Let’s get one thing straight: The openness of Pope Francis to studying the idea of married priests in the Roman Catholic Church isn’t really about practicalities.
Yes, I know that’s how he framed it in his interview with the German newspaper Die Zeit, published Thursday. He said he is in favor of a celibate priesthood and doesn’t think that ordaining married men is the answer to the church’s global shortage of priests.
What he suggested was that married men of strong faith could be ordained to perform certain tasks, such as ministering to the faithful in remote areas.
That sounds like a special case of very limited application. But think about it: One thing’s going to lead to another.
If a married priest is good enough to minister to the people in the remote Brazilian forests, then he’ll soon be seen as good enough to minister to the people in the remote mountains of Idaho.
And, well, if priestly numbers are short in Idaho, it will be a tempting solution for a bishop to move one of those married priests into the city of Boise where a lot more Idahoans live. And, if a married priest is good enough in Boise, why not in Chicago? In Rome?
And, then, well, if a married priest is OK, why not a married woman? Or a single woman?
Remember the civil rights movement of the 1950s, fighting for equality for African-Americans. Its small and then much greater successes eliminated societal barriers and opened doors for black men, women and children in ways that were unimaginable in 1950.
Yet, blacks weren’t the only beneficiaries. By winning greater equality, African-Americans showed the way and showed the possibilities for a rainbow array of other groups that had been pushed to the margins of American society and blocked from power — women, the disabled, the LGBT community, to name a few.
We are a more open, equitable society today because of the initially small gains of the civil rights movement.
Remember, too, Abraham Lincoln. He was an opponent of slavery but also an astute politician. He knew during the early years of the Civil War that he’d get nowhere if he tried to outwardly use the conflict as a vehicle to end slavery. However, as the war evolved, it became clear that the slaves being held by the Confederacy were a major part of the rebellion’s war machine.
On that basis, as a practical matter, Lincoln began preparing the way for his eventual action as Commander-in-Chief in issuing the Emancipation Proclamation — freeing the slaves in Confederate-held lands and beginning the process of full freedom.
Lincoln’s efforts were aimed at a moral wrong — slavery. The efforts of the civil rights movement were aimed at moral wrongs — racism, discrimination, oppression and inequality.
Is it a moral wrong that, except in special cases, the Roman Catholic Church doesn’t permit married men to be priests? Probably not.
Yet, at this point in human history, we have come to understand that it is a moral wrong to exclude women from positions of power and influence.
By suggesting the possible use of married priests in some cases, Pope Francis is opening the door to a fresh conversation within the church about the nature of the priesthood. That conversation can’t help but also consider the possibility of women priests.
I can’t speak for Francis. But he’s a smart man. He knows, like Lincoln, that he can’t change things by fiat. However, opening a door a crack is often just the same as banging it wide open.
It was inconceivable in 1858 that, within seven years, all of the slaves in the United States would be free. It was inconceivable in 1958 that, a half century later, there would be a black President of the United States.
It may seem inconceivable today that, sometime sooner rather than later, there will be married priests and women priests in the Roman Catholic Church. But don’t bet against it.
Patrick T. Reardon, a former member of the Chicago Archdiocesan Pastoral Council, is the author of eight books including “Faith Stripped to Its Essence,” a literary-religious commentary on Shusaku Endo’s novel “Silence.”
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