I don’t normally comment on “current news” in the Café posts, for the simple reason that Catholic commentary on issues is available all over the internet—though more from the Catholic Right than the Catholic Left. My vision of the Catechist Café embodies the site as a reasonably well-researched niche for readers who take the longer view of things, those searching for the “why?” as much as the “what?” with the help of the best of the Catholic publishing world, old and new.
Today I am going to switch hats and devote one day to sheer commentary on a very recent news story, an interview of Pope Francis with the German magazine Die Zeit where the Pope expresses openness to ordaining married men in some cases. As the issue was released just yesterday (Thursday March 9), I have not read the original, but CNN seems to have done its reporting homework quite well, and I included a link to the conservative National Catholic Register as well. A somewhat different take on the interview is expressed by the National Catholic Reporter. (Both NCR’s do a poor job in policing their reader response blogs, in my view.)
The gist of the Pope’s remarks center around the idea that “viri probati,” married men proven in faith and virtue who could be ordained to the priesthood, is a “possibility” that “we have to think about.” The interview goes on to speculate that such priests would be particularly useful in “remote communities.” I hasten to add here that during Vatican II the same argument was made for ordination of married men as deacons in third world nations where clerical presence was nearly nonexistent, but in practice the highest number of married deacons came to be found in the United States.
Pope Francis (as CNN accurately points out) is not proposing the practice of ordained priests getting married after ordination. Moreover, the actuality of such a change in the Church’s discipline would require consultation with the world’s bishops in an exercise in collegiality. But this is an opportunity to begin the theological, historical, economic, and social research and discussion of the implications of such a change in the Church’s ministry.
If perchance you are a first-time visitor to the Café today, I should begin with the biographical note that I was a Roman Catholic priest who served as pastor of three parishes for about 20 years. Then I was successfully laicized under Pope John Paul II in 1998, and I have been happily married since then and have worked as a psychotherapist for the last 25 years. My opinions, then, are shaped (maybe skewed) by my history. Caveat Emptor. (“Let the buyer be aware.”)
My considerations would apply only the United States Catholic experience, If the rationale for ordaining married men is a shortage of priests to celebrate sacraments and administer parishes, one of the safest assumptions to make is that these men will be busy. There are a number of careers that ask more from a man than the priesthood—a police officer or a serviceman on active duty has a much harder job than a priest in terms of intensity and risk. However, the life of a parish priest carries its own unique pressures. In my experience the expectations of parishioners of their pastors is high and unrelenting: this is true of public events such as Sunday Mass, weddings, funerals, etc. as well as private services such as confession, counsel, and particularly the pastoral care of the sick. A pastor’s responsibilities are spelled out in Canon Law.
What the law cannot describe is the relationship of a pastor to his people. It is unimaginable for a Catholic that “his” or “her” priest would not be available for comfort at a time of great stress. In my years as a pastor my sick and hospitalized members would pass on the services of the assigned chaplain so that they could receive my ministrations. Every parish organization deemed the presence of the pastor at their routine meetings a “good housekeeping stamp” on their efforts and were often offended if I sent a representative.
I don’t recall this to complain about the responsibilities of pastoring, but I would be lying if I denied that parish priests were and are on duty 24/7. I have no doubt that there are married viri probati who would serve very successfully under these pressures. As Joe Scarborough put it this morning on “Morning Joe,” married priests would be more understanding of the problems of their married members. I would need to see some hard research from our Protestant brethren on that frequently-made assertion, but I can tell you that as a pastoral I did the clear majority of my pastoral and married couples counseling after 6 PM. So, my concern would be: what about the wives of married priests? Married to men with unpredictable lives and virtually always on call, would their (the wives’ lives) be seriously disrupted.
The ordination of married men to the priesthood introduces a new figure into the Catholic lexicon, “the pastor’s wife.” Here we have a treasure trove of information from Protestant couples, including many in my own clinical files. There are unique aspects of ministerial marriages that as Catholics might surprise us. Aside from the internal time struggles I mentioned earlier, the role of “pastor’s wife” has a semi-official status in Protestant settings; the wife is expected to assume considerable pastoral responsibility, particularly among the women of the congregation, and often without compensation. She is an object of scrutiny, and her demeaner in the local church is something of an unspoken factor in the evaluation of her husband by “pulpit committees” or elders.
Would Catholics take to the wives of their pastors? I have always suspected that something of the mystique of Catholic life rests upon the solitary heroism of the man who forsakes family and is “always there for us.” Pope Francis himself has described “accompaniment” as a major quality of a good pastor. This question spills over into the economic realm: the cost to a parish of maintaining a pastor with his wife and children in some measure of fiscal security and privacy. That a family should live in a residence on the church site, perhaps the existing rectory, is not even physically safe, let alone a healthy private setting option for a family.
Then there is the matter of the priest’s training. A married man who has earned his degree in a profession and enjoyed a fair measure of success at it, will need to take a minimal 4-6-year hiatus to complete the theological studies now required of a single seminarian in his 20’s. I can imagine a temptation to “fast-track” older men and ordain them with less preparation than currently required, which even now is rather minimal.
At the end of the day, the overriding question is always the good of the Church. No one is happy with the present day level of Catholic fervor, and we have been scrambling around all my life, at least, to find ways to stem the exodus from the Church. The assumption underlying the ordination of married men is that with more priests in circulation the spiritual health of the Church would be restored. It may come as a shock that in many mainstream Protestant traditions there is a glut of pastors because of the departure of so many members. The issue today is Christianity in a world that perceives religion as irrelevant, when it thinks of religion at all.
So, when we begin as a Catholic Church to discuss the question of married clergy more closely, it is critical that we do so from all angles. There are very good reasons to do so and we can think them through, but making a radical departure from a long custom calls for significant theological reasons. It is not a band aid solution.