Should Catholicism allow married priests? Women deacons?

Should Catholicism allow married priests? Women deacons? November 8, 2019


Reviving big Catholic issues: Should priests be married? Should women be deacons?


Those two epochal changes in Catholicism are posed to Pope Francis in the final report from an October synod for Catholic delegates representing South America’s Amazon region. Francis expects to issue his formal response in a pronouncement by the end of the year.

Catholics in that region can go for months, even years, without seeing a priest due to a severe shortage that is fostering evangelical Protestant inroads. Therefore the synod proposed that well-proven men (viri probati) be ordained as priests even if married, an experiment in bending the celibacy rule that liberals hope — and traditionalists fear — could spread elsewhere.

Partly for the same reason, the report also asked for renewed study of ordaining women as deacons, which Francis has already agreed to authorize, though delegates did not advocate this change. The synod also recommended a new recognized ministry of “woman community leader,” and urged more participation for women in church decision-making. (Only men were voting delegates at the synod, which women attended as consultants and observers.)

Female deacons would be revolutionary, and change seems unlikely though not impossible. The celibacy that is mandatory for (most but not all) Catholic priests is considered a matter of discipline, not doctrine, and thus subject to change. Since celibacy has provoked so much discussion, and is the more likely to occur, The Guy treats that topic first.

The New Testament records that Peter, regarded by Catholicism as the first in the line of popes, was married. Jesus taught that some would choose to live as unmarried “eunuchs” for the sake of God’s kingdom (Matthew 19:12), and a biblical letter of Paul speaks of  a “special gift” to remain unwed (1 Corinthians 7:1-9). For both, this was singleness chosen voluntarily by certain Christians, not a requirement for all those in ministry.

In early Christianity, the choice of celibacy became more widespread as clergy sought to signify total dedication to church service. By the 4th Century the practice was being strongly advocated by the popes and provincial councils. Celibacy was eventually made an absolute requirement by the First and Second Lateran Councils in the 12th Century, partly to avoid the scandal of bishops maneuvering to pass church power on to their sons. Mandatory celibacy was reaffirmed by the 16th Century Council of Trent in response to Protestants’ married clergy.

Actually, the Catholic Church has long allowed married priests in “Eastern Rite” jurisdictions where that is the tradition, e.g. in Ukraine and Lebanon. As in Eastern Orthodox practice, the marriages  must occur before ordination to the priesthood, and bishops and monks are celibate. Also, in individual cases married Anglican and Lutheran clergy have been received into the Catholic priesthood.

Sacerdotalis Caelibatus, the 1967 encyclical on priestly celibacy by Pope Paul VI, noted that the shortage of priests (as in the Amazon) is regularly cited as reason to end the mandate, along with assertions that it goes against nature,  provides occasions for sexual infidelity, fails to uphold the stature of Christian marriage, or inhibits priests’ personal development.

Against that, Paul VI insisted that celibacy is only to be chosen “with full understanding” by well-prepared priest candidates, and provides an important “outward sign” of “total and generous giving of themselves to the mystery of Christ” and to church service, noting that the Savior himself was unwed. He said avoidance of family responsibilities allows “greater freedom and flexibility in the pastoral ministry.” One could add that it enables the church to pay low salaries.

On women, note for starters that a flat prohibition on female priests was proclaimed by Pope John Paul II in the 1994 apostolic letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis. As for deacons, Pope Francis appointed a study commission in 2016 that could not reach any consensus on whether the women deacons or “deaconesses” in New Testament times and afterward had ordination and status equivalent to that for men. A more elaborate study in 2002 by the International Theological Commission had concluded that the early church’s “deaconesses” were not “simply equivalent” to the era’s male deacons and left to church authorities whether to ordain modern females to the office.

There’s verbal confusion because there are two types of Catholic deacons. The regular office of deacon is a mere stepping-stone to full priestly ordination for men. But the Second Vatican Council restored the ancient office of “permanent” deacon as a separate category of ordained clergy subordinate to priests and bishops. Deacons can be married and properly perform most priestly functions except consecration of the bread and wine at Mass and pronouncing absolution in the sacrament of reconciliation (“penance”). These men help overcome the priest shortage, especially in North America.

Church rules allow sisters in religious orders and lay women to fill many posts without needing clergy ordination. They can and do serve in Vatican offices, administer parishes, lead Masses where elements previously consecrated by male priests are distributed, and perform various forms of outreach and service. However, it’s fair to say that their numbers are limited and their influence muted.

The Guy sidesteps and simply notes other conservative concerns about the Amazon synod as asserted by George Weigel at He thinks its warmth toward indigenous religions undercut the uniqueness of Jesus Christ, that evangelism was downplayed in favor of environmentalism and other “progressive’ social causes, and that Catholicism was treated as a loose federation rather than a centralized, hierarchical institution. To him, such “betrayal” of the Second Vatican Council as authentically interpreted by Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI creates a high-stakes church “crisis.”

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