Thinking about married priests: Has this issue outgrown old 'left' vs. 'right' framework?

Long ago — in the mid-1980s — I covered an event in Denver that drew quite a few conservative Catholic leaders. There was lots of time to talk, in between sessions.

During one break, I asked a small circle of participants to tell me what they thought were the biggest challenges facing the Catholic church. This was about the time — more than 30 years ago — laypeople people began talking about the surge in reports about clergy sexual abuse of children and teens.

Someone said the biggest challenge — looking into the future with a long lens — was the declining number of men seeking the priesthood. At some point, he added, the church would need to start ordaining married men to the priesthood. Others murmured agreement.

I made a mental note. This was the first time I had ever heard Catholic conservatives — as opposed to spirit of Vatican II progressives or ex-priests — say that they thought the Church of Rome would need to return to the ancient pattern — with married priests as the norm, and bishops being drawn from among celibate monastics. Since then, I have heard similar remarks from some Catholics on the right.

That hot button term — “married priests” — is back in the news, with open talk in the Amazon region about the ordination older married men, drawn from their local communities, to the priesthood.

Could this happen? Let’s look at two think pieces by well-known Catholic priests, one on the left side of the church and one on the right. The conservative priest — a former Anglican pastor — is married, with a family.

First up is the omnipresent — in U.S. media circles — Jesuit journalist Father Thomas J. Reese, a senior analysts at Religion News Service. He used to be the editor at America magazine. Here is a crucial chunk of a recent Reese commentary for RNS:

Celibacy is not dogma; it is a legal requirement that can be changed. … Although Pope Francis places a very high value on celibacy, he is also a pragmatist who recognizes that indigenous communities are being denied the Eucharist and the sacraments because they don’t have priests.

After all, which is more important, a celibate priesthood or the Eucharist? At the Last Supper, Jesus said, “Do this in memory of me” not “have a celibate priesthood.”

Even so, conservative Catholics oppose the change as against tradition. For conservatives, this is just another example of Francis giving in to contemporary culture.

Limiting ordination to “mature men” is a classic Catholic compromise aimed at limiting the fears of conservatives. The change will be portrayed as limited and exceptional.

But both traditionalists and progressives believe that once ordination is permitted in exceptional cases, it will spread to more and more situations. After all, there are other places in the world that don’t have enough priests to serve Catholics desiring the Eucharist and the sacraments. Eventually, as in other churches, married clergy will be the norm rather than the exception.

Reese lists a number of practical issues linked to this change, such as: Can the church afford to educate and pay working salaries to priests with families (perhaps large families). What happens to priests who are already ordained? According to ancient traditions, priests cannot marry after they are ordained.

Oh, and think this over:

Also, there are currently too many priests in relationships with women that should be legitimized out of justice to the women involved, let alone their children. And then there are the thousands of priests who left to get married. How about letting them back into ministry?

The other think piece is by the popular conservative scribe Father Dwight Longenecker, who is also a former journalist. His headline: “Beware the arguments for married priests in the Amazon.

Wait. A married priest is opposed to allowing married priests?

That’s not the point of this piece. Journalists will want to note where Reese and Longenecker agree and where they may or may not differ.

As I like to tell my journalism student: When you find liberals and conservatives in agreement on a hot-button topic, there is probably news there.

For starters, Longenecker notes:

Could married men be ordained as priests?  Yes. It is a discipline of the church that can be changed. The arguments back and forth almost always focus on the practicalities: how would we pay them? What about their wives and families? What happens if there is a divorce? Who will look after clergy widows?

All these practical problems could be easily overcome. Therefore this type of discussion is pointless.

What he is worried about are “utilitarian,” “sentimental” and “political” arguments for this major change in tradition — as opposed to theological reasons. Rome needs to know why it is making this decision.

After all, he noted, the stakes are high.

If a whole area of the church makes the change — let’s say the Dioceses in the Amazon — you can be sure that it will spread. The change will have taken place by stealth. This is not the way change should happen in the church.

Call it the stealth synod method.

Furthermore, this change by stealth synod is insidious. Just read the working document. They want to downplay doctrine. They want to get rid of an overarching doctrine for all Catholics. They want to bring in a “recognized ministry for women.” That’s code for women deacons of course.

Note that I am not saying things should not change. I’m speaking about the WAY things are changing. … This is not Catholic. It is relativistic and secular.

What could happen? Wouldn’t this change be a great thing for Catholics in the pews?

Longenecker closes with this ominous thought: “ … check out the present state of the Church of England.”

Oh my. Read both pieces and take notes. This subject — #OBVIOUSLY — is not going away.

FIRST IMAGE: The Rev. Dwight Longenecker and his family, on the day of his ordination as a Catholic priest.

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