Time for Married Priests?

I’m sharing this essay once again because, in the teeth of the ongoing abuse and cover-up scandal, people are saying we could easily fix so many problems if we’d just allow married priests.

The issue of celibacy is a thorny one, as I rediscovered from the passionate response to my Twitter post about the topic.  In this essay, I’m not attempting to disentangle celibacy from the culture of silence that surrounds it. I’m just thinking through what would happen if we introduced married priests with kids into a tradition that doesn’t already have a culture and support system accustomed to the idea. 

Since I wrote this essay, the Church established the Ordinariate so Anglican priests, many of whom have families, can become Catholic priests. That, too, comes with complications of its own. See the story we broke about Fr. Luke Reese and the Ordinariate’s response to his arrest for brutally beating his wife inside the church.

I don’t have any profound understanding of the metaphysical significance of celibacy.  But I do know something about human nature, and I can imagine what would happen if the Church began to ordain married men.  Here is a post I wrote back in January of 2011.

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Why doesn’t the Latin Rite Church just start ordaining married men again? If men can’t or won’t embrace celibacy, then why force the issue?  Well, I peeked into the future, when married priests are commonplace, and this is what I heard in the pews:

“Well!  I see the pastor’s wife is pregnant again!  What is she trying to prove?  Must be nice to pop ‘em out year after year, while the parish has to support all those brats.”

or:

“Well!  I see another year has gone by and the pastor’s wife still isn’t pregnant.  A fine example they’re setting!  I won’t have them teaching my children CCD, since his own wife is clearly on the Pill.”

and:

“I went to the rectory the other day to talk to Father about my divorce, and those damn kids of his wouldn’t shut up for a minute.  Sounded like a herd of elephants running around up there — I couldn’t keep my thoughts straight.  How can he give me advice about my family when he can’t even control his own?”

or:

“I have to talk to someone about my kids, but I would never go to Father — his kids are so well-behaved, he could never understand what I’m going through.  I swear, his wife must drug them or something — something ain’t right there.”

and:

“I see the pastor’s kids are taking tennis lessons!  I guess they’re doing pretty well– no need for me to leave anything in the basket this week, when we’re barely getting by.”

or:

“I see the pastor’s kids are wearing such ratty shoes.  What a terrible example he sets!  No one’s going to want to join a church that encourages you to have more kids than you can care for.”

and:

“I wanted to meet with Father to talk about the new brochures for the pro-life committee, and his secretary said he was busy — but on the drive home, I saw him at the McDonald’s playground, just fooling around with his kids!  I guess I know where stand in this parish!  Harumph.”

or:

“Everyone thinks it’s so great that Father started all these holy hours and processions and prayer groups, but I saw two of his little ones sitting all alone, just looking so sad and neglected.  It’s a shame that any children should grow up that way, without proper attention from their parents.  Harumph.”

And so on, and so on.  I’m sure you can think of more.   Imagine if his wife had a job?  Or imagine if she didn’t have a job?  Imagine if his wife wore jeans?  Imagine if she wore a veil? Imagine if he got an annulment? Would the parishioners pay for child support?  Imagine if the priest could have gotten married, but was still single?  Does that mean he’s gay, or impotent?  Am I imagining it, or is he hitting on me? Is he hitting on my daughter? Does he regret not marrying before he was ordained?

I’m paraphrasing here, but I remember a pathetic prayer uttered by the semi-fictional Don Camillo:  “Please, merciful Lord, if I have to blow my nose while I’m up at the altar, let me do it in a way that doesn’t offend anyone.”

And it wouldn’t just be a matter of doing the right thing and shrugging off unjust gossip.  It would be so hard to know what is the right thing to do.  I see how my husband struggles to work hard at his job,  make enough money, and strategize for the future, because we’re all depending on him — and then comes home and puts it all aside to become the sympathetic and appreciative husband and the strong but playful dad.  And he only has one family.

It’s hard enough for men to balance family and career. What if, as priests, they had to balance their biological family with a spiritual family of parishioners?  Whose needs come first?  It might work in a small, very close-knit community with a long tradition of married priests; but most parishes in the United States are not like that.

And did I mention?  The average American Catholic diocesan priest makes between$15-30,000 a year.

I’m not saying it’s unworkable; I’m just saying it’s not the no-brainer heal-all for anemic numbers in the seminaries.

All the hypothetical nasty comments above are things that people say about decent, hard-working, lay Catholic couples with private lives.  Other people have no business judging them — and yet they do, all the time.  How much worse would this gossip (and the attendant protest via empty collections basket and empty pews) be if the couple in question had much less claim to a private life?
Parishioners tend to feel like they “own” their pastors.  This can take the form of befriending and loving him, making him meals, and praying for him — but it can also take some uglier forms.  I cannot imagine enduring such scrutiny as a pastor’s wife or child, especially without the graces of Holy Orders that help a priest survive his daily ordeal.

It can be done. But it’s ludicrous to suggest, as so many have, that it’s a no-brainer that would do away with abuse and solve the vocations crisis all in one fell swoop.

Where Be Story Editor?

Roland Joffé’s new movie, There Be Dragons, is about half a good movie.  What is good is so good that it makes the bad parts doubly frustrating.

Let’s start with the good.  The best part was, happily, Charlie Cox, who plays Opus Dei’s founder, Josemaria Escriva.  Knowing very little about the actual man, I had none of the mental baggage that can trouble a fan (“That’s not how I pictured Mr. Tumnus!”).  The Fr. Josemaria he portrays is a strong, happy, humorous man who is not like other men.  When he commands a room with quiet authority, you feel it.  Despite the drama that surrounds him, his actions are not hammy or melodramatic.  You care about him, and want him to succeed.  When he learns to love everyone he meets, you believe it, and you feel glad that you met him, even if only on screen through an actor.  There are several original and memorable scenes which demonstrate the humanity, holiness, and appeal of the man.

When he’s not on screen, however, the movie is kind of a mess.  The first half hour or so is so cluttered with flashbacks, flash forwards, voice overs, text explanations, and a panoply of cinematic hokeyness, it’s a struggle just to figure out what story is being told.

I know what happened here.  The director knew he had a good story on his hands:  Josemaria Escriva was an amazing guy living in amazing times.  But if you just do a biopic of a Catholic boy who becomes a priest and starts a religious movement, who’s going to watch it?  So they decided to give the story some theatrical heft by telling two stories simultaneously:  Josemaria and his onetime friend, Manolo Torres, who works as a fascist government mole in the trenches with the communist rebels.  But that’s not all:  the dual story is being uncovered by the alienated son of Manolo, who is writing a book about Josemaria, who was friends with Manolo, who is telling his son not to write the book, who is writing it because he’s mad at his father, who is mad at Josemaria because he’s  . . . if this is making any sense, I’m telling it wrong.

Any time Manolo, or his son, or Manolo’s rebel beloved, or the beloved’s lover are on screen, the movie descends into — how do you say?  – silliness.  The characters are paper thin, the dialog is contrived, the voice overs never clarify anything, and the acting stinks.  Again, I think I know what happened:  the director has seen one to many Francis Ford Coppola movies, and was desperate to do the whole “violence and sacraments” juxtaposition thing.  A rosary next to a pistol!  A shattered statue of Mary amid the rubble of war!  An angel amid the lunatics in the asylum!  Or is it a devil!  I know it’s not fair to say, “This is no Godfather,” but what can I say?  Coppola pulled it off; this guy didn’t.  The effect is just squirmfully corny.  You really can’t zoom in on someone’s eyes, and then turn the screen into a swirling, glowing snowglobe to signify that God Is Talking.  You just can’t.  I, the marginally sophisticated viewer, will not stand for it.

At the same time,  so many moments that could have been incredibly powerful cinema are just squandered.  For example: the sniper is on the hillside, squinting through his gunsight at Josemaria and his friends below as they celebrate a makeshift Mass during their perilous escape  in the middle of the Pyrenees.  That could have been a gorgeous scene.  With a little movement by the camera, it could have been the pivotal point — could have carried the weight of the whole movie.  Instead, they just kind of  . . . filmed it:  here’s the sniper, here’s the priest.  Bang!  Next scene.  So frustrating.

At a certain point in the movie, I felt as if I was watching a slide show or an especially melodramatic Powerpoint presentation which covered the plot, more than an actual story.   There was no rhythm to the way it was told, just lots of stopping and starting — which isn’t the same.  There was no deeper meaning to the double stories, just added complexity — which isn’t the same.  There were no deeper themes of fatherhood and faith and forgiveness, just lots of talking about those things — which isn’t the same.  They could have cut thirty minutes and half the characters without losing anything.

Well, now I feel like a jerk.  This was a very sincere movie, and believe it or not, I still recommend it.   It made me interested in Josemaria Escriva — I just wish they had stuck with him more, and skipped all the tacked-on extras of the other plot. I think high school students and younger would probably be pretty impressed by this movie, and it would make a great introduction to the saint for a confirmation class.    I can see someone leaving the theater inspired and encouraged by what happened on the screen.  As I said, the good parts (which occur mostly in the middle third of this two-hour film) are quite good.  The bad parts aren’t unwatchable so much as frustrating:  you keep thinking how much better it could have been.

I guess I’m just not willing to go whole hog and rave about it, just because it presents Catholics in a good light and had a budget of more than $750.  I’m awfully, awfully tired of Catholics being the boogeyman in popular culture, but I’m also awfully, awfully tired of being told that everything that’s wholesome is a MUST SEE, a piece of CINEMATIC BRILLIANCE that will CHANGE YOUR LIFE, and is about FIREMEN.  So, this movie was okay.  I liked it.  But it wasn’t an especially good movie.

It was extremely refreshing to see the Catholic faith represented as something that inspires generosity, courage, manliness, and heroism.  I just wish that someone had been inspired to edit this movie, and heavily.

You can see the official trailer here.

Time for married priests?

Why doesn’t the Latin Rite Church just start ordaining married men again? If men can’t or won’t stay celibate, then why force the issue?  Well, I peeked into the future, when married priests are commonplace, and this is what I heard in the pews:

“Well!  I see the pastor’s wife is pregnant again!  What is she trying to prove?  Must be nice to pop ‘em out year after year, while the parish has to support all those brats.”

or:

 

“Well!  I see another year has gone by and the pastor’s wife still isn’t pregnant.  A fine example they’re setting!  I won’t have them teaching my children CCD, since his own wife is clearly on the Pill.”

and:

 

“I went to the rectory the other day to talk to Father about my divorce, and those damn kids of his wouldn’t shut up for a minute.  Sounded like a herd of elephants running around up there — I couldn’t keep my thoughts straight.  How can he give me advice about my family when he can’t even control his own?”

or:

 

“I have to talk to someone about my kids, but I would never go to Father — his kids are so well-behaved, he could never understand what I’m going through.  I swear, his wife must drug them or something — something ain’t right there.”

and:

 

“I see the pastor’s kids are taking tennis lessons!  I guess they’re doing pretty well– no need for me to leave anything in the basket this week, when we’re barely getting by.”

or:

 

“I see the pastor’s kids are wearing such ratty shoes.  What a terrible example he sets!  No one’s going to want to join a church that encourages you to have more kids than you can care for.”

and:

 

“I wanted to meet with Father to talk about the new brochures for the pro-life committee, and his secretary said he was busy — but on the drive home, I saw him at the McDonald’s playground, just fooling around with his kids!  I guess I know where I stand in this parish!  Harumph.”

or:

 

“Everyone thinks it’s so great that Father started all these holy hours and processions and prayer groups, but I saw two of his little ones sitting all alone, just looking so sad and neglected.  It’s a shame that any children should grow up that way, without proper attention from their parents.  Harumph.”

And so on, and so on.  I’m sure you can think of more.   Imagine if his wife had a job?  Or imagine if she didn’t have a job?  Imagine if his wife wore jeans?  Imagine if she wore a veil? Imagine if he got an annulment, and then started a new family?  Would the parishioners pay for alimony or child support?  Imagine if the priest could get married, but was still single?  Is he gay, or impotent?  Is he hitting on me?  Is he hitting on my daughter? [As Abby pointed out, no rite has ever allowed already-ordained priests to marry, so this wouldn’t be an issue!]

I’m paraphrasing here, but I remember a pathetic prayer uttered by the semi-fictionalDon Camillo:  “Please, merciful Lord, if I have to blow my nose while I’m up at the altar, let me do it in a way that doesn’t offend anyone.”

And it wouldn’t just be a matter of doing the right thing and shrugging off unjust gossip — it would be so hard to know what is the right thing to do.  I see how my husband struggles to work hard at his job,  make enough money, and strategize for the future, because we’re all depending on him — and then comes home and puts it all aside to become the sympathetic and appreciative husband and the strong but playful dad.  And he only has one family.

It’s hard enough for men to balance family and career — what if, as priests, they had to balance their biological family with a spiritual family of parishioners?  Whose needs come first?

And did I mention?  The average American Catholic diocesan priest makes between$15-30,000 a year.

Look, I know there are some families that could  hack it.   There are some that do, and I’m sure there are some that do very well, especially if the parish is close-knit and conservative, with a long, comfortable tradition of married priests.  And I know we’re likely to see more married priests soon, since our beloved (and thrilling!) Benedict XVI has so warmly welcomed the Anglicans in.

How’s it going to go?  I don’t know.  I’m not saying it’s a bad idea; I’m just saying it’s not the no-brainer heal-all for anemic numbers in the seminaries. All the hypothetical nasty comments above are things that people say about decent, hard-working, LAY Catholic couples with private lives.  Other people have no business judging them — and yet they do, all the time.  How much worse would this gossip (and the attendant protest via empty collections basket and empty pews) be if the couple in question had much less claim to a private life?  Parishioners tend to feel like they “own” their pastors.  This can take the form of befriending and loving him, making him meals, and praying for him — but it can also take some uglier forms.  I cannot imagine enduring such scrutiny as a pastor’s wife or child, especially without the graces of Holy Orders that help a priest survive his daily ordeal.

And oh dear –  I was about to ask Priest’s Wife to weigh in, and now I see that she wrote about this last week!  Check it out, and also her fascinating follow-up post on celibacy and selfishness.  She was originally responding to a post by Fr. Z, which frankly I cannot make myself read.  The commentors he attracts always make me want to hide in the catacombs, to get away from those awful Catholics.  Brrr.

Well, next time, we’ll discuss why – sigh – women priests are such a bad idea.