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Ordination of married men would cause other major changes within the church

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.]

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  1. declan cooney says:

    Jesus, GOD, chose 12 men to be priests not a collection of men and women.
    The problem is not one of a lack of vocations but a crisis of Faith.

  2. #1 Declan, recently we exchanged opinions on another strand of ACP on this same issue. Joan Chittester has raised some very important issues in this article, issues we cannot, should not, ignore. The historical Jesus was a man of his time, in very different cultural circumstances to our own. To have acted in any other way would have caused a stir.
    Where we are now is very different and our appreciation of gender issues is much enhanced.
    How do we handle the marriage of Peter, a chosen apostle, one could say THE chosen apostle? Using simplistic historical evidence, there should not be a problem with accepting a married priesthood. Mr & Mrs Bar-Jonah led the way.
    The key to married priests has already been found and it is based on a greater significant foundation than mere historical accident . It is up to a Conference of Bishops to have the courage to use it sometime soon.

  3. sean eile says:

    `12 men` ….. why did they change the `12` …. both were equally important to Jesus …. 12 patriarchs and all that

  4. Peter Shore says:

    #2 Chris McDonnell, the historical Jesus was also God. Writing about Paul VI’s document Inter Insigniores, John Paul II said that it: “shows clearly that Christ’s way of acting did not proceed from sociological or cultural motives peculiar to his time.” (Apostolic Letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, 1994). Something dramatic would have to have changed in the last 20 years, let alone the last 2000, to alter this fundamental church teaching.
    Regarding priestly celibacy, the issue is of an entirely different character to the ordination of women. It is a discipline that could in principal be relaxed. That is not to say it is not a longstanding practice in all the churches of the Catholic world, those of the east as well as the west. In many of the eastern churches, marriage is allowed before ordination but not after.
    Sister Joan Chittister offers no evidence that a married clergy might reverse the decline in vocations in the west. It certainly has not done so in the mainline Protestant churches. From her article it looks as if she sees this primarily as a wedge issues that will move the cause of women’s ordination forward.

  5. declan cooney says:

    Chris, I have no opinion. I only have the Will of God. He chose 12 men. I accept the Will of God.

  6. Chris, that argument about the Lord being restricted and conditions by his times is debunked. The Lord went to the well and spoke to the woman. He had no fear. You think he was afraid when he talked and acted such as to have himself crucified and you think he was afraid to choose women as apostals?

  7. Bob Hayes says:

    Chris (no. 2), ‘To have acted in any other way would have caused a stir’.
    Christ rudely ridiculed the Synagogue elite, spent time in the company of tax collectors, publicans and prostitutes, brandished an improvised whip to clear traders from the Temple, in public view he cured the sick, brought the dead back to life and forgave sins, he died on the Cross and after his Resurrection appeared to many. Did these actions not ’cause a stir’?
    The Word became flesh with every intention of ‘causing a stir’; a stir that presented the Good News of salvation to humanity. In view of historical evidence of his earthly ministry, it is absurd to suggest that Jesus Christ – the Son of God – was somehow constrained by the social conventions of the day!

  8. John Healy says:

    I don’t see any necessary connection between the ordination of men in the Latin Rite and changes along the lines envisaged. The Catholic Church has long had ordained married men (but not bishops) in her Eastern Rites, fully in communion with Rome, and this has not led to any such changes. I am constantly amazed by both proponents and opponents of the ordination of married men in the Latin Rite who ignore the ancient tradition regarding this in Eastern Catholic churches. The Latin Rite is the majority rite, but those Eastern Catholic churches with married clergy are no less Catholic and no less in communion with Rome. Latin Rite Catholics are free to attend their Masses and liturgies which are increasingly available in western Europe and north America. It is noteworthy that in such churches, in common with the Orthodox churches which, liturgically, they resemble, support for the cause of the ordination of women is virtually non-existent.

  9. John Healy says:

    Further to my last message, it does seem odd that, in arguments regarding the ordination of married men, no one appears to address the canonically legal and ancient tradition of ordaining married men (but not married bishops) in several of our Eastern Catholic Rites. It is as if they did not exist, and this omission is glaring at a time when such Catholics, numbering in their millions, are increasingly to be found in western Europe and north America due to emigration from eastern Europe and the Middle East. Is this the case because reference to their tradition of married Catholic clergy would not readily facilitate arguments regarding the ordination of women as priests, or simply due to general ignorance about the existence of such churches and their traditions? In an age when these churches can be Wikied so easily, such lack of awareness seems puzzling indeed.

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