Should priests be allowed to marry? That is probably one of the most popular questions today, even within the Roman Catholic Church. A search on Google for the words "priests marry catholic" generated no less than 1,380,000 hits. "Celibacy used to go with priesthood as fish went with Fridays," commented the former seminary president, Rev. Donald Cozzens. "Over the past 40 to 50 years, I would argue that more and more Catholics are questioning the need to link celibacy with priesthood." (AP article, 1-26-07)
Cozzens is arguing for the church to drop the age-old requirement. And part of what is fueling his call for change, as well as many in the RC church today, is the challenge of a numerically declining priesthood. Personally I was shocked to learn just how much a difference there is compared to 40 years ago. There were 42,000 active priests in 2005. That is a 29% decline from 1965. In 1965 there were 549 parishes without a resident priest. Today that number is 3,200! Obviously this is a true crisis for the RC church.
Yet, should the question of celibacy be argued purely on the basis of expediency and institutional survival? While as a Lutheran I see no need for such a vow, I would be the first to caution the adoption or removal of any practice without the thorough examination of all the theological reasons for doing so.
I find it interesting that celibacy, as a requirement for the priesthood, was only made mandatory in the 12th century. Priests and bishops were apparently free to marry in all those centuries prior to that. Furthermore, priests in the eastern rites have no such requirement. But what is the rationale or theological basis for this practice, and why did it arise so late in the history of the church? Rev. Cozzens recommends that the practice should be limited to those who believe they have the "gift" or charism for such a practice. That would certainly square with St. Paul, who although was seemingly celibate himself, rightly acknowledged that this was not for everyone.
I understand one of the rationale for celibacy, in that it supposedly allows a priest to be entirely focused on his calling, without the distraction of wife and children. But an apologetic could just as easily be given for a married priesthood, from the perspective of the priest now possessing greater practical insight into his member's lives and circumstances. A binding practice like this cannot be decided purely on how it may or may not affect the priest.
St. Peter was married, and in this Sunday's gospel it his his own mother-in-law that is healed. Many feel that at one time Paul, too, was married, as this was the prevailing practice among the Pharisees. Our own Lord elevates the gift of marriage highly, and Paul encourages many to pursue it, notwithstanding the current crisis of the last days. It would seem that this church needs first to wrestle again with the biblical and theological reasons. Even an examination of Tradition would be in order, with the attending question of why there is a seeming absence of Early Church precedent prior to the 12th century.
With all this said, I don't look for the RC church to change on this issue. Both John Paul II and Benedict XVI have shown unyielding support. Yet, even if it doesn't change, I believe that the rank-and-file Catholic in the pew deserves a well thought out rationale that they can understand, and from their perspective, accept.