More married priests? This was the rare papal sound bite that received some calm, informed coverage

Of all the Catholic debates I have watched through the decades, I think stories about the ordination of married men have been the hardest for mainstream journalists to fit into the old left vs. right format.

Yes, it's easy to find priests and scholars on the left for whom changes of any kind are good. Thus, they say hurrah for married priests. Many of the priests who hit church exit doors to get married soon after Vatican II fit this model. Shake up the church is their mantra.

Obviously, you can always find conservative Catholics who will oppose just about any change in church life, just by reflex. Their dogma is to leave everything the way it is.

However, you will also find plenty of Catholic experts -- left and right -- who know that this issue is a matter of church order and tradition, not carved-in-stone doctrine. They know that married men now serve as priests, under certain circumstances, and they know that the celibate priesthood evolved over the centuries. I have interviewed many Catholics -- especially Latinos -- who for a variety of reasons believe the church needs married priests. I have long argued that Rome will ordained more men when conservatives seek the change.

In other words, this isn't really a Sexual Revolution issue. Thus, if you have been seeing generic left vs. right press coverage of the latest Pope Francis statement on this issue, then move on. Find a better story.

In this case, you can start with The New York Times, with the calm headline stating: "Pope Francis Signals Openness to Ordaining Married Men in Some Cases." This story sounds all the crucial notes right up top, in the overture or soon thereafter:

Pope Francis this week signaled receptiveness to appeals from bishops in the remote and overwhelmed corners of the Roman Catholic Church to combat a deepening shortage of priests by ordaining married men who are already committed to the church.
In an interview with a German newspaper, the pope made clear that he was not advocating an end to celibacy for current priests or those aspiring to join the clergy. But his seeming openness about the prospect of ordaining married men in places hardest hit by a dearth of priests was unusually explicit and brought the issue to the forefront.
“We need to think about whether ‘viri probati’ could be a possibility,” Francis, using the Latin phrase for such “tested” men, said in an interview with the newspaper, Die Zeit. “If so, we would need to determine what duties they could undertake, for example, in remote communities.”

The Times team quickly added other crucial details, such as the tradition of married priests in Eastern Rite Catholicism. Also, St. John Paul II -- nearly four decades ago -- began allowing some Anglican and Lutheran pastors to be ordained as Catholic priests, an option that no longer creates headlines.

For me, the key is that the Times story, early on, clearly states the history of Rome's celibate priesthood.

... Historically, priests in the first centuries of the church were free to marry.
But monastic influences at the turn of the millennium led to the adoption of a celibacy requirement at the First Lateran Council of 1123, and that tradition has held ever since. It is not doctrine or dogma, but instead a code of canon law that essentially reasons that priests unburdened by spouses or children are both more reflective of Christ and devoted to pastoral demands.

Note the date of that council, which comes after the Great Schism of 1054 between Rome and the churches of the East. This is why Eastern Orthodox churches retain the ancient model in which priests are free to marry (before they are ordained), but bishops are required to be celibate monks or priests. Thus, we see married priests in Eastern Rite Catholic churches loyal to Rome.

For me, there are two essential elements of the coverage of this statement by Pope Francis. The first is this historical theme, clearly showing how this tradition emerged in the West.

The second key point -- also placed high in the Times report -- is the critical shortage of priests in the Roman rite, a trend that continues to receive major coverage, and with good cause. Thus, readers are told:

Francis, who has made clear that he sees little possibility for allowing women to be priests, called the vocation crisis an “enormous problem.”
The issue is less a question of theology than arithmetic. In the United States, there are now about 2,500 Catholics per priest, compared with 851 per priest in 1972, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, which is affiliated with Georgetown University.
The chasms are far wider in Africa, Asia and Latin America, where the faithful can go months without access to a priest and married deacons are increasingly called on to conduct the business of parishes. In Brazil, according to the center, there are roughly 8,000 Catholics per priest.

It would have been nice to have noted that in some places, such as the growing churches of Africa, there are many men seeking the priesthood (this is one reason Catholics see so many African priests at American altars), but there are also waves and waves of new converts and new children in the pews. Again, it's a mathematics issue.

If you want to see how NOT to do this story, then turn to CNN, where there are some really strange twists and simplifications. Such as:

The Catholic Church already allows some married men to be ordained priests. Protestant married priests who convert to Catholicism can continue to be married and be a Roman Catholic priest, providing they have their wives' permission.

Wow. I guess that would be the case. #DUH

The story at The Atlantic is good, but slightly vague at times. It does include this striking analysis, care of canon law expert Kurt Martens of the Catholic University of America. Note that this story also included the rising number of married men serving as permanent deacons in modern Catholicism.

While Francis’s comments might seem like a sign that he’s further liberalizing the traditions of the Church, Martens said this was “absolutely not” the case. “I’m surprised that after four years of Pope Francis, we are not used to what he says and how to read what he says,” Martens said. “Remember the ‘Who am I to judge?’ comment [on homosexuality]? Everyone thought he was changing Church teaching. But he was just paraphrasing in his own words the Church teaching.”
Married men can already serve a number of roles in the Church. For roughly five decades, they have been allowed to serve as deacons -- leaders who preach, conduct weddings and funerals, and perform baptisms.

Once again, all kinds of Catholic insiders and experts will be able to offer insights on this topic, in large part because it isn't all that controversial. Again note that there are no core doctrines of the faith caught up in this debate.

Still, some people would oppose the change. Why? The Washington Post found this interesting opinion, care of religion professor Mathew Schmalz of the College of the Holy Cross.

... Schmalz thinks that the idea might be less appealing to some in the pews. Celibacy, he said, suggests to many Catholics that priests have nearly superhuman spiritual gifts, to resist the normal human drive toward sexual and romantic relationships.
“For some Catholics, this is like yet another example of things they have taken for granted about Catholicism that are now being reexamined,” Schmalz said. “People have always liked pointing to their priests as somehow special people.”

All in all, the coverage of this Pope Francis sound bite was more solid than the norm and showed quite a bit of restraint.

Why was this the case? In part, because there were no gay-rights or feminist issues involved.

However, if reporters want to do an interesting follow-up, they should talk to lots of conservative Catholics about married priests. You'll be surprised by the wide range of comments and opinions out there -- especially among conservatives who back this change. Hint: Look for non-ethnic Catholics in Eastern Rite pews.

Honest. Give it a shot.

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