Pope Francis made unsurprising headlines as a result of a recent airborne press conference, this time on January 27, on his way back from World Youth Day (see the full text here at Zenit). This subject is one that has picked a bit of steam as of late, and this often happens in the wake of revelations of sexual abuse by priests (as an aside, Peter Steinfels recent essay, “The PA Grand-Jury Report: Not What It Seems” is well worth reading, as it complexifies the seemingly simplistic charges leveled in broad brush strokes against the Catholic Church in the much-publicized grand jury report from last year). One argument that is put forward is that if men could discern a vocation to celibacy separately from discerning a vocation to the priesthood, there would be a lower rate of sexual abuse and sexual immorality amongst priests. The Pope’s thoughts on the subject of married priests in the Latin rite (and they are clearly no more than thoughts off the top of his head in response to a question) seem to lean toward an openness to ordaining older, married men in remote places where there is limited access to the sacraments.
A few things are worth considering here. First, news leads such as, “Pope Francis closed the door Jan. 27 on his making celibacy optional for all Catholic priests” are misleading. Obviously, nothing the pope says in such a context is official or binding (I’m tempted to add “irreformable,” but that would lend a kind of officialness to these comments that is entirely unwarranted). The electronic accessibility to every comments the pope makes in almost every moment of his life has the unfortunately consequence of elevating his every thought to “papal teaching” or “what the Catholic Church teaches.” And this is true for those both inside and outside the Church. Reporters frequently treats such comments as if they carry official weight. In an odd turn of events, more progressive Catholics find themselves engaging in their own form of ultramontanism, the kind that so often infuriated them about those on the right when they latched on to a letter or comment of Saint John Paul II or Benedict XVI. Thus, “who am I to judge” turns into an about-face by the Catholic Church and the Pope about homosexuality. While the Pope can amend canon law and thus change this practice, it is also true that the Pope’s comments on the subject are simply, as the Pope himself put it, “only my personal thought” (think of Benedict’s comments in the preface to his first book in the Jesus of Nazareth series about how we was giving his own opinion, not offering official teaching).
Second, the fact that Catholics priests in the various Eastern rites are able to marry (though this is complicated in the US) before being ordained (as well as when exceptions are made for former Anglican priests) highlights a key point: this question about married priests is one of discipline or “law” at the Pope put it in the press conference, not doctrine (or at least central doctrine). While there are doctrinal issues connected to celibacy, the fact that Eastern rite Catholics can have married priests, and the Eastern churches have maintained this practice and it has not been questioned in Rome’s dialogue with them, indicates that this is neither a matter of Faith nor Order.
But what this fact does highlight is a key sociological factor: the longer you have an enormous group of people who has done something in a certain way for a very long time, the harder it is to change. This is not to say that there are not good reasons to want to preserve the presence of celibate clergy. But I think the history of Eastern Christians indicates that this fear is probably not warranted. The sentence Pope Francis positively attributes to Saint Paul VI is telling on this point: “I prefer to give my life before changing the law on celibacy.” He goes on: “My decision is: optional celibacy before the diaconate: no. It’s something personal of mine; I wouldn’t do it. And this remains clear. It’s only my personal thought. Am I closed, perhaps? I don’t see putting myself before God with this decision…I don’t say it should be done, because I haven’t reflected on it, I haven’t prayed sufficiently about this. However, the theologians must study it.”
Third, an openness to married priests would allow for a new kind of discernment to the ordained ministry. Given that the Catholic Church does not teach that celibacy is constitutive of the priesthood, it seems wise to ask why is de facto constitutive of the priesthood for the majority of priests in communion with the Holy See (see the helpful summary of the position in the Catholic Catechism in par. 1579-80 ).
As a priest who serves in the Episcopal Church, I would humbly suggest that bishops and even the Holy Father might talk to married priests and learn more about what it is like to serve the Lord in this way. One of the things that any married priest would say, and any honest married person, for that matter, is that marriage is not the solution to errant sexual desires. As my ethics professor, Stanley Hauerwas, puts it in his provocatively titled essay, “Sex in Public: How Adventurous Christians are Doing It,” Christian marriage is, among other things, a public sexual discipline. You stand up in front of your mom, and your uncle, and your grandmother, and your eighth grade English teacher, and you tell them all that that person right over there is your exclusive sexual partner. Marriage is itself a sexual discipline, for who has only ever had erotic desire for a single person? Which is one of the reasons why engaging in sexual discipline before marriage is a preparation for the sexual discipline within marriage. Further, married priests had a difficult set of loyalties to work out and that negotiation is never simple.
Let me end with a few lines from a recent essay by a colleague Joey Royal over at Covenant, “Celibacy, Abuse, and the formation of Desire:”
Would marriage help a celibate person avoid sexual sin? Perhaps. But that is not its purpose. Anyone who entered marriage with the expectation of satisfied sexual desires will likely be disappointed. After all, how can anyone satisfy ever-changing desires, which are often as mysterious to us as they are to our spouse?
No, the purpose of marriage is ultimately the same as the purpose of parenthood, which is also ultimately the purpose of the priesthood: to manifest the love of God in Christ by giving ourselves sacrificially to others. After all, we are all priests in a certain sense by virtue of our being God’s creatures, and our ultimate vocation as creatures is to give back to God what properly belongs to him. That process inevitably involves sacrifice — not sacrifice as destruction, but sacrifice as union with God through love, expressed in charity to our neighbor.