I have found in abundance I’m afraid.

If this change does happen first in South America I expect it would soon spread. Other bishops would request permission to make exceptions for practical and pastoral reasons, and it would not be difficult to find excellent practical and pastoral reasons most anywhere in the church.

Take the United States for example, where, due to priest shortages we are increasingly reliant on priests from the developing world. These good men come to us as missionaries from Africa, India, the Philippines and South America. Is this fair? Don’t they need priests in those countries too? When they come here there are problems with language and cultural barriers. It would seem to me that bishops in the USA and Europe would have a very strong argument for making exceptions to the celibacy rule here too.

As a result, should a change be made delegating this decision to local bishops in the Amazon I can’t see why the provision would not be expanded. We saw this with the exceptions made for a group of married former Episcopalians in the early 1980s. The first Pastoral Provision was only for Episcopalians in the USA.  Once the Episcopalians were accepted the case was made for high church Lutherans, and once Lutherans were accepted some former Methodist ministers and even (I believe) one or two former Pentecostals and Baptists. Furthermore, in time the provision was expanded to include England, Australia, Canada–and now I think it is theoretically available globally.

Does this mean that the discipline of celibacy for priests is on the way out? I don’t think so. It is interesting that in the Anglican Ordinariate–while married converts may still be ordained, new candidates for the priesthood must observe the discipline of celibacy and married men who were not previously ordained are not eligible.

Will we see married priests in the Amazon as well as in America? Time will tell, and if it does happen it will not be a disaster. Of course there will be problems, but I think everyone would agree that having only celibate priests has also brought us a certain amount of challenges.