listen, papa: let priests marry

So Pope Francis has called for an “all-out battle” against clerical sex abuse — no specifics on what the battle would entail, but it’s a start. As a lowly Catholic laywoman who’s all but voiceless in the church, I urge Il Papa and everyone with a say in the hierarchy to consider the following:

Let priests marry.

Maybe not all of them will want to; maybe some will choose to take a vow of celibacy. If they’re called to it, they should. When news of the scourge first broke in the early 2000s, a lot of people questioned whether the vow itself was the problem — whether a life of sexual abstinence inevitably led its practitioners toward a twisted and criminal dark side. I didn’t believe that then. I don’t now.

But I do believe we would all be better off in a church with married priests. To me, the problem with the church then, the problem with the church now, and the problem with the church’s history of covering up abuse and shuffling around the molesting clerics all boils down to this: No one in the hierarchy is a parent.

If parents had been in charge? No way in hell all of those monstrous priests would have been reassigned. The bulk would have been fired, defrocked, excommunicated, busted, brought up on charges and kicked on their asses into prison. There would have been some small sense of moral reckoning, not this lingering, decades-long suspicion that too many higher-ups in the Catholic Church just didn’t get it and never would.

Part of the problem has always been the boys-club element, the No Girls Allowed, and I’m with everyone who calls for women in the priesthood. The novelist Alice McDermott has a brilliant piece in The New York Times  advocating for same. “For the male leaders of the Catholic Church, the lives of women and children become secondary to the concerns of the more worthy, the more powerful, the more essential person — the male person, themselves,” she writes. “The Catholic Church needs to correct this moral error.”

And I agree. Wholeheartedly. Had women occupied the Vatican, the bishoprics and the rectories around the world, there’s a chance that at least some of those outrages might not have occurred. There’s also a chance that abusive priests might have been reported to the police.

But I also feel that this isn’t a man/woman issue. This is a life/love issue. It’s a matter of engagement in one of life’s most mundane and sacred mysteries — raising children — and the ferocious love engendered by it. How can an institution comprehend the divine if it isn’t fully human? Wouldn’t the church be wiser and more loving if a few of the folks in charge truly understood what it means to be a father or a mother?

Parents know that nothing matters more than a child’s well being. Parents know their mission on earth is to protect them. Parents know the madness of loving a child, the joy of loving a child, the fierceness of loving a child, the single-mindedness of loving child, the frustration of loving a child, the incomprehensible, inexplicable, sublime and mind-altering hugeness of loving a child.

I’ve been Catholic for almost 29 years now. Despite the church’s problems and my various disagreements with it, I still attend weekly Mass. I still receive the Eucharist, which inspired me to convert in the first place. But I never felt closer to God than I did when giving birth. I never felt more at one with the body of Christ or the sisterhood of humanity, and I never felt more humbled and awed. My kids are now 25, 23 and 18. I’m still awed. My love for them still brings me closer to God.

When they were little, I always told them this: There’ll be married priests in my lifetime, women priests in yours. I still sticking with my prediction, but I’m 55 now, and I’d rather not push it.

Married priests now, Papa. Please.

16 thoughts on “listen, papa: let priests marry

  1. Amy, I’m going to disagree with you here and for more than one reason.

    First of all, in my experience, the way that the priesthood is set up currently would make a pretty awful environment for marriage or family. Seriously. I work at a parish and I am hardly considered some kind of hardened traditionalist. There is nothing that would easily support it. Now I know that some dioceses, not our own, not yet anyway, have ordained married men from other traditions that become Catholic. Honestly, I cannot imagine how that works – financially or practically. I could say more and would be happy to discuss, but that is my initial reaction.

    Second of all, and I speak as someone who grew up in an abusive heteronormative family of two married adults. Most abuse happens in families. Sadly, spouses and parents are not always good at either knowing or acting upon it, because of the family dynamics. Now I’m 61, so when I was growing up, sex talk of any sort, or taking on my dad, were both verboten. But even now, this happens in families in surprising ways all the time. Also, there are married clergy of other denominations and abuse happens there too.

    I’ve never had a child of my own, but I love my stepdaughter as if she were my own flesh and blood – and my love for her is completely part of the presence of God in my life. Not the same as yours, but not so different. But a predator might feel the same way about their child and harm them anyway.

    I am of an entirely mixed mind about married Roman Catholic clergy overall. I know a lot of priests and I do not know many who I believe would want to marry, for lots of reasons. It is not to say that they do not think of what might have been or could be, I suppose, but most of the people in this dio and other places that I call friend are very clear about who they are and why they are priests.

    Let me close with this thought… I was on a panel regarding abuse at a DC area parish in September. Three psychologists and me, go figure. Which one of these is not like the other!? I guess I was there to address pastoral concerns (and that I did). All four of us were Catholic, one of the psychologists was a priest, the rest of us lay. All practicing our faith and all psychologists working in some area of the church. One was an abuse coordinator for a religious order, she had done a lot of work in the field around priestly abuse. Another worked with priests and seminarians as their psychologist. The priest did a lot of work around formation with his religious order.

    The topic of married priests and women priests came up repeatedly and the priest said this – although I paraphrase. He said that if one lived in a beautiful home with a lot of history, one might wish to renovated it and expand it one day to make it better. He said you could add rooms, renovate existing spaces, and more. But he added that all the improvements and beautifications in the world, no matter how necessary, might prove disastrous if the foundation was not solid. Sometimes, he said, you might need a whole new house. Cryptic but clear. I have thought of his words frequently since then. It helps me when people who imagine that I am for both of those things are shocked, and even hurt when I tell them I am not. But until I heard that priest, I am not sure I could have articulated why I was not. That is not to say that I do not wish for there to be change, but I am not so sure it will happen any time too soon.

    Good God that is one long comment. Thanks for indulging me, I’m not here to be a contrarian, just to share my thoughts.

    • Fran, thank you so much for your thoughtful response. I see all of the points you’re making, and I believe I comprehend them all. For what it’s worth, I would *never* say all priests should feel compelled to marry, nor would I ever say that good priests can’t and don’t use empathy and imagination in their ministry with families. Clearly they do! And I admire all who follow the call to celibacy. I’ve just had my own conviction about the failures of the hierarchy for a long time now.

      Also, I understand that heteronormative, married couples can certainly be abusive, and I’m sorry for all that you’ve been through. I’m also really grateful you read my blog and posted such a thoughtful response. Bless you!

      • I agree, and I didn’t mean to suggest that there’s any easy one-size-fits-all solution. Of course all institutions are at risk, because institutions on their own seem to encourage that toxic clubbishness and dysfunction. Schools, gymnastics teams, all of that. And the baptist churches now facing the same issues.

        I’m just trying to grapple with one component. I do think something needs to change in the hierarchy. There needs to be more voices with a say; if there had been more voices from the start, would bishops have shuffled around the offenders? That’s the question that concerns me the most. From the early 2000s I felt the conversation around abuse was missing the point, and I’m just trying to re-orient and consider it from another angle.

        But again, I agree.

  2. Your wonderful, typically straight-talking post made me wonder which comes first: La Mamma or death of the Church? (Or extinction of the planet. A race to the finish.)

  3. I would argue if being a parent would prevent these problems. You would like to think so. But parents did not help at Penn State. And even women leaders did not help with USA gymnastics. And I wonder about our schools. The same dynamics were at play. We cover up what we don’t have the courage to confront and until there is a willingness to confront sex abuse as a problem as a whole and free it from these contexts in which we tend to discuss it as isolated problems.

  4. As a non-Catholic, I don’t have a dog in this fight. Still, celibate priests are doctrinal, not Biblical creations, done over property rights. So I find it a curiosity. All that said, I tend to agree with you, and I think WOMEN PRIESTS would be even more important in dealing with these issues.

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