Saturday, March 30, 2013

These Times, They Are A-Changing

Married Priests and Women Priests Would Revive the Catholic Church*

His journey takes place in the mountains of Calabria, the “toe of the Italian boot,” and spans two days and several hundred kilometers. For my dear friend and colleague, Father Luigi Iuliano, it’s a labor of love that begins every Saturday afternoon and continues through Sunday. After a week of pastoral care to the faithful of our village, Don Gigi, as we call him, continues his priestly duties that now require that he travel among several isolated mountain villages to half dozen tiny parishes to minister to hundreds of Catholics who no longer have a priest to serve them.

Don Gigi is not alone. According to the Vatican’s own statistics nearly half of the world’s parishes and missions do not have a resident priest.

Now that the world’s Catholics have a new leader, Don Gigi has been on my mind.  Since the new pope, Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio has been characterized as a reformer, as a married female rabbi I wonder if he will consider allowing married priests and women priests to join the Catholic clergy – something that many believe would bring an enormously positive change to the Roman Catholic Church.

I arrived in Italy in 2004 to serve as Italy’s first woman and first non-orthodox rabbi. In 2006 I returned to Serrastretta, my father’s village in Calabria to establish the first active synagogue in the south of Italy since Inquisition times. Over the years I have had the pleasure and privilege of getting to know a number of priests, who, like Don Gigi, are deeply dedicated to their work. Yet no matter how meticulously they organize their time, it seems impossible for these priests to keep up. No surprise there. A Vatican sanctioned organization, FutureChurch reports that worldwide there are an estimated 125,000 priests who have left the ministry and their reason for leaving – to get married.

In Italy the priest shortage is monumental. In America it’s not much better. In fact at least 25,000 Americans have left the priesthood since 1970, among them my cousin’s husband, Bernie. His wife Patricia recalls that although Bernie loved his secular job, if priests had been permitted to marry, Patricia is certain that Bernie would have stayed. In fact, FutureChurch tells us that 50 percent of married priests would be willing to return to active ministry if they could.

Sadly Bernie died four years ago, but if he were here today he certainly would be surprised to know that although he had to leave the priesthood in order to get married, in America there are now nearly 100 married priests in the Roman Catholic Church.

So who are these priests who serve American Catholic parishes with their wives and children in tow? They are men who formerly served Protestant churches as ordained ministers but who made conversion to become Roman Catholics. Following a period of study and examination, these married men were ordained as Catholic priests.

Throughout history there have been married priests, not excluded from but sanctioned by the Vatican and obedient to the pope. It wasn’t until 1123 that the church prohibited priests from taking wives. Finally in 1980, possibly because the shortage of priests had reached crisis proportions, the church allowed Protestant clergymen who converted to Catholicism to remain married to their wives.  

Last year journalist Mark Oppenheimer examined the phenomenon of married priests (NYT January 2012). Oppenheimer interviewed sociologist Reverend D. Paul Sullins who began his career as an Episcopal priest and is now a married priest serving in the Roman Catholic Church.

Oppenheimer wondered how things were working out. An important question since conventional church wisdom has always maintained that priests, who are the spouses of the church, do better when they devote themselves exclusively to church work without the distractions of family life. Reverend Sullins posed this question to these US married priests and found that, rather than hindering their husband’s vocation, wives were mostly supportive and helpful. Sullins puts it succinctly when he says, “I don’t want to say the difference is great, but if there is a difference it’s in favor of the married priest.”

What about women? The Jewish religion has ordained women since the early 1970’s, although Regina Jonas who was murdered in Auschwitz, holds the distinction of serving as the first woman rabbi in modern times. Today hundreds of women serve synagogues as senior pulpit rabbis. We make up approximately 15 percent of rabbis worldwide and as wives and mothers we divide our time, as do most professionals, between work and home responsibilities.

New Pope, Jorge Mario Bergoglio
The new pope, should he move forward with these reforms, would have even better statistics on his side. FutureChurch also reports that of the number of Catholic lay people and deacons currently providing pastoral care, 50 percent are women. Maybe more important are the results from a survey of a group thought to be the most traditional among all Catholics - Irish priests. When they were asked to respond anonymously, 58 percent supported the ordination of women priests. Given that there are a paltry 406,411 priests in service compared with the 783,000 women religious serving Catholics worldwide, the ordination of women could be the force to bring priests back to abandoned parishes.

Could these changes really happen? Absolutely. In the 1960’s, under Pope John XXIII, the Second Vatican Council made sweeping changes to the Code of Canon Law.  One change, which permitted priests to offer mass in the language of the congregation, created a significant surge in church attendance. Since the rules regarding priestly celibacy and the ordination of women are not dogma but are included in canon law, the new pope could revive interest and participation by permitting priests to marry and women to be ordained.

Would it work out? If the Jewish experience is any indication, the advent of women rabbis created opportunities for small and struggling synagogues to have their own ordained spiritual leaders. Fewer synagogues closed their doors as congregants seriously considered hiring women and adjusted emotionally to the presence of a woman on the pulpit. As a woman rabbi in traditional Italy, I am still seen as an anomaly and most days I feel like a pioneer, but I have a loving congregation, a positive public presence and a husband who supports and enjoys synagogue life, all of which contribute to professional success and personal satisfaction.

Pope John Paul II
The late Pope John Paul II said it best 27 years ago when he told the world, “With Judaism, therefore, we have a relationship which we do not have with any other religion. You are our dearly beloved brothers, and in a certain way, it could be said that you are our elder brothers.”

With that statement the late pope rekindled the familial relationship between Jews and Christians – a relationship that had been dormant for centuries. It is my hope that we Jews can continue to lead by example so that our Catholic brothers and sisters might have the opportunity to embrace the positive changes that married priests and women priests would bring to their Church.

*This article first appeared as a featured piece on The Times of Israel blog.


  1. As an Italian American woman who also has a family home in Riventino, I know how the culture is there. I know how suspicious they can sometimes be of outsiders, even of people who spent their whole lives there but immigrated to America, Canada, or Australia. Those of us who went abroad become outsiders to a certain extent, even people who can barely speak English are sometimes seen as outsiders. I do give you props for having the courage to go to such a small town and do something which may or may not be seen as controversial.

    I do believe that there are many Italians with Jewish roots, but there are also Greek, Albanian, and even Saracen roots. Many of us are a combination of many, but we are united in Christ despite our history. Jesus was born of a Jewish mother, but through the New Testament we begin to see how rituals do not make a man pure, rather it is what a man has in his heart. For example, I do not eat pork because I believe the pig is an intelligent animal which does not deserve to suffer or be killed for the sake of becoming a meal. However, I do not believe eating pork will make somebody dirty or in anyway impure. In the end, only he loved all and I am a firm believer that only through him can we find true peace.

    There is no racism in Catholicism. Prayers can be understood in any language from the cry of a baby to the bark of a dog to English to Polish to Italian to Latin to Arabic, unlike Judaism and Islam where prayers seemingly must be in Arabic or Hebrew and in any other language are simply translations. God or excuse me G_d can understand any language.

    While some branches of Judaism have gone the route of modernization, please respect the Church and respect our values. Any change in these beliefs would be the death of the Roman Catholic Church. We would become divided like the Protestants. Also, the Byzantine Catholic Church and other orders do allow for married priests. Woman priests should NEVER be allowed and I am speaking as a woman! This would disrupt gender roles and limit the role of the sisters. Above all, this would be going against Christ's will that Peter, a man is the rock of the Church. People who do not agree with these views are free to join Protestant groups or other cafeteria religions, just as people who do not agree with Orthodox or other conservative Jewish views are free to attend more liberal minded synagogues. I really wish more people would respect our priesthood and more outsiders would stop trying to make pointless analogies.

  2. Our beliefs and the way the Church shifted are for a reason and you have no right to suggest we should change. It doesn't matter that the world is changing. Personally, I think the world is becoming an immoral place where immorality is condoned and accepted. Man needs to change for religion. Religion should not have to change to please man. In the end, hating somebody for being gay is wrong. We have to love all and we have no right to persecute or shun the person, but we also hurt them when we condone the behavior and paint it as an acceptable lifestyle. I understand you believe it is biological, but not everybody will agree with you and nobody should have to change their beliefs to satisfy anybody. Recently, in the U.S., it has become acceptable for transvestites and transgenders to use the bathroom of the sex they identify with. As a woman, I certainly do not feel comfortable sharing the restroom with somebody who was born with a penis and I especially do not feel comfortable with little girls having to share a locker room/restroom with somebody who was born and is still male, because only God can decide our sex. Anybody who changes what God gave him or her as far as sexual organs go is committing a great sin I believe and most of these people go on to regret what they have done when they end up not being able to perform sexually. No amount of surgery can make somebody born male able to carry a pregnancy or somebody born female able to impregnate. Money hungry doctors will do anything and this is beyond wrong, and should not be condoned or accepted by any religion.

    Pope John Paul II was a great man, but many people misunderstood his message, including yourself and I know he would be rolling over in his grave thinking about the so-called request for "modernization" of the Church. This modernization will not encourage more people to return to the Church, rather it will kill our values and create a divided Church, which some might believe is your mission as a Jew and the mission of Islam as well, to destroy Christianity and destroy the Catholic Church which is the largest branch of Christianity. To destroy the morals of Christianity. Many Roman Catholics you meet are cultural Catholics. Somebody who is a true believer can not simply turn their back on the Church. The Church needs to return to even more traditional values. Pope Francis needs to encourage Italians to start marrying younger and having more children. There needs to be a return to family values. I am even opposed to alter girls. Keep in mind, the way the world is now only serves a man's sexuality. We are living in a world where so many Italians are just co-inhabiting and not marrying. This only benefits the man. Because of these bad financial times, many women have had to give up the dream of marrying before 35 or 40 unless they want a bald or entirely grey haired groom. This is the only way a woman can marry while she is still in prime fertile years is to accept a much older husband. Men on the other hand are now living in a world where they can freely sow their wild oats and settle down at 45 with a 20 year old. This is what modernization has done to the world and to women's rights and our ability to freely express our sexuality. This modernization does not need to extend to the Church. BTW,I am 25 and I see what is happening. I have traveled to over 15 different countries, I graduated with my ba in political science and I am in law school, so I see a lot about the world.

  3. I was also born Roman Catholic and despite disliking my time in Catholic school, I was always touched by the teachings in Church and learning about the life of Jesus. I was always a very deeply religious and spiritual girl. However, I became disillusioned at how many Catholics do not defend the faith because they simply have never taken the time to explore their faith. Instead they go looking for other avenues which will excuse immoral behavior or religions they view as being more exotic than the religion they were born into. In my own life, I had a very bad relationship with an Arab Muslim man from Lebanon who turned out to be very abusive and hateful. Keep in mind, the modernization of many Western men is probably what attracted me to go with a Muslim man who I initially viewed as more traditional and more willing to treat me like a lady. When I first met this man, I admired his pride in his faith. I admired how Muslims were unwilling to accept any negative attacks to their religion and were so seemingly devoted. For two years, I did not do the sign of the cross. At the same time, I never prayed Islamic style. I slowly started to see that the pride and love for their faith was not used to love other people, rather this man and many of his friends and family members used their beliefs to hate and criticize rather than to love. I met children as young as 4 years old in the Middle East who had such innate hate inside their hearts and were trying to show off in front of me telling me how their dream is to be a martyr and die in jihad. After becoming immersed in Islamic culture for over two years and ignoring all these signs around me like when I was in Lebanon and I would dream of Jesus every night or when I went back to the U.S.A. and I was miraculously reunited with both people who had baptized me in less than a week despite not seeing them for years, I had a sign I couldn't ignore in the summer of 2012. I had met a girl who was younger than me online and who was also in a relationship with an Arab Muslim man, but had gone further and fully embraced Islam and abandoned her family. This girl was from a Protestant background. Anyhow, I had a dream in which I saw her and then I was told to pray to Saint Augustine. I woke up. Although raised a Catholic, I knew almost nothing about Saint Augustine. I googled his name and seen that the same night I had this dream is when his saint's day is celebrated. Not to mention, I thought it was the strangest thing that I just so happened to dream about a saint from the Arab world before Islam. After my dream of Saint Augustine, I returned to the Church for the first time in two years and I never felt better in my life.

    I have come to learn we have to respect all beliefs even if they seem bizarre, as long as they are not hurting anybody or oppressing others, as is the case in KSA where even a Alfa Romeos are not allowed because they have a cross on the symbol, yet the biggest mosque in Europe is in Rome. At the end of the day, it is not Catholic priests who are holding up signs saying "God hates fags." Anybody can enter Saint Peter's and as Pope Francis said, anybody who does good will be redeemed, even atheists. We are not performing genital mutilation on women or engaging in polygamy or doing anything to hurt anybody. We just ask that our beliefs and the priesthood be respected. Anti-Catholicism and attacks on our traditions have become so commonplace in the media and need to stop.

  4. Furthermore, I am sorry for the antisemitism that persists in Europe and all around the world to this very day. I strongly feel there is no room for hate anywhere in the world or in any religion. I also feel there are no chosen people, only human beings. I respect your interest in the history of Southern Italy and for all you do to inform people of their past. However, the country was also devastated as a result of WWII when the bombings happened. Many of this stuff is still fresh in the minds of many elderly Italians and perhaps this is why there is some initial hesitation and suspicion to those who ended up immigrating to America and might be seen as traitors, although my own family immigrated years after WWII. Bottom line, nobody has to agree or participate in the activities of the Catholic Church or even fully agree with them in order to attend mass, however the beliefs and traditions should be respected and preserved and not simply disregarded as old fashioned trivial factors which can be discarded. Sorry for the long post, this is just something I feel strongly about! Religious freedom needs to stop being attacked! Beliefs need to be respected even if they are not understood or not going along with the current "politically correct" climate, so as long as they are not promoting hate or violence towards non members of the religion or non practicing members of the religion. When we seek to change people and not respect their religion and culture, we become just as intolerant as the forces we are up against.

  5. P.S. A married man can not devote his life to his church the way an unmarried man can. Married men have an obligation to their wife and children. The job of a priest often calls for travel too and it is not fair to the woman and children. Married men also can not give unbiased non-sexist advice to married couples, the way an unmarried man can. Just some food for though.