In the lengthy chronicle of the Roman Catholic Church, the resignation of Benedict XVI has no close precedent. It is highly improbable that the pope acted unilaterally, in response to feebleness or aging. Nothing short of profound crisis could have brought matters to this dramatic turn – and nothing short of a dramatic nod to reform can provide the resignation with coherent meaning.
The most feasible such reform, in terms both practical and theological, is a full-scale reversal of the Vatican’s 1,500-year-old ban on married priests.
In 1996, I covered the official visit of Pope John Paul II to Tunisia for The Chronicle. Suffering visibly from the complications of a recent fall, chronic fevers and the first signs of Parkinson’s disease, he was unable to walk without two attendants to hold him upright. His voice quavered incoherently. He was a frail shadow of the energetic 58-year-old who had assumed the throne of St. Peter in 1978, in no better condition than Benedict XVI to fulfill his duties. Yet almost nine years were to pass before his papacy ended in death, as it had for all but two of his 263 predecessors.
Today, faced with extraordinary upheaval at every turn – a catastrophic decline in the number of priests, relentless sexual and financial scandals, wholesale resistance among the faithful to church dogma on divorce and birth control – the instinctively conservative Vatican bureaucracy has concluded that a radical but controlled breach with the past is unavoidable. No one understands the stakes more clearly than Joseph Ratzinger, now pope emeritus, who ruled that bureaucracy for 24 years under John Paul II.
In effect if not intention, it was Ratzinger who presided over the unprecedented hemorrhage in vocations, a core issue in the crisis. In 2011, according to Vatican statisticians, one new priest was ordained in the United States for every 163,000 Catholics. In 2009, just 16 priests were ordained in England and Wales, home to 4.2 million Catholics. In the rural Italian countryside where I live, two exhausted priests hold periodic services in a dozen towns and villages. Worldwide, more than 49,000 parishes had no priest in 2010.
Lifting the ban on marriage will forcefully address the sense of stagnancy afflicting the church; perhaps more tellingly, there is no firm theological impediment to it. The basis for priestly celibacy lies neither in the New Testament record of Christ’s preaching nor in the example of his apostles, most of them married men, but in administrative directives mandated nearly 400 years later and imposed erratically for the following half millennium.
“Despite 600 years of decrees, canons and increasingly harsh penalties,” notes religious historian Anne L. Barstow, Western European clergy “lived with their wives and raised families.”
In more than a dozen Eastern branches of the church, ranging from Ethiopia and Egypt to the Balkans, parts of Russia and Ukraine, the rule forbidding the ordination of married men was never imposed. Across the vast realm of Third World Catholicism, priestly celibacy has become what divorce and birth control are among Catholics in the developed world: a precept so widely ignored that its effect is a moot rebellion against Rome. Many of the priests I’ve interviewed since the 1980s on assignments in East Africa and Asia, including the fiercely religious Philippines, were openly married and had children.
Even in the United States over the past three decades, thanks to a special Vatican dispensation, 80 married Protestant ministers have converted to Catholicism and been ordained priests. Permitting the general ordination of married men is sure to broaden the pool of applicants for the priesthood.
It is also likely to fuel serious consideration of ecclesiastical roles for women. As the experience of the Anglican and Episcopal churches – the closest to Rome in theological principles – demonstrates, the wife of a pastor often undertakes responsibilities that approach de facto priesthood. Women have been ordained by the U.S. Episcopal Church since 1974 and served as bishops since 1989. The Church of England consecrated its first female priests in 1994. By 2010, it was ordaining more women than men. Radical reform of ordination, however sweeping, is by no means a panacea for the myriad ills that beset Catholicism. But it is a crucial first step in a momentous passage.