Could a New Pope Mean the End of a Celibate Priesthood?
Early in the week, Uri Brito briefly outlined the array of challenges that would face the next pope. Since that time, the white smoke has risen to signal the election of Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio to the office of Pontiff.
Among the major challenges facing him are the still frequent occurrence or discovery of sexual scandal within the priesthood, and the rising tide of cultural consensus regarding homosexual marriages. For the Roman church as an organization, the sexual misconduct is arguably the more pressing. One solution proffered by a minority within the Roman church has been that priests be allowed to marry.
For many Romans, such a suggestion reveals a misunderstanding of the spiritual calling of the priesthood (though the allowance is already made for a small number of Anglican and Lutheran), but it may get at the deeper calling of all created beings. Take, as a case in point, Cardinal Keith O’Brien, Britain’s senior Roman cleric. Just weeks ago, he made a public statement expressing his hopes that Benedict XVI and the rest of the church might rethink the centuries-old policy of forbidding Roman priests to marry, explaining that the practice is “not of divine origin,” nor an official dogma of the church, and was therefore subject to reconsideration.
He explained that “many priests have found it very difficult to cope with celibacy;” a reality we protestants understand well. After all, marriage for clergy become a central issue in the Reformation, seeing that many of the movement’s leaders (Luther, Zwingli, Carlstadt, Bucer, etc.) were former priests who soon took wives (or, like Thomas Cranmer, already had one hidden away in Germany). Among their justifications was the feeling that some men who experienced clear callings to ecclesiastical labors were nevertheless not blessed with the gift of celibacy, and that Scripture seems to provide for the reality that the average pastor will have a family. Sadly, just days after O’Brien’s public comments on the struggles of the celibate life, several other priests came forward with allegations of sexual misconduct that he later confessed to. Forcing Cardinal O’Brien’s resignation was one of Pope Benedict’s last official acts in office.
The new Bishop of Rome has shown himself to be a staunch biblical conservative in his outspoken defense of biblical marriage and his condemnation of abortion. Is it too much to hope that his conservatism and biblical wisdom will lead him and his charges back to a more biblical understanding of man as sexual being, and marriage as the clearest biblical picture of Christ’s relationship to the Church? Maybe not.
After all, he did take the name of Francis, a man who, though not advocating marriage for clergy, founded an unprecedented holy order for those unable to take religion vows (because of marriage or other familial obligations)—showing at least a partial understanding of the essential relationship between marriage and the spiritual life and work of the Church. Perhaps this new Francis, standing on the shoulders of his namesake from Assisi, will recognize marriage as a biblical solution in his church’s time of great need.
I’ll be the first to admit that these comments are rough and speculative in nature, even blithely optimistic—could a new Pope mean the end of a celibate priesthood? Probably not. Nor will they seem very relevant to the average Protestant. Here, then, is something both relevant and practical. We are called to pray for our brothers and sisters, and for the world—a greater number of Christian marriages and covenant children in the Roman church would be good for both. And we are called to pray for those in authority, especially those in the Church, so let us pray for Francis, asking that God grant him courage, biblical wisdom, and long life.
Sean Johnson just really enjoys being married.