But what about the Greek Church and other Orthodox churches? They have allowed married men to be priests while at the same time upholding the higher ideal of celibacy; and they have done this in two ways: by allowing only celibate men to become bishops and by maintaining a strong tradition of monastic celibacy. Can’t we Catholics do the same — some priests married, some priests celibate, all bishops celibate, and all members of religious orders celibate?
Yes, but we’ll have to wait till a time when the change can be done safely — and that time may not arrive for another few centuries. What’s more, a change of this kind will have to be made gradually, not suddenly. Think of the relatively small changes that were made in the era of Vatican II, e.g., the vernacular Mass and the altar turned around; and remember how disturbing these minor changes were to the faith of millions of Catholic believers. The sudden and dramatic abolition of the priesthood celibacy requirement would in all likelihood be even more disturbing.
If the change comes, my guess is that it will come in a long series of small steps, steps allowing for special exceptions to the celibacy requirement, like the special exception now given to married Anglican priests who convert to Catholicism. Later special exceptions may be given to Methodists or Presbyterian or Baptist ministers or even to Jewish rabbis. And then special exceptions can be given to certain Catholics, e.g., permanent deacons or married men who can convince their bishops that they clearly have a “call” to the priesthood. And finally, after all these special exceptions have gradually — very, very gradually — accumulated, Rome can announce, in a quite anti-climactic way, that the requirement of priestly celibacy is being abolished.
My guess is that all this will be accomplished by about the year AD 3000.
David Carlin, a professor of sociology and philosophy at the Community College of Rhode Island at Newport, is the author of My Dear Bishops…: An Open Letter to the American Catholic Bishops.