Friday, May 2, 2014

Married priests vs. women priests

Pitting those on the outside against each other and creating false dichotomies is a common tactic among those who hold the reins of power, whether in civil society or in the Church. Creating jobs vs. protecting the environment, organized labor vs. immigrants, African Americans vs. Latinos/as vs. Asian Pacific Americans, married priests vs. women priests...It's a shame when an intelligent columnist like National Catholic Reporter's Jamie Manson rises to the bait. In her latest blog post, the prize-winning graduate of Yale Divinity School falls into the trap. "A step forward for married men is a giant step backward for women," Manson deplores.

As someone who has covered both the optional celibacy/married priests' movement and the fight for women's ordination extensively both on this blog and as a partner on Celibacy Is the Issue's Rentapriest blog, I would like to offer an alternative, more nuanced opinion on this question.

First, it's important to remember the context of the Pope's expression of his thoughts on the ordination of viri probati. He is conversing with Dom Erwin Krautler, a bishop who has worked in the Xingu in Amazonia for almost half a century. Dom Erwin -- and Fr. Paulo Suess, a priest with extensive experience in ministry among the indigenous peoples -- have brought their concern that in Xingu, there are 800 communities and only 27 priests and this means most of the faithful only have access to the Eucharist a couple of times a year. And the two point out to the Pope that this situation is not uncommon in the rest of Amazonia and in other rural, poor, and predominantly indigenous parts of Latin and Central America as well. It's a priest shortage of a magnitude we can't even begin to imagine in the United States.

So the Pope asks them what they think should be done about the situation. I'm sure that they talked about the fact that celibacy is an extremely foreign concept in indigenous communities throughout the Americas, North and South. In fact, those with pastoral experience in those communities will tell you that young men are perceived as not yet mature or ready for leadership positions until they have gotten married and started a family. So choosing celibacy or accepting a celibate person as a leader requires those communities to set aside deeply ingrained beliefs. As such, it has been much easier to get vocations to the married permanent diaconate than to the priesthood in those communities. And we must also understand that the idea of women priests enjoys virtually no support in those cultures. It's not even on the radar screen and North American and European Catholics who want to promote it need to understand and accept this, lest we be guilty of a left-wing version of cultural imperialism.

So the matter came up of the late Don Samuel Ruiz's project in the San Cristobal de Las Casas diocese in Chiapas, Mexico. Don Samuel filled his predominantly indigenous diocese's leadership vacuum with married deacons to the extent that the institutional Church banned the diocese from ordaining any more deacons, arguing that this policy detracted from pursuing celibate vocations to the priesthood. The diocese ordained almost 400 deacons, many of whom had formerly been lay catechists. It has been said that Don Samuel was operating under the assumption that the Church's position on mandatory celibacy would soon change and he wanted to have a pool of men who could easily be transitioned into the priesthood once that change occurred.

Dom Erwin and the Pope also discussed Msgr. Fritz Lobinger's idea, laid out in his classic book Like His Brothers and Sisters: Ordaining Community Leaders (New York: Crossroads, 1999), of moving away from a special clerical caste and reaching into the community to ordain people who were already recognized as elders, as community leaders. Lobinger, who at that time was a missionary bishop in the Diocese of Aliwal in South Africa, saw that calling forward and forming leaders from the local community made it easier for the Catholic Church to become inculturated than staffing it with missionary priests who might or might not be comfortable with local traditions and customs.

And, again, mandatory celibacy has also faced a serious lack of cultural acceptance in the Church in Africa. One obviously thinks of the married and excommunicated Zambian archbishop Emmanuel Milingo and his Married Priests Now prelature, but there are many other independent Catholic churches that accept married priests and are being somewhat successful in wooing priests who want marriage and a family away from the Roman Catholic Church (see, for example, "40 Catholic priests quit over church celibacy rule, Nairobi Star, 8/25/2011). Certainly, in that context, allowing a married priesthood could strengthen the Church on that continent too. And, again, women priests are not on the radar at this point. There is no widespread popular support for them in Africa. Univision's survey of Catholics published on the one year anniversary of Pope Francis' pontificate last February found that fewer than 20% of Catholics in the two African countries they surveyed, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, supported women priests. In the European countries and the United States, by contrast, there was a healthy margin of support for women's ordination.

The most important "take away" from the Pope's conversation with Dom Erwin is that the pontiff is looking for a more collegial and decentralized governance of the Church, and we should view this as a welcome change after decades of dictatorship from Rome. The days of "one size fits all" ecclesial policies and practices will be over. Pope Francis strongly emphasized, as he has on several occasions, that he wants the bishops to propose solutions tailored to the problems and circumstances of their own countries. For places like the Xingu or San Cristobal de Las Casas, that may mean ordaining married community leaders who are already deacons or lay catechists. These men enjoy the support of their faith communities, understand the problems they face, and won't become discouraged and flee back to their home countries or towns when the going gets tough.

Indeed, we should be encouraged that the Pope has read and reflected on Msgr. Lobinger's ideas because, according to veteran Roman Catholic Woman Priest Victoria Rue, "a primary resource [on how women are called to and prepared for the priesthood in the RCWP movement] is South African Bishop Fritz Lobinger from his book Like His Brothers and Sisters: Ordaining Community Leaders. He offers the model of a Church of Communion, a participatory model where leadership is not limited to the ordained. Lobinger's model suggests Ordained Community Leaders (OCL's) that are part of a team with an ordained minister who deals exclusively with liturgy. While the inherent problem of "the holy priest," the sacred priest, still exists in this model, what is of interest from Bishop Lobinger's work are two ideas: first, that ordination is offered by the community to leaders of various ministries, such as visiting the sick, or education; second, that priests should be called forward by their communities. This is the model of the early church..." And in fact, in RCWP ordination ceremonies, time is alloted to hear from representatives of the ordinand's community and family why they believe she would make a good priest or deacon. Pope Francis' direction, although he hasn't taken it to the point of women's ordination, is a good one, and it is in line with how we understand important ways in which the priesthood must change for the future good of the Church.

In North America and Europe, an inculturated Catholicism may very well involve the ordination of women at least to the diaconate to begin with. The equal participation of women in all spheres of public life is a well-established concept and cultural norm in those countries. Such a move would recognize the important role women have played in liturgy, religious education, distribution of Holy Communion, and social ministry in the Church our countries. And -- and on this point I believe Jamie Mason is correct -- such a move would probably stem some of the drain of talented women from the Roman Catholic Church to RCWP and other independent Catholic churches. To that extent, it would temporarily weaken the women's ordination movement. For many women, simply being allowed official access to the diaconate might be enough for now. One could argue, however, that the experience of seeing gifted women in the role of deacon would eventually lead to the question of why the full range of Holy Orders might not be opened to them.

This being said -- and given what we have previously said about Pope Francis' belief in a more decentralized Church -- it is unrealistic to think that the Pope will come along and impose women deacons on the local Church. As Manson correctly points out, Pope Francis seems very interested in working towards repairing the historic schism between the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church. Allowing for a married priesthood and women deacons would not be foreign to that concern. Full women's ordination to the priesthood would, and so I would not expect it during Francis' papacy. However, as feminist theologian Sr. Teresa Forcades i Vila has often pointed out, no real change comes from above, and if women really wanted their role in the Church to change, they could make it happen quickly. If we want to see women deacons, we have to do the hard work of advocating for them with our local bishops. Get them on board with the concept and Pope Francis won't stand in the way.

But we can't hold up progress towards a married priesthood because women aren't included. Women's ordination groups have long worked in coalition with married priests' groups. Several Roman Catholic Women Priests are married to former Catholic priests -- Juanita and her late ex-Jesuit husband Don Cordero, Mary Grace Crowley-Koch and her husband Ron, Mary Theresa Streck and her late former priest husband Jay Murnane -- and married former priests from CORPUS and other organizations have been instrumental in helping to prepare women for the priesthood. We can't ask them to put their own goals on the back burner while we wait for the institutional Catholic Church to come around on women's ordination.

This is a pope who has a flexible attitude towards married priests. He already demonstrated it as Archbishop of Buenos Aires when he was the only person in Argentina's Roman Catholic hierarchy to reach out to that country's late married bishop Don Jeronimo Podesta while the rest of his colleagues shunned him. After Podesta's death, Pope Francis remained in communication with his widow, the late Clelia Luro de Podesta, who was active in the married priests' movement both in her country and at a continental level and regularly bent the Pope's ear on that issue. And even before Francis' election, there has been a move in the Catholic Church to quietly speed up the laicization process (which has also become somewhat more decentralized) so that married former priests can get on with their lives and regularize their families' status. There have also been moves from some bishops to encourage those priests to remain in the Church and bring their experience and gifts to the table as lay leaders. This is in line with Francis' posture of mercy first. All of this is positive and a move in the right direction.

I also question Manson's blanket assertion that the viri probati "will very likely be married men who have exhibited a strict adherence to official church teaching," filling it with conservatives who will not challenge the Church's teaching on women's ordination. Permanent deacons, like priests as a matter of fact, come with all sorts of views -- some expressed publicly and others held privately so as not to jeopardize their positions. They are different from the married "Pastoral Provision" priests who have joined the Roman Catholic priesthood precisely because they are opposed to changes in their original denominations such as the admission of women and gays into the priesthood and the episcopacy. Manson is correct that those priests have not supported change in the Catholic Church. Ironically, many of them have even voiced support for the Church's celibacy rule! (You have to wonder what their wives think of that...). Actually, one possible advantage of admitting married Catholic men to the priesthood might be that there will no longer be a need to fill vacancies with priests who have transferred from more liberal denominations just because they don't like change.

Finally, one of the main benefits for women that I see in the admission of married men to the priesthood -- and readmitting married former priests and allowing current priests to marry, should it come to that -- is that we will have a group of men who are used to dealing with women. In a good marriage, men do listen respectfully to their wives' opinions. How many of us have had the experience of being treated dismissively by celibate male priests who don't view laywomen (or women religious either) as worthy of their attention or consideration? I believe the introduction of married men into the priesthood can only lead to better communication between priests and women. And being listened to as someone whose views are worthy of respect is the first step towards equality.

Photo: Juanita and Don Cordero, both married priests, celebrate the Eucharist together


  1. It is not about women priests versus married priests. It is about what to do next. To ordain married men before women can be ordained would be to reinforce patriarchy even more. Not sure that would be good for the church.

  2. Well spoken Rebel Girl!
    The world suffers too much when it succumbs to the "Religious Temptation". The Religious Temptation is the "churched" person admiring the actions of fellow Christians and feeling guilty because we don't match up to their excellence. Let go of the temptation and let the Brazilian church act for the good of the faithful! Women leaders will succeed regardless!