Newly-installed Pope Francis made some startling comments last year about the possibility of lifting the celibacy rule for priests. And the move has implications not just for the church and the men who run it, but for women too.
The Pope, back when he was just archbishop of Buenos Aires, said in an interview for a Spanish-language book that the rule "can change." And while Francis did not endorse such a change itself, the very mention of such an idea is dramatic.
It seems Pope Francis is drawing on his own experience, describing romantic feelings he felt toward a woman. As ABC recounts Francis saying:
I was dazzled by a girl I met at an uncle's wedding. I was surprised by her beauty, her intellectual brilliance ... and, well, I was bowled over for quite a while. I kept thinking and thinking about her. When I returned to the seminary after the wedding, I could not pray for over a week because when I tried to do so, the girl appeared in my head. I had to rethink what I was doing.
Well, that's something many of us have experienced, though it tends to interfere with our study or work schedules, as opposed to our absolute devotion to God. Still, Pope Francis said he counsels those who cannot reconcile celibacy with a commitment to the priesthood to go. Saying:
When something like this happens to a seminarian, I help him go in peace to be a good Christian and not a bad priest.
Changing the rule—should it ever happen—could do wonders for the church, attracting people (men, now, and maybe, one day women) to the priesthood. Eastern Orthodox priests are allowed to marry, and it works out just fine, Pope Francis noted, though he added that bishops must remain celibate.
Unwittingly or not, Pope Francis has defined the work-family balance women have wrestled with for many years. If you seek exceptional success at work, it's hard to raise a family or have much of a personal life. If you choose to commit to a family, you tend not to be considered for the big jobs. The Catholic Church has merely made official for its priests what women deal with on an unofficial level all the time.
And the glass ceiling exists even for the Orthodox clerics. What if you do well in middle-management—say, as a priest—as a married man, and then decide you want to go for the bishop's job? You literally have to decide between professional advancement and a family life. (However, one can see the complications of a Pope with a family. Who wants to be the nun at Catholic school trying to discipline the Pope's kid? What if the spouse wants to redecorate the Vatican? What to do with troublesome in-laws?)
The irony of Pope Francis's talk is that it raises the question of expanding sexual freedom for men, but not for women. Since females cannot be priests, the celibacy rule isn't all that relevant, but what could help women is a second look at the antiquated ban on contraception. That, of course, is a rule routinely broken by women with access to birth control. But it's maddening to see Catholic clerics go to poor countries and preach against contraception when women are dying after multiple childbirths or unable to feed enormous families. Right now, men cannot advance to the top positions in the Catholic Church if they are not celibate, but women's professional and economic advancement—even as followers of the faith—are linked to the ability to control the size and timing of their families.
Pope Francis has opened the door to a 21st Century approach to balancing work, family and faith. It's time to Lean In.