The Rev. Richard McBrien calls the celibacy policy "toast" in a report in which an apparent double standard is illustrated: the Church has already allowed some 100 married men to practice as priests in the United States.
McBrien, who favors optional celibacy, believes obligatory celibacy will not continue after the current pope leaves the Vatican. "In the long range, at least, [celibacy] is toast…Over 23 years, this pope has kept it off the table…and because of the sex abuse crisis…it is now very much on the table," he tells Safer.
The sex abuse crisis, tainting the priesthood's image for would-be recruits, is exacerbating another problem in the priesthood: the sheer lack of priests. " [Making celibacy optional] would allow…a far wider pool of potential recruits…We're running out of good priests," says McBrien. Another factor in the demise of mandatory celibacy, according to McBrien, is that many priests, especially in Latin America and Africa, ignore the rule anyway.
"Celibacy isn't practiced there in large measure," says McBrien. "The people understand that the priest has his 'wife'…his children, his family. They accept it," he says. The Church chooses to ignore that situation, says McBrien.
But the Church seems to contradict its own rules by allowing married clergy from other Christian faiths to convert to the Catholic priesthood. Because of such sanctions, there are about 100 U.S. Catholic priests who are married.
Most of the men who left the priesthood did so over the celibacy issue and to them, this is a double standard.
"Is it just? Are we talking out of both sides of our mouth, Mother Church?" asks Lee Ganim. Ganim left the priesthood years ago to have a wife and a family. He's bitter the Church will not recognize what he believes is his calling. "I know that, in my heart, I am still a priest, that God wants me to be a priest," he says.
Bishop Joseph Gallante, who speaks for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, says it is unlikely that a new pope would do something radical in an institution that usually changes over centuries instead of years.
"I would be very surprised to see a pope come in to do sweeping, sweeping changes," he tells Safer. But the comfort level in parishes where married men serve as priests intrigues him. "It's very interesting that most Catholics have had no problems accepting married men who have been ordained priests," says Gallante.