By Fr. Thom Hennen
Last month someone alerted me to a story about Pope Francis saying (apparently) that he might allow priests to marry. Naturally, I was a little skeptical when I heard this. As with many recent statements in the still new pontificate of Pope Francis, I discovered that the way in which this was reported in our “sound bite” media culture was not very clear, if not downright dishonest (hence the confusion of the person who told me).
First of all, Pope Francis did not make this statement, but his Secretary of State, Archbishop Pietro Parolin, did. Secondly, it was not any kind of “official statement” from the Vatican, but part of an interview with a Venezuelan newspaper. Thirdly, Archbishop Parolin did not say that “priests could marry,” but simply stated that “[Priestly celibacy] is not a church dogma and can be discussed.”
There’s a big difference. While it is true that the Church has ordained married men, never in the 2,000 year history of the Church have already ordained priests been allowed to marry without first being dispensed from their promise of celibacy by the pope and giving up their priestly ministry (i.e. “laicized”). Lastly, this was reported as a “major shift in church policy,” when in fact Archbishop Parolin simply re-stated what we have known for a long time. The option to ordain married men has, broadly speaking, always been “on the table.” In fact, it is being done now (albeit by way of exception) through the Pastoral Provision for Former Clergy of the Episcopal Church (an initiative of Blessed Pope John Paul II going back to 1980) and, more recently, through the Anglican Ordinariate (which began under the pontificate of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI).
As oversimplified and misstated as the reporting was on this story, it did provoke some good thought about what such a change would mean for the Church. As a vocations director, I found myself wondering about how priestly formation would have to change. Would married candidates live with their families at the seminary or would they take weekend, night and online courses? In which case, how would seminaries go about the important work of human and spiritual formation? Seminary, after all, is much more than learning philosophy, theology and how to celebrate the sacraments; it’s about being formed in all aspects of one’s life. Would priestly formation necessarily take longer for married candidates or would the requirements for priestly formation be relaxed somewhat in order to make the process more manageable? Naturally, I also wondered how (or if) priestly ministry for married priests might differ from that of their celibate counterparts and how parishes would practically accommodate this reality.
I also wondered about the future of celibate priests. Would they all but vanish or be found mostly within religious orders? Would celibate priests be seen as somehow superior, “real priests,” or would they in fact be seen as less credible because of their lack of marital and family life experience? If a candidate authentically discerned and chose celibacy would it be assumed that there must be “something wrong” with him (as is sadly the case for many who are trying to live a chaste single life in our “sex-saturated, love-starved” culture)? Would we follow the Eastern Churches’ lead and only select bishops from among the celibate clergy? If so, would candidates who once felt free to choose celibacy ironically now feel compelled to marry, so as not to be seen as a “climbers?”
As I was wrapped up in all these practical considerations, I realized I was forgetting something very important, namely, the whole spiritual aspect of priestly celibacy. Yes, there are practical questions to be answered should the Church decide to change the practice of priestly celibacy, but this is really secondary. In the end, priestly celibacy is not about convenience of formation or availability for ministry, but about a unique conformity to Christ the Bridegroom.
I’m afraid I don’t have any answers, just questions. At the very least, I think it is important to make sure we get the story straight and consider this issue from all sides.
(Fr. Hennen is vocations director for the Davenport Diocese. Contact him at (563) 888-4255 or firstname.lastname@example.org.)