Top Catholic and Orthodox church officials in North America are calling on the Vatican to let married men become priests in Eastern rite Catholic churches, another sign that optional celibacy could become a front-burner issue under Pope Francis.
Like Eastern Orthodox churches, Eastern rite Catholics tend to have more local autonomy than their Roman Catholic counterparts, and they have particular liturgies and customs that date back to their origins in the Middle East and Eastern Europe.
One of those customs is optional celibacy. While Eastern rite Catholic bishops cannot be married, the priesthood is open to married men.
Pope Francis likes to say that he prefers to raise questions rather than issue edicts or change doctrine, and he has certainly generated plenty of debate with his off-the-cuff remarks about gays and his cold-call chats on topics like divorce and Communion, as happened recently with a woman in Argentina.
Now a recent conversation between the pope and a bishop from Brazil about the priest shortage may be moving the issue of married clergy onto the pontiff’s agenda.
During the meeting, Krautler and Francis compared notes on how much the priest shortage affects the church, especially in the Southern Hemisphere. Krautler’s diocese, geographically the largest in Brazil, has just 27 priests for 700,000 Catholics, most of whom might attend Mass a couple of times a year.
It’s not every day you meet a practicing priest in the Catholic Church who is married, so when I got in touch with Fr. Dwight Longenecker (a man who meets the above criteria), I took the opportunity to get his take on sex, marriage, celibacy, and how the Church can, should, and already is dealing with sex differently, both within clergy circles and beyond them.
Dwight Longenecker was brought up in an evangelical home and graduated from the stridently anti-Catholic Bob Jones University in Greenville, S.C. While there he became an Anglican and went on to study theology at Oxford University. He married Alison and they have four children. After 10 years as a minister in the Church of England Dwight and his family converted to the Catholic faith. Showing that God has a sense of humor, Dwight returned to Greenville to be ordained as a Catholic priest. He now serves as a parish priest in Greenville.
You are both married and a Catholic Priest. How did that happen?
Excommunicated Zambian Archbishop Emmanuel Milingo, who advocates for married priests within the Roman Catholic Church, said he has not split from Rome though many of the priests he ordained no longer see themselves as part of the church.
“We are not a breakaway church,” said Milingo, who married Maria Sung, a Korean acupunturist, in 2001. “Within the Catholic Church married priests existed for a thousand years.”
An Austrian priest who’s been banned from speaking at Roman Catholic churches during his three-week U.S. tour said Pope Francis could be an ally in reforming the Catholic Church, but said it will take more than the pope to open the priesthood to married men and women.
The Rev. Helmut Schuller, founder of the Austrian Priests’ Initiative, has been drawing crowds of several hundred people with his call for greater participation from the church’s lay “citizens” and a married priesthood.
“We are trying to open the church to a real approach to modern society,” Schuller said Monday in a speech at the National Press Club. “There are a lot of questions to our church in these times, and the answers are really old-fashioned.”