The rocky path to a married clergy

David Gibson frames the issue of a married clergy well in his article for Religion News Service.

Pope Francis apparently had another one of his private conversations with a Brazilian bishop whose diocese is in the rainforest. The diocese has a total of 27 priests for 700,000 Catholics. Most Catholics are only able to attend Mass a couple of times a year.

The bishop broached the issue of a married clergy with Pope Francis, who suggested that the answer may need to come from national bishops' conferences. Concrete suggestions presented to Rome might result in movement in this regard.

Gibson then discusses why Pope Francis might be amenable to a discussion and possible action on the issue of a married clergy.

I would agree that because celibacy is a matter of discipline and not doctrine, it is far more doable by the church. It also clearly has the added bonus of enhancing the collegiality Francis seeks if the initiative begins with local churches.

Gibson notes that bishops in Latin America, Africa and Asia seem particularly interested in exploring the possibilities of a married clergy.

The question arises as to whether the American episcopate would pursue such a change. My own sense is that considering the current conservative leanings of the American hierarchy, they would be initially resistant. Yet if changes were made in other cultures, I think enough pressure would be exerted that eventually, change would come to our country, as well.

Jamie Manson recently wrote in a column for NCR that such a change could actually result in a step backward for women.

Manson makes some excellent points with which I would agree. However, I would add a few points that seem relevant to me. First, as said above, it is much easier to move to a married clergy than it is to a female clergy. Even though the doctrinal arguments against a female clergy are quite dubious in my mind, they are nevertheless well entrenched among many in the hierarchy.

If there is one thing Francis has already made clear, it is that there will be no female priests during his papacy. Despite the importance of promoting a female clergy, the reality is that it is not likely to happen quickly. Are we to wait around for a female priesthood and resist other changes until we get it?

If the church changes at all, it changes gradually. On the issue of women, I think we need to push Francis on what he means by a new theology of women and see if we can help elucidate a theology that brings women into the mainstream of church leadership and opens the way for female clergy down the road. Some would also say we may need to be looking to reduce the significance and necessity of any clergy in the church, which is another possibility, though I am not prepared to endorse such a direction at this time.

As for a married clergy, change has to begin somewhere. The most positive sentiment so far is that married Anglican clergy who have entered the church have performed well. Once there is a formula that is seen as functional within the Roman church, then more pressure can be exercised to return married men who have left the priesthood to ministry. A lot of what might happen is likely to be on a case-by-case basis.

I also see a married clergy as an important step in changing the culture of the clergy in a way that can foster a healthier climate. It could result in the removal of one environmental factor that has quite possibly led to some of the sexual abuse we have seen.

All of us are waiting for the "Francis effect." Apart from a genuinely holy and loving man who reaches out to everyone around him, we have frankly not seen much in the way of real change. While moves to admit married men to the priesthood may in some way be a minor event, I for one would find it exciting and a hopeful sign for greater changes in the future.

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