Pope Francis is finally ready to meet with a half-dozen victims of predator priests. "Finally," because Pope Benedict repeatedly had such meetings. And with so much at stake -- everything, really -- it's been perplexing that the warm and pastoral "cold-call Pope" hadn't more quickly followed suit in the 15 months since his installation.
The bigger surprise in the pontiff's hour-long Q&A with reporters on his flight from Jerusalem back to Rome this week, though, was the way he spoke about priestly celibacy.
"Celibacy is not a dogma of faith,'' he said when asked about a letter he'd received recently from women in love with priests they want to be able to marry. That discipline "is a rule of life that I appreciate a great deal,'' Francis said, "and I believe it is a gift for the church." But "the door is always open" to changing that rule, "given that it is not a dogma of faith."
Now, no earlier pope would have argued on the dogma, and maybe this man's informality gives a little extra oomph to words that aren't exactly a bolt from the blue. Yet this is a new conversation -- for one thing, the faithful are part of the discussion now.
"John Paul would've admitted that celibacy is not set in stone, and Benedict, too,'' said the Rev. Thomas Reese, a Jesuit priest and senior analyst for the National Catholic Reporter. "But to them, this was a forbidden topic, and the real change is that this can be discussed now. It's the kind of thing I think Francis would allow a local option on, whereas under John Paul and Benedict, this (whole topic) was a no-no.''
Previously, Reese said, any bishop who'd spoken in favour of making priestly celibacy optional would "have gotten a visit from the nuncio and then put out a statement saying he was misunderstood by the reporter, blah, blah, blah."
We've always known that priestly celibacy is a tradition rather than a theological imperative, though it was the norm in the West by the 4th century -- long before the property concerns so often cited as the "real" motivation for 11th and 12th-century prohibitions on priests passing any holdings on to their heirs.
Eastern-rite priests have always been able to marry, and even some Roman Catholic priests have already walked right through that door, since married Protestant ministers who convert to Catholicism are allowed to remain married and serve as priests.
But this is the first time Francis has spoken publicly about his feelings on the topic since becoming Pope. Bishop Erwin Krautler, who met privately with him last month, told reporters he had raised the topic with the pontiff because of the acute priest shortage in his diocese in Brazil, where there are just 27 priests and 700,000 Catholics. Francis answered, according to a newspaper in Austria, "We local bishops, who are best acquainted with the needs of our faithful, should be 'corajudos' -- that is 'courageous' in Spanish -- and make concrete suggestions."
The Pope's comments may take on additional weight ahead of October's extraordinary synod on the family. "With him," said Michael Sean Winters, who writes for the National Catholic Reporter, "you could imagine it changing if the bishops wanted it to change."
In this country, at least, that's an enormous "if." The shortage of priests continues to force parishes and schools to close; one in five parishes does not have a resident priest. But allowing priests to marry might ease that problem while creating others, says the conservative Catholic writer Robert George, professor of jurisprudence at Princeton University.
It might help heal the rift between Catholics in the East and the West, which was the unfulfilled dream of John Paul's life. But "it would be an administrative headache," George said, and would require the church to actually pay, as well as advocate for, a living wage. The faithful would have to adjust, since "we think our priests are available to us 24/7.''
Some of the media excitement over the prospect of such a shift, George feels, comes from the hope on the left that the Pope's talk about celibacy signals broader change on church teaching on abortion, gay marriage and more. "So they put him on the cover of Time and of the gay Advocate -- he's the one we've been waiting for!''
Inside the church, however, on the left and the right there are doubts about making priestly celibacy optional. Reese, for example, doesn't sound any more sure than George does that allowing all Roman Catholic priests to marry is the way to go. Given that seminarians today are far more conservative than those of earlier generations, "beware what you wish for," Reese said.
Duly noted, but what about compassion for those who feel called to priesthood but not to celibacy? Without more priests, there will continue to be more closed parishes. And according to the new book Lost Classroom, Lost Community, by Notre Dame Law School professors Margaret Brinig and Nicole Stella, there is higher crime in those neighbourhoods when the Catholic schools pull out.
It most certainly is big news that, as the Pope said Monday, the Vatican is currently investigating three unnamed bishops in connection with sex abuse. Those who protected and enabled abusers have gone unpunished until now.
But that, too, may argue for allowing priests to marry. Would church fathers who came home to wives and children every night have shuffled predator priests to other parishes?
As Francis thinks about how to expand the role of women in the church, one of the many tables where there are few females is at the fathers' own kitchen tables. And as the church as a whole grapples with both the future of celibacy and the ongoing tragedies caused by some who broke their vows, let's hope we keep that in mind.