God writes straight with crooked lines. -Portuguese Proverb
The question of the theology of ordination to the priesthood just isn’t going to go away.
First, in a meeting with Italian priests in Rome in February, the pope, they tell us, said that he is going to put the topic of the ordination of married men “into his diary.” Meaning on his list of subjects to be — what? Addressed? Discussed? Opened to consideration? Promised? The possibilities are tantalizing.
In countries where some Catholic communities never see a priest more than once a year, the implications of a new and developing clergy — a married clergy as well as a celibate clergy — conjure up images of a church choosing to be vital and viable again.
In the United States itself, as well as in far off rural outposts, parishes are closing at a great rate. In fact, the very superstructure of the church of the ’50s — its community-building impact, its services and ministries, its vibrant witness — is dimming. People drive miles to go to Mass now or don’t go at all. They volunteer in civic agencies now rather than in parish ministries because there are few or no church projects impactful enough to demand their commitment. Instead, the church, where there is one, has become a private devotion.
But if Pope Francis takes the question of married men seriously, that could, for a change, lead to real change.
The annual number of candidates for the priesthood might actually rise, for instance. The number of priestless parishes might be reduced. The church’s ministry to families, itself embodied in a model of family life, might become more credible. Sex would become both a male and a female thing rather than a prescription for the control of women. And, oh yes, the place and role of women in the church might very well change, too, once women began to be seen as integral to the parish and its activities.
All in all, the church might get to be much closer to the people, to its children, to the rest of the real questions of life. And it can’t come too soon.
But there is a second issue about ordination that is also crying to be heard. A recent report on the public position of a group of Irish priests concerning the ordination of women puts the issue of women in the church in a clear and penetrating perspective. They say, “We are aware that there are many women who are deeply hurt and saddened by this teaching. We also believe that the example given by the Church in discriminating against women encourages and reinforces abuse and violence against women in many cultures and societies.”
CARA, the research center devoted to Catholic issues and structures at Georgetown University, reports the declining number of women who are still active in the church, let alone devoted to its teachings. Mothers who were once the very catechetical arm of the church no longer support the church’s position on birth control, homosexuality, or same-sex marriage. And they say so.
More significant, perhaps, young unmarried women see little or no place for themselves in the male church. They can’t be deacons, they are often not encouraged or even not allowed to be altar girls again. They have no places on the standing church commissions that define liturgical practices, theological constructs or scriptural interpretations.
So pollsters track them as they go somewhere else seeking spiritual nourishment or, just as likely, go nowhere at all. Disillusioned with the gap between Christian teaching and Catholic practice on equality, religion has little meaning for them now. In a world where secular institutions are more likely to recognize the fullness of a woman’s humanity than the church does, church does not interest them much anymore.
The question is what relationship, if any, is there between these two apparently different issues? What can the ordination of married men possibly have to do with the ordination of women?
This new topic of a married priesthood which is now in the pope’s diary could, I think, if history is correct, conceivably change all of that. But not in the way most people might think. And that’s my problem.
For the sake of full disclosure, I need to say that I am a bit hesitant about writing this column. My concerns fall into the category of “Don’t put it in the airwaves” or “Don’t even whisper this — in case. …”
Why? Because the jig is up if they figure it out.
Think a minute. Why do they have ordained women priests in other Christian denominations? Think. Because they have married male priests, that’s why.
Just how long, for how many years, through how many canonical councils, do you think married Roman Catholic priests can hold out against the ordination of married women priests once the taboo topic of women priests is finally laid on the altar for all to hear?
I figure that the history of married priests in the Roman Catholic church will go just the way it has in every other Christian denomination: Faced with the vision of Jesus surrounded, supported, sustained by women; conscious of Jesus’ theological education of women, his ministry to them and through them; aware of His welcoming of them in every public and pastoral situation, despite the prescriptions of enclosure they had faced in earlier cultures; good priests in other Christian denominations simply could not ignore the will of God for women anymore. Eventually, it got to be more and more clear: the place of women in the church was not a problem to be solved, it was a Divine mandate meant to be honored. At last.
And more than that, perhaps, how many conferences for how many years do you think a male priest could come home at night, throw his briefcase on the desk and say victoriously to his wife and daughters one more time, “Well, I voted against all of you again.” Shouts of joy. Applause. Triumph?
Or maybe silence and cold mashed potatoes.
From where I stand, the scenario is a real one. But you can see why I don’t want to mention it out loud. I am convinced that until the women’s question is addressed in the church, the numbers will continue to decline, and the church will fail in the 21st century. I would hate to give the opposition time to organize against married priests in order to block the sight of women in church rectories. If Christianity is ever to be Christianity again we simply must admit that women are also full human beings and disciples of Jesus.
Indeed, the issue of married priests is an important one.
And I think this pope knows it. After all, he already has a note about it in his diary. The question is whether or not they have figured out the relationship between married male priests and the eventual ordination of women priests.
Shhhhhhhhh. Don’t tell.
[Benedictine Sr. Joan Chittister is a frequent NCR contributor.]