A step forward for married men is a giant step backward for women

by Jamie Manson

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Earlier this month, yet another stunning headline came out of the Vatican.

"Pope says married men could be ordained -- if world's bishops agree," read The Tablet of London.

But this latest news did not come directly from the mouth of Pope Francis. The message was relayed by Bishop Erwin Kräutler of the Xingu diocese in the Brazilian rainforest. In an interview with the Salzburger Nachrichten, Kräutler, an Austrian-born priest who has served as bishop of Xingu since 1981, said Francis showed openness to ordaining married men, or viri probati.

Kräutler claimed that during a private audience with Francis, "the Pope explained that he could not take everything in hand personally from Rome. We local bishops, who are best acquainted with the needs of our faithful, should be corajudos, that is 'courageous' in Spanish, and make concrete suggestions."

The term viri probati comes from the Latin "viri," meaning "men," and "probati," meaning "proven" or "tested." And though the phrase has circulated within the church since the first century, the exact nature of the test that will prove these men worthy of the priesthood has yet to be formally developed or articulated.

As we begin to imagine who might be welcomed into this widened priesthood, it is important to remain realistic about the kind of men the church will seek. "Viri probati" will very likely be married men who have exhibited a strict adherence to official church teaching.

And if that is the case, what will this mean for the men who left the priesthood but continued to exercise their priestly ministry through small house churches or intentional communities? Since they continued to perform what the institutional church views as "valid but not licit" eucharistic celebrations, will they qualify as "proven" men? What about former priests who have associated with organizations that advocate for women's ordination, same-sex marriage or the use of contraceptives? Could they ever be welcomed back into the fold?

Is it possible that the hierarchy could disqualify a former priest simply because, decades ago, he willingly chose to break his promises to the church in order to marry the woman he loved? Will church leaders prefer instead to start with a "clean slate" of men who either are already ordained deacons or who have not previously been ordained? Those men might be seen as coming to the priesthood with less baggage for vocations directors to examine.

The most important question that arises out of the debate over the viri probati, of course, is how it will affect the ongoing struggle for the genuine equality of women in the Roman Catholic church.

The admittance of married men into the priesthood could present a serious impediment to those who seek the full inclusion of women in church leadership. Why? Because lifting the ban on married male clergy could serve a dual purpose: It would take the edge off the priest shortage while recruiting married men who fully support the ban on women priests.

Pope Francis has been clear in his belief about traditional gender roles, particularly the idea that women, by the nature of God's design, are not entitled to equal authority in the church. It follows, then, that the men who would be deemed viri probati will not be those with a prophetic inclination to rock the women's ordination boat. They will be men who not only agree with Pope Francis' teaching on women, they have also managed to find wives who agree with it, too. (I know I've met more than one Catholic husband and wife who equally cherish St. John Paul II's Theology of the Body.)

The Orthodox church is filled with priests who are married to women who share the same beliefs about the limited role of women in the church. From the earliest days of his pontificate, Pope Francis has worked overtime to heal and deepen the Roman Catholic church's ties to the Orthodox church. Perhaps his vision of ordination will look more like their model of priesthood. There is little movement toward women's equality in the Orthodox church, which may make their example all the more appealing to the Roman Catholic hierarchy.

Allowing married men into the priesthood while continuing the ban on women's ordination will only further the exclusion of women's voices, expertise and insights from church doctrines, canon laws, moral teachings, and decision-making offices. A married male clergy will only justify the patriarchal belief that men should rule over women in the family, the church and society.

So before we rejoice in the possibility of the inclusion of married priests, we must be sure we understand hierarchy's criteria for "proven men." What may seem like an incremental movement toward reform could actually result in the reinforcement of the church's restrictive teachings on women.

A change that appears progressive doesn't necessarily spell progress. True reform will only come when our church is a reflection of justice, not a manifestation of inequality. Until then, a step forward for married men could be a major step backward for women in the church.

[Jamie L. Manson is NCR books editor. She received her Master of Divinity degree from Yale Divinity School, where she studied Catholic theology and sexual ethics. Her NCR columns have won numerous awards, most recently second prize for Commentary of the Year from Religion Newswriters (RNA). Her email address is jmanson@ncronline.org.]

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