By Frank Wessling
The man who became Pope Benedict XVI once argued for openly discussing the possibility of married priests in the Roman Catholic Church. He had high level company then, in 1970, and the position he favored has even more company now.
The idea of married priests has been a stream of thought in the Church for the last half-century. It flared up in public during the 1960s, especially among priests. Pope Paul VI attempted to put the genie back in the bottle with a 1967 encyclical insisting that celibacy must be an integral part of priesthood in the Western Church. Titled in Latin Sacerdotalis Celibatus, that document was not immediately effective in its aim of exalting the topic beyond discussion. Over time, though, especially as the forceful papacy of John Paul II spread its influence through the Church, talk of ending mandatory celibacy for priests faded.
Early this month it flared up again in Europe as a “memorandum” signed by more than 200 theologians was made public. As in the appeal of 1970, they ask for open reflection on the question, not necessarily for a change in Church discipline. The reflection — to discern the sense of the faithful — is needed before the Church can have confidence that it fully listens to the Holy Spirit while deciding on a future course.
That was what Father Joseph Ratzinger, the future pope, and his German theological colleagues asked for 41 years ago. The signers of that petition included some of the most illustrious names in 20th century Catholic theology, including Karl Rahner, Rudolf Schnackenburg, Walter Kasper, later a cardinal and president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, and Karl Lehmann, later a cardinal and president of the conference of bishops in Germany.
They saw “the necessity of an urgent examination of … the law of celibacy in the Latin Church.”
The new memorandum also comes from scholars in Germany, this time joined by Austrians and Swiss who believe the Church in Europe especially faces a crisis that is only made worse by suppression of open dialogue. They speak of “paralysis and resignation” to the facts of Church decline: a steady trickle of sexual abuse revelations; German Catholics dropping out of the Church support system in record numbers; the average age of priests in Austria nearing 70; consolidation of parishes into large super-churches where a sense of personal community is hard to maintain; the few young men drawn to the priesthood looking ahead to larger and larger workloads.
That petition asks for a broad review not only of the celibacy requirement for priests but what the signers call “structures of participation” in the Church and the way authority is exercised. They want what they call a “Year of Departure” in 2011, meaning a year of serious discussion about what the Church needs for new life and vigor.
This eruption may be happening in Europe this month, but the underlying tension that caused it exists here, as well. American Catholics have also been hurt by the clergy sex abuse scandal; we also feel the loss of parishes from a lack of priests; we also pray regularly for new vocations to the priesthood as the number of priests steadily drops and their average age rises to the normal retirement level.
In private conversation and in opinion surveys, most American Catholics express some fear of the future because of fewer priests. This doesn’t necessarily mean any lack of faith. It means only a common awareness that the old ways aren’t working. Instead of drifting along with decline, we need the courage to open up about how we believe God might be calling us to act today.
The future Pope Benedict did not believe 41 years ago that compulsory celibacy for priests was more important than widely available eucharistic celebrations and eucharistic communities. He believed that the future looked bleak without an honest and open discernment process in the Church regarding priesthood and celibacy.
Since that time, a trickle of married priests has appeared among us. They are married men who had been Lutheran ministers or Episcopal priests who became Catholics and were accepted in our priesthood. Now we even have an ordinariate, a special category, for priests from the Anglican communion — Episcopal church in the United States — who come over to Catholicism. Most of them are and will be married men.
Celibacy apparently is not, after all, an absolute requirement for our priests. We keep this fact, as well as the principle, in the shadows, which is unhealthy. And we should be aware that priesthood in the Eastern-rite churches (which are part of the worldwide Catholic Church) does not require celibacy, nor is it required in the Orthodox Church, whose sacraments we recognize as valid.
The tradition of compulsory celibacy in the Western Church was adopted gradually over the centuries since Jesus’ time for good reasons. Conditions today are not the same as those 1,000 years ago. There may be equally good reasons today for a change. We won’t know that, though, without facing the question openly, as that up-and-coming theologian Father Joseph Ratzinger urged that we do in 1970.