Father Dwight Longenecker

The ordination of married men as Catholic priests: Is this change now inevitable?

The ordination of married men as Catholic priests: Is this change now inevitable?

American Catholics may not know all the latest statistics, but they've been talking about the altar-level realities for decades.

Half a century ago, there were nearly 60,000 U.S. priests and about 90 percent of them were in active ministry -- serving about 54 million self-identified Catholics.

The number of priests was down to 36,580 by 2018 -- while the U.S. Catholic population rose to 76.3 million -- and only 66 percent of diocesan priests remained in active ministry. According to a study by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University, half of America's priests hoped to retire before 2020. Meanwhile, 3,363 parishes didn't have a resident priest in 2018.

It's understandable that concerned Catholics are doing the math. Thus, activists on both sides of the priestly celibacy issue jumped on an intriguing passage in the "Instrumentum Laboris" for next October's special Vatican assembly of the Synod of Bishops in the Pan-Amazonian region.

"Stating that celibacy is a gift for the Church, we ask that, for more remote areas in the region, study of the possibility of priestly ordination of elders, preferably indigenous," stated this preliminary document. These married men "can already have an established and stable family, in order to ensure the sacraments that they accompany and support the Christian life."

The text's key term is "viri probati" -- mature, married men.

"Celibacy is not dogma; it is a legal requirement that can be changed," noted Father Thomas Reese, a Jesuit journalist best known as editor of America magazine. He left that post in 2005 after years of conflict with the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

While Pope Francis has praised celibacy, "he is also a pragmatist who recognizes that indigenous communities are being denied the Eucharist and the sacraments because they don't have priests. After all, which is more important, a celibate priesthood or the Eucharist? At the Last Supper, Jesus said, 'Do this in memory of me' not 'have a celibate priesthood'," argued Reese, in a Religion News Service commentary.

Survey results have shown that many American Catholics are ready for married priests, noted Reese, reached by email.

Searching for some facts about St. Matthew and those mysterious Epiphany magi

Searching for some facts about St. Matthew and those mysterious Epiphany magi

Several centuries after the birth of Jesus, Syrian scribes offered these names for the wise men who came to Bethlehem -- King Hormizdah of Persia, King Yazdegerd of Saba and King Perozadh of Shelba.

A late 5th century Alexandria chronicle called them Bithisarea, Melichior and Gathaspa, which evolved into the familiar Balthazar, Melchior and Caspar. In the 6th century, Emperor Justinian commissioned a Ravenna mosaic in what is now called the Basilica of St. Apollinaris, showing three magi wearing what appears to be Persian clothing, and carrying gifts.

Over the centuries, these images shaped countless Nativity scenes, church pageants and carols, noted Father Dwight Longenecker, author of a new book, "Mystery of the Magi." He is an Oxford University graduate and former Anglican priest who, after converting to Roman Catholicism with his wife and children, now leads Our Lady of the Rosary Catholic Church in Greenville, S.C.

This weekend, worshipers celebrating the Epiphany feast -- which closes the 12-day Christmas season -- will hear what the Gospel of St. Matthew says about all this. Comparing the simple biblical account with many colorful "Three Kings" stories, Longenecker explained, is rather like comparing the humble, pious, 3rd century St. Nicholas of Myra with the Santa Claus found in Hollywood flicks.

"I don't think we need to give up Nativity plays and singing 'We Three Kings of Orient Are.' But I do think we need to realize that these are elaborations on the historical story from Matthew's Gospel. They're delightful, but they are related to the facts of Jesus' birth in the same way the Broadway musical Camelot is related to scholars writing about the historical King Arthur," he said.

"Our culture has … stuck the magi in the same sentimental, magical Christmas bundle with Santa and a bunch of flying reindeer.

Reality keeps raising the April Fools' bar for all those online Catholic satirists

Day after day, Kevin Knight scans news and commentary pages looking for items that will interest Catholics and others who visit his New Advent website.

With its plain white background, stark graphics and columns of headlines, the site looks something like the powerful, secular Drudge Report. But New Advent focuses on church life and doctrine, not celebrity scandals and political horse races.

Knight does appreciate the occasional zinger. Still, he has learned to be extra careful when April 1 approaches. After all, the Chair of St. Peter is occupied by a pope whose off-the-cuff remarks often puzzle the faithful. Oh, and Donald Trump is president of the United States.

"Yes, it has gotten harder to tell satire and hoaxes from the real thing," noted Knight. "It's getting more necessary to be explicit when linking to some stories -- especially when they deal with Pope Francis. … In the past two years, I've deliberately avoided linking to April Fools' stories for this very reason."

All savvy news consumers need to do to see what Knight is taking about is open an online search program and enter various religious terms and then the phrase "not the Onion," referring to The Onion, a secular satire site.

Take this headline, for example: "Muslim Schoolgirl Sent Home Because Her Skirt Was Too Long." That story is real.

Or how about this? "Pope Francis to make Martin Luther a Saint on October 31." That jest ran on April 1 on the "Liturgy: Service and Gratitude" site.

Consider this headline: "Jesuits to Admit Women to the Society."

A married priest parses latest sound bite -- about married priests -- from Pope Francis

A married priest parses latest sound bite -- about married priests -- from Pope Francis

Every now and then, a typical Catholic asks Father Dwight Longenecker for his take on whether Rome will ever ordain more married men as priests. 

This is logical, since Longenecker is a former Anglican priest who is married and has four children. He was raised as a fundamentalist Protestant, graduating from Bob Jones University in Greenville, S.C., and now leads Our Lady of the Rosary Catholic Church in that same city.

These conversations begin with the layperson cheering for married priests. Then Longenecker mentions the "elephant in the room" -- the 1968 papal encyclical Humanae Vitae defending church doctrines forbidding artificial contraception. Surely bishops would strive to ordain men who, with their wives, would defend these teachings. Right?

"They might have a dozen kids," says Longenecker. "Who's going to pay for them?"

The typical Catholic assumes the bishop will do that. Actually, parishes are responsible for their priest's pay, even when his children go to Catholic schools and off to college. That might require parishioners to put more than $5 in offering plates.

The typical Catholic then says: "I don't think having married priests is such a good idea."

Longenecker is ready for more chats -- in person and at his "Standing on my Head" website -- after recent Pope Francis remarks to the German newsweekly Die Zeit.

Asked about the global shortage of priests, Francis expressed a willingness to consider ordaining "viri probati" (tested men), such as married men already ordained as deacons. While "voluntary celibacy is not a solution," he added: "We need to consider if viri probati could be a possibility. … We would need to determine what duties they could undertake, for example, in remote communities."

This latest Pope Francis sound bite was not surprising, since Vatican officials have often discussed ordaining more married men, said Longenecker, author of 15 books on Catholic faith and apologetics.

Pope Francis and the shipwreck that is marriage in the modern world

Imagine that there is an active Catholic layman named "Bob" and that his complicated life has included a divorce or two.

But there is no one person named "Bob." Instead, there are legions of Catholics whose lives resemble this case study described by Father Dwight Longenecker in an online essay responding to "Amoris Laetitia (On Love in the Family)," a 60,000-word apostolic exhortation from Pope Francis.

The fictional Bob is a 1960s survivor and he has "lived that way." His first wedding was on a beach, after he and his lover got high and also got pregnant. Years later Bob married a rich older woman. Years after that he became a Christian in an evangelical flock, where he met Susan -- a lapsed Catholic.

This is where things get complicated.

Bob and Susan "married outside the church, but then Susan rediscovered her Catholic faith and she and Bob started going to Mass," wrote Longenecker. Then Bob converted to Catholicism in a liberal parish "where the priest waved a hand and said he didn't need to worry about 'all that annulment stuff.'

"So Bob became a Catholic and now 20 years later, he and Susan have six kids, a great marriage and are active members in the parish." After a chat with a new priest they discovered that, under church law, they were living in "an irregular relationship. Bob's second wife -- the elderly widow -- was dead, but he reckoned his first wife (the hippie who was married to him for less than a year) was still living somewhere, but Bob has no idea where she might be."

What's a priest supposed to do?