Are arguments about allowing more married Catholic priests strictly left vs. right fights?

Here is a mild complaint that I never expected to make about an elite newsroom’s coverage of a hot-button Catholic issue. The Washington Post just produced a story about married Catholic priests — “A bid to allow married priests in the Amazon ignites debate about celibacy“ — and didn’t quote Father Thomas Reese. In this case, I really think they should have quoted him.

Imagine that.

Who is Reese? He is a Jesuit who has, for several decades, been an omnipresent news source and quotable progressive Catholic insider for religion-news reporters. He writes for Religion News Service and used to write for National Catholic Reporter. He was editor of America until a 2005 clash with the Vatican on doctrinal matters. Need I say more?

So why did I miss the familiar voice of Reese in this Post report on celibacy and the ongoing shortage of Catholic priests? Here is a key chunk of this story:

One new proposal to ease the shortage would allow older, married men in the region to be ordained as priests. South American bishops have advocated for the idea, and Pope Francis has indicated some willingness to narrowly open the door to married men in this specific case. But the proposal has set off a debate about whether Francis is trying to bolster the ranks of the priesthood or upend its deep-rooted traditions.

A vocal band of conservatives says permitting married priests in the Amazon could alter — and undermine — the priesthood globally, weakening the church requirement of celibacy. …

The Amazon would not be the first exception. Married Anglican ministers, in some cases, have been welcomed into the Catholic priesthood after conversions. And Eastern Catholic churches, even those in communion with Rome, allow for married men in the priesthood.

There’s more that could be said, right there, about church history.

The key is that this new door into the priesthood could be used elsewhere. And this worries You Know Who.

… Conservatives note that the rationale for installing married clerics in the Amazon exists, too, across Europe, North America and other parts of the world, where seminaries are closing and dioceses are sharing priests.

“It is the elevation of a model,” said Roberto de Mattei, president of the conservative Lepanto Foundation in Rome.

So it’s conservatives, conservatives and conservatives who are worried about this maneuver by Pope Francis. Readers, did you get that?

Now, I don’t doubt that there are conservatives who are worried about this potential Francis gambit. However, I know there are other conservatives who are worried about the thinning ranks of priests in America and the impression, often whispered behind closed doors, that some parts of the church are willing to ordain just about anyone who is willing to claim that he will be celibate.

The bottom line: This is not a simplistic left vs. right issue, these days.

This brings me to a June RNS commentary by Reese. I appreciated this slightly deeper look at the church history here.

Married Protestant ministers who become Catholic can be ordained. In addition, Catholic clergy from Eastern churches, like the Ukrainian Catholic Church, have always been permitted to be married before ordination.

Celibacy is not dogma; it is a legal requirement that can be changed.

Key words there, concerning Eastern Christianity, were “have always been permitted to be married before ordination.”

But here is the Reese quote that I wished the Post has used:

Limiting ordination to “mature men” is a classic Catholic compromise aimed at limiting the fears of conservatives. The change will be portrayed as limited and exceptional.

But both traditionalists and progressives believe that once ordination is permitted in exceptional cases, it will spread to more and more situations. After all, there are other places in the world that don’t have enough priests to serve Catholics desiring the Eucharist and the sacraments.

Eventually, as in other churches, married clergy will be the norm rather than the exception.

Is Reese happy about that? Worried about that? Why does he think that Catholics on the doctrinal left and right think that, once this door is opened, it will swing open to stay?

Note to Post editors: Some of the toughest stories in modern Catholicism are not simple left vs. right battles. Talk to sharp people on both sides — including Reese — and compare notes.

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