What Does Vatican Plan Mean For Celibate Priests?

The Vatican is welcoming Anglicans to return to Catholicism centuries after their ancestors left the church. The Vatican said it will permit married Anglican priests to become ordained Catholic priests. John Allen, senior correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter, talks with Steve Inskeep about how this week's announcement calls into question a long-held Catholic tradition of celibacy in the priesthood.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

We're going to ask next about the implications of a big decision by the Catholic Church. The Vatican is welcoming Anglicans to return to Catholicism. The public invitation comes as the Anglican Church is divided over questions like the role of gays. If some Anglican congregations become Catholic now, they could bring their Anglican priests along. And the priests could become Catholic - even if they're married. That calls attention to the Vatican's longtime rule that priests must be celibate.

To learn more, we contacted John Allen, senior correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter.

Mr. JOHN ALLEN (Senior correspondent, National Catholic Reporter): There have always been celibate priests in the Catholic Church. In the beginning, these were largely monks who embraced celibacy as a symbol of total self-sacrifice to the service of God and God's people. However, the expectation that most Catholic priests are going to be celibate really didn't arise until the 10th or 11th century. So it has been for about the last thousand years that the Catholic Church has had a fairly uniform policy that its priests are going to not marry - that is, are going to be celibate.

INSKEEP: And what is the reason that the Vatican gives for holding to that rule, even today?

Mr. ALLEN: Well, I think there are reasons that are both theological and practical. The theological reason is that a priest actually is married. The priest is married to Christ and to Christ's church. And in that sense, if you'll pardon the flippant expression, it would almost be kind of bigamy to have another married relationship. I think the practical reason is that when priests are not married, that means that they are kind of available 24/7 to the service of the church.

INSKEEP: So having said that they have this reason - that the priest is married to the church and married to the calling - what reason does the Vatican then give for saying it would be OK for Anglicans, in effect, to become married Catholic priests?

Mr. ALLEN: It is, in effect, a kind of a choice for diversity inside the Catholic Church. Now, it should be said, for centuries the Catholic Church has had 21 Eastern Rite churches. These are churches that are located mostly in Eastern Europe. In those Eastern Rite churches, priests are allowed to be married. So there have always been, in that sense, churches that have married priests that are in communion with Rome. So in principal, this isn't any different.

I think the big difference is that where those churches tend to be located in places far away from centers of media attention in the West, these new structures that the Catholic Church is creating for Anglicans are going to be located in the United States, in Great Britain and Canada - and in those places where the debate over priestly celibacy, in many ways, already is the most intense.

INSKEEP: And is that debate heating up now in the Catholic circles that you follow so closely?

Mr. ALLEN: Yeah. I mean, already there are a lot of a people asking questions about what the implications of this move are going to be. I mean, if, for example, the Vatican says that it's not just current Anglican ministers who can be married and ordained as Catholic priests, but future candidates for the priesthood can be married inside these new structure. I mean, will you see a growing number of young Catholic men who will says, Well, geez, I'd like to be a priest, and I'd like to be married. Maybe I can sign up for one of these new structures and do it that way.

I mean, in other words, the question that's being asked is, has the Vatican, without intending to, created a loophole big enough to drive a Mac truck through, on the discipline of priestly celibacy?

INSKEEP: It's interesting to think that you would have Anglican priests who are drifting away from the Anglican Church, feeling that they're conservative and that the church is becoming far too liberal, and now they have the prospect of joining the Catholic Church and becoming the liberal guys who are actually married.

Mr. ALLEN: Well, they may be liberal on the married priests question but on most other issues, whatever number of Anglicans actually come into the Catholic Church, they're going to end up bolstering the more conservative wing of the Catholic Church. Because on most issues - particularly issues of sexual morality - they're quite traditional.

And this makes a larger point, which is that in the old days, the differences that mattered among Christians were things like how much authority did you give to the pope versus how much authority did you give to the Bible, and so on. And while those differences are still around, these days the differences that actually drive behavior on the ground are more ideological. They're about the culture wars. And so what we're seeing is a real redefinition of the fault lines that matter in Christianity.

INSKEEP: And maybe some people stepping across the fault line.

Mr. ALLEN: That's exactly what's happening.

INSKEEP: John Allen of the National Catholic Reporter. Always good to talk with you.

Mr. ALLEN: Thank you, Steve.

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