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.”