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Opinion Pieces
December 9, 2006
Mixed Papal Signals About Married Priesthood?

By Joe Klock, Sr.


I think it's a safe bet that there are very few angels among freelance opiners such as yours truly, and fewer still who tread without fear on the subject area to follow.

That fear is not of physical harm, excommunication or eternal hellfire, although it's another safe bet that the latter two threats will be invoked by the same militant Catholic traditionalists who have taken me to the woodshed in the past.

What they will not do is deny these facts: That there is a critical shortage of Catholic priests and that nothing much is being done about it beyond exhorting the faithful to pray for an increase in vocations.

Meanwhile, an increasingly gray, gay or going away cadre of survivors bravely struggle to satisfy a record demand for sacramental services - and they are losing the battle throughout most of the world.

There are simply not enough men willing to commit to the celibate life required in order to qualify for ordination - and others need not apply.

At the time of Christ, and for more that half of the Church's history, a married clergy was acceptable; and for centuries after celibacy was mandated, there was an ample supply of  candidates.

During more recent years, that pipeline flow dwindled to a trickle, while defections increased dramatically. An estimated 150,000 priests opted for married life and smaller families diminished the earlier attractiveness of "giving at least one son to the Lord."

An obvious remedy, albeit not necessarily a total solution, would be permitting priests to marry and reactivating those already wed.

Throughout the extended papacy of John Paul II, these strategies found no favor in the Vatican, but Pope Benedict raised some hopes and eyebrows by recently convening top Curial officials to discuss the radical behavior of a renegade archbishop and the petitions of married priests for reinstatement.

African Archbishop Emmanuel Milingo first provoked controversy in 2001 by marrying a South Korean woman in a ceremony conducted by Reverend Sun Myung Moon of the Unification Church, a marriage he later renounced.

About three months ago, he was summarily excommunicated after consecrating four married men as bishops and forming a lobbying group called "Married Priests Now."

According to the Vatican press office, the November meeting sought "to examine the situation that has been created by the disobedience of Archbishop Milingo," as well as to consider the readmission appeals of "dispensed" (i.e., married) priests.

This was thought by some (wistfully, perhaps) to have signaled a willingness of Pope Benedict to open some dialogue on mandatory priestly bachelorhood.

In fact, the meeting closed with a strict reaffirmation of the Church's insistence on a celibate clergy.

A scant two weeks later, though, Brazilian Cardinal Claudio Hummes was named head of the Congregation For The Clergy - an office in charge of priests the world over.

What made this papal appointment remarkable was the fact that Hummes openly defines celibacy as "a discipline, not a dogma of the Church," noting that the majority of the apostles were married and adding that, "in this modern age, the Church must observe these things; it must advance with history."

Undeniably, Pope Benedict was well aware of the cardinal's position on the subject when the selection was made, reawakening speculation that the issue is still subject to review and revision.

Into the mix, I humbly throw a reminder that the Eucharistic Celebration is not only the centrality of Catholic practice, but the manifestation of what Jesus meant when he charged his apostolic delegates to "feed my sheep."

That feeding process requires shepherds, and since there is an insufficient number of male celibates to serve the flock, the "advance" cited by Cardinal Hummes must be pursued.

The argument that most parishes couldn't support a married priest's family might be countered by mobilizing a force of part-time ordinands who satisfy their economic needs with outside employment. (In some parts of the world, that custom is already in place.)

If married men are not the answer, how about a female clergy? Or empowering Deacons to celebrate Mass?

Aside: I read somewhere that "where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them."

Okay, I've had my say and I'm braced for the slings and arrows of those outraged traditionalists who didn't already bail out a few paragraphs ago.

This one suggestion, though: Instead of excoriating me, come up with a workable solution; the sheep desperately hunger for one! 

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