Monday, March 13, 2017

Pope Francis and his unchanging church

In the recent news: Pope Says Maybe to Married Priests ...

The most confusing detail about Pope Francis opening the door to married priests, as he did in a widely publicized interview with a German newspaper Die Zeit last week, is that it really doesn’t mean that priests can get married.

Instead, when asked what to do about the global shortage of priests, the pope said he would consider the study of whether older men who are already married and heavily involved in liturgical duties in certain diocese, could actually be ordained as priests so they could deliver the sacraments. These married men priests, he said, might be considered in rural areas of the world where there simply aren’t enough priests for every parish and where Catholics are underserved.

It should be noted that there is a big, big difference between priests courting, dating, marrying and honeymooning with new brides and older married men being ordained as priests ....

Seeing this reminded me of the furor last year over the idea of women deacons. In both cases, the pope didn't bring the idea up but simply responded to questions asked about those issues ... can't women be deacons, can't married men be priests? And in both cases he pretty much shrugged off the questions, and then advised study of the issues when pushed.

Nothing has come of the idea of women being deacons in the contemporary church .... I think it's obvious that the pope doesn't want this any more than he wants women to be priests (Pope Francis says women will never be Roman Catholic priests). And just today I saw an article in the UK Catholic Herald about Cardinal Nichols assuring the (conservative) faithful that married priests won't happen either ... I don’t see things changing on married priests, says Cardinal Nichols

I think this is a sign that the institutional church is dying. Yes, it grows in numbers, for now, but those numbers hail mostly from developing countries where the conservative agenda of sexism and homophobia presently fits, and in time that will change. The institutional church refuses to change on social issues, issues that divide it from its own parishioners (contraception, women priests, abortion, marriage equality, married priests, cohabitation, divorce, etc.), and it doesn't have to - after all, it's the last example of western despotism, and we in the pews are powerless. People will continue to believe in God and practice spirituality - some will even keep going to church - but eventually this disconnect is going to catch up to the hierarchy, because things that can't change are dead.


  1. Great job of starting the discussion. I knew you had all those links up your sleeves.

    Yes, Francis is only talking about viri probati, i.e. allowing older mature men to be ordained priests.

    He is not talking about having married priests as in the Eastern Orthodox. Their rule is that you have to be married before you are ordained. Once ordained if your wife dies you cannot remarry. (That is also the rule that we have for married deacons.

    If as a single male you are ordained to the priesthood in the Eastern Orthodox churches, you cannot marry. However you can become a bishop! Bishops cannot be married but they can be widowers.

    That means that among the Orthodox single men often complete their seminary and have to wait to find a wife before they are ordained. One Orthodox priest I knew worked in the steel mills while waiting and told me it was the best formation that he ever got for the priesthood.

    The Orthodox seminary choirs sometimes go around their parishes. In the festival meals afterwards there is much opportunity for seminarians and young women to meet. I was at one of these and saw all the flirting between these guys in their cassocks and the young women.

    Actually I like viri probati for the same reason that I like married deacons. They could be mostly voluntary (unpaid). I would like to have a poor church for the poor, in which the vast majority of the lay ministers, deacons, priests, and even some bishops would be unpaid!

  2. Married priests are already happening. Clergymen from Protestant churches (I think pretty much limited to Anglicans and Lutherans) who have converted to Catholicism have been ordained as priests. While not happening on a large scale, it is no longer rare. Which is why I think the Pope Francis is not being disingenuous in saying that he would consider married priests.
    As far as women deacons, we may follow the lead of the Orthodox churches, which have expressed interest in renewing this office.

  3. Jack, yes, the idea of men already deacons and married is probably the best chance we have of married priests in our church, but Francis sounded kind of negative even about that. In the interview he said ... "We need to consider if viri probati could be a possibility. If so, we would need to determine what duties they could undertake, for example, in remote communities" ... which sounds to me as if they would be "real" priests with the same duties that celibate priests have.

    What I would like to see is people being priests who could be single, date, and marry or not. The church is so obsessed about sex that it can't bear the thought of priests (or anyone else) having independent romantic lives. I saw an article once by an Anglican priest, a woman, about dating - it was refreshing :) ...

    1. I included the description of the Orthodox seminarians flirting because I was sure this is what you want to experience in our churches.

      The local Orthodox church (where I go for Vespers and Divine Liturgy on some feasts) of course has a married priest.

      There is a table in middle of the aisle about five pews back. There the priest chants some of his prayers. This priest's son as a kid would sometimes bound out of the pew from his mother and stand beside his dad as if he were one of the altar boys. Sometimes his dad would reach out his hand and place it on the kids head to gently steady him. During all this the priest continued to chant away as usual.

      On weekday feasts there is only a group of about 30 (they are a small parish with about 120 adults on Sunday) But there are a lot of babies and young kids because they all get to go to communion. And they run about the church doing the liturgy with parents calmly heading them off so they don't run up into the sanctuary or disrupt things too much.

      It feels like both a temple and a home. It is an icon of the Incarnation, the unity of the Divine Liturgy and family life

      Yes I want married priests but I want one thing more. I want priests who live working lives. Work which is so much of our human life was also part of the Incarnation. Jesus was a son of a carpenter and spent most of his life as a carpenter.

    2. When I was a working stiff I had a young man work for me whose father is a Serbian Orthodox priest. Paul invited me to one of their family slavas, i.e., the celebration of their family’s patron saint. It was a function for their entire parish of about 300 people. I attended one or two of their Divine Liturgies and was impressed by the quality of the service. More importantly, I was impressed by the way Fr. Dusan’s wife was part of the parish family. Not only that, but Dusan’s brother is a bishop, a married son is a deacon and my married co-worker was studying to be a deacon.
      The family itself was a source and result of family vocations. It seemed to work well.

  4. Katherine, the thing is that Francis didn't say we might have married priests, he was asked about it and sort of avoided taking a stance. It makes smoke come out of my ears that we expect so little of our church, that we let it crimp the lives of its priests as well as its lay people.

  5. I'm not seeing married priests as being a panacea, just something that has a precedent and might ease the vocation shortage. For one thing the wives and families would have to be on board with the husbands' calling, and it wouldn't be an easy thing for them to have to give up time together and probably a the better standard of living of a secular job. We say that the Church is obsessed with sex, what about the ambient culture that can't entertain the thought of a meaningful life without sex? That said, I think it is time to again have some married clergy.

    1. Protestant ministers live this way and survive. Married RC and Eastern Rite priests live this way and survive.

      Are Latin Rite priests, their families and parishes incapable of handling this? I suspect that the bugaboo is economics. More people will have to pony up at the Sunday collections. Oooooooooooo!!!

  6. The marriage issue goes well beyond the sexual aspects of life. I agree with Jack Rakosky - married priests who also have to deal with rush hour traffic!.

    That the clerics of the RCC do not understand sex, especially healthy, loving marital sex, is clearly a problem when they, in their ignorance, choose to define sexual morality for others, to mandate that people who marry in the church agree to be "open" to having children weather well-suited to parenthood, etc.

    A bigger problem is that they simply do not understand what "real" life is like for the people in the pews. They don't have any lived experience of marriage or parenthood. Being a son, uncle, brother, godfather, is not the same as being a husband and father. And no matter how many people they counsel, how many books they read, no matter how many confessions they hear, they simply can't understand. I can read books on the problems and challenges facing priests who deal with celibacy, too little help in their parishes these days, loneliness, temptations. I can try to empathize when they are called late at night to comfort a grieving family, or visit a hospital (the priests in my former parish don't actually do those things, though. The deacons do them). But that does not mean I understand what it is like to be a priest, to live the vocation 24/7.

    Yet they stand apart, and in their minds, above (ontological superiority and all that) married people and presume to tell them that their lived experiences of sex, marriage, and family are wrong.

    When I started attending an Episcopal parish, the differences in lived understanding v. academic understanding came through loud and clear whenever the homily touched on family matters. The Episcopalians don't fret about contraception, or sex in general for that matter, of course, so those subjects never come up in homilies. But the rector is not only a married man, a father, and grandfather, he was a widower, left to raise three young children (youngest was 6) alone after his wife died. He eventually remarried and so also lived the role of step-father. He is an intellectual man who reads widely and deeply, so his homilies are consistently good. But his lived experiences as husband, father etc came through to me in a way that few of the always-Protestant members of the congregation could appreciate, since they had pretty much only known married clergy their whole lives.

    When our assistant rector, a woman who is divorced and a mother, gave a homily on Mary's visit to Elizabeth, I was struck as if by lightening. She UNDERSTOOD. A priest who is a woman, reading scripture through a feminine prism (totally denied by the RCC), someone who knows what it is to be married, a wife, to carry a baby for nine months and give birth, and live in joy and terror forever after. She lived a failed marriage and struggled to raise a child alone. She could intuit some of the fears that Mary, a single pregnant woman who might have faced death by stoning, may have felt as she fought her fear and sought some comfort with her cousin.

    Crystal, I agree with you that Francis was not really saying anything. He has hinted before that maybe the individual bishops' conferences might wish to consider whether or not to drop mandatory celibacy. He seems personally undecided on the issue and does not seem inclined to mandate a change from the top. He is, as you have noted, opposed to having women in holy orders, apparently including deacons. He has said a lot about "protecting" children in the church, and made some gestures, but they seem to have been empty words and gestures. His hints about married priests or women deacons seem to be mostly empty words also.

    1. If I ever decide to "do church" again (I doubt it) it will be as an Episcopalian. I know of 2 former RC women who knew they had a vocation to the priesthood and realized it in the Episcopal Church. Rome's loss, indeed.

  7. Katherine, one of our children went to an Episcopal school and he became "best friends" with the rector's son. This gave me my first look at what life is like for the families of priests, as I spent a lot of time with the priest's wife. Yes, they often had demands during family time (as do doctors, firefighters and any number of others in a wide range of professions), but they also had more help - a small congregation of maybe 250 families might have three priests, a permanent deacon, and a seminarian to help out, along with paid ministers for music, youth etc. This was about the same as my former RC parish - two full-time priests, a part-time priest for the Spanish speaking community, two deacons and paid lay staff, larger than that of the Episcopal church but the size of the parish was three times greater - with 3000 families on the rolls (although only about 20% showed up on a regular basis).

  8. It would be good to have priests who could understand through experience what all our diverse lives are like. Even many priests have spoken up about this, like the he Association of Catholic Priests in Ireland. But it seems like the pope will have the final negative word.

  9. As Jim writes, I think it would be affordable to have married priests. I think the church doesn't want to pay for it, though.

    And beyond the money thing, I believe the church uses celibacy to keep control of its priesthood/brotherhood/sisterhood .... it's much easier to keep people in line if they have no other loyalties but to the church. Would a married priest be as likely to participate in or cover up sex abuse? In Australia they found that the Catholic church had something like 6 times more sex abuse than all the other churches.

  10. Both Crystal and Jim raise valid points. The church doesn't want to pay for married priests. It’s expensive and Catholics contribute far less in the weekly basket than do Protestants. The Episcopal parish I currently attend has two priests - both with a salary and benefits package in six figures. I live in the DC area and it is expensive to live here. But the congregation of 300 families supports it, because they value their priests, whom they chose themselves. The priests are not imposed on Episcopalians as they are in the RCC.
    But, one wonders also if the PTB fear having a married priesthood because the priests would be less likely to put forth the party line on contraception. Once they really understand the importance of the unitive role of marital sex, understand the challenges NFP poses to this unitive role and the un-natural constraints it puts on the natural rhythms of marital lovemaking, and understand that only the couple can make choices regarding childbearing and contraception, they will be less likely to push church teachings on birth control which declares all birth control methods other than the (misleadingly named) NFP to be an “intrinsic evil”.

  11. PS - I saw this today: "Widowed deacon remarries, gets laicized" ...