For Chrissake, let Catholics ordain women, priests marry

Saturday December 14 2019

Established and recognised religions, including some of the largest – Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, Hinduism, African religions, and Judaism – involve both individual conscience, belief, and community identity. By and large, public authorities in democracies generally permit religions to establish their own internal rules.


But not all internal religious rules are godly, ethical or even moral. The same is true of religious practices throughout history. Some have been abominable. Others are clearly discriminatory. Today, I focus on two new progressive practices the Catholic Church needs to accept – the ordination of women and marriage of priests.

Recently, the synod of Amazon bishops voted – in a meeting with Pope Francis in Vatican City – to allow married men to become priests. The Amazon plea was largely driven by pragmatic logic. The shortage of priests in the Amazon is so acute that many faithful Catholics go for years without attending mass or receiving the Eucharist. The cure to the problem is hiding in plain sight – allow priests to marry and the shortage vanishes. To his credit, Pope Francis, as he has done throughout his papacy, seemed to signal an opening in special cases. Despite stiff conservative opposition to allowing priests to marry, Pope Francis urged “openness to new ways”. He could rule on the issue by year’s end. Given the politics and dynamics in the Church, it’s doubtful that Pope Francis will go beyond a marginal relaxation of the rules requiring celibacy. But to be clear, celibacy isn’t required by the Bible, or any scripture, although the Apostle Paul recommended it in the First Letter to the Corinthians.


Rather, celibacy is a millennia-old practice that has usually, but not always, been adhered to. For example, many of the Apostles of Jesus were married, although he was reportedly celibate himself. St Peter himself, the first Pope, was married. In fact, in Matthew 8:14 and Luke 4:38-40, Jesus healed his mother-in-law. Only in 304 AD does there appear the first written, but rarely enforced, requirement of celibacy for priests.


It was only in the 11th century that Pope Gregory VII issued in the medieval period of the Latin Rite of the Catholic Church an ironclad decree requiring all priests to be celibate and unmarried. From that point forward every bishop has been expected to strictly enforce the rule. The rule stuck and is now the norm in the Catholic Church.

It’s clear from history that despite this rule on celibacy, many priests – even some popes – engaged in sexual relations with women and men. Such “scandals” were not unknown at the Vatican. Today, many priests, including in Kenya, are guilty of sexual predations. Nor can we forget the current scourge of paedophile priests, an existential threat to the Church.


Today, most, but not all Roman Catholic clergy (Latin Rite) is celibate. In the Eastern Catholic Church, as in the Orthodox Church, married men serve as Catholic priests. Furthermore, married Anglican priests who came into Catholicism serve as full Catholic priests. That’s why the call by the Amazon bishops, and the sympathetic ear of Pope Francis, isn’t out of left field. Just like paedophilia gravely threatens the Catholic Church from America to the remotest island on Earth, the refusal to allow priests to marry will thin out its congregation and put it in ICU. The rule was a fiat by one Pope. A fiat by another Pope can reverse it. Pope Francis may do it.

The refusal to ordain women into the Catholic priesthood is similarly indefensible. There’s no biblical or scriptural authority barring the ordination of women. In 1994, Pope John Paul II, an impossibly staunch conservative, declared in an Ordinatio sacerdotalis – an ecclesiastical letter – that the “Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women.” However, he failed to quote any biblical authority other than taking refuge in the history of patriarchy in Jewish society at the time of Jesus. He cited the choice of 12 Apostles – all men – as proof positive that Jesus wanted Church ministry to be reserved for men.


Let’s separate man-made religious law from holy text. In the Church, canonical law are rules made by ecclesiastical authority, or Church leadership, for the governance of the flock. It shouldn’t be confused with the Bible. In the same way that sharia or Islamic law shouldn’t be conflated with the Quran and the Hadith. Sharia is man-made law even if the religious authorities and scholars derive it from the Quran and Hadith. That’s why using canonical law or sharia law to deny penitents basic rights of equality can’t stand scrutiny.

Messianic religions, of which there are two – Islam and Christianity – are guilty of grave historical wrongs such as colonialism, the enslavement of Africans, crusades and jihads. Denying women ordination and refusing priests the right to marry needn’t be part of that abominable catalogue.

Makau Mutua is SUNY Distinguished Professor at SUNY Buffalo Law School and Chair of KHRC. @makaumutua.