Let Fathers Be Fathers

By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF

New York Times

April 10, 2006

Here's my prophecy about the next pope: He will allow married men to become priests.

This is simply a matter of survival: all over the world, the Catholic Church is running out of priests. In the United States, there was one priest for every 800 Catholics in 1965, while now there is one for every 1,400 Catholics - and the average age is nearly 60. In all the United States, with 65 million Catholics, only 479 priests were ordained in 2002.

The upshot is that the Catholic Church is losing ground around the world to evangelical and especially Pentecostal churches. In Brazil, which has more Catholics than any other country, Pentecostals are gaining so quickly that they could overtake Catholics over the next decades.

No one understands the desperate need for clergy more than the cardinals themselves. In fact, John Paul II himself laid the groundwork for an end to the celibacy requirement.

Few people realize it, but there are now about 200 married priests under a special dispensation given by the Vatican to pastors of other denominations - Episcopalians, Lutherans and so on - who are already married and wish to convert to Roman Catholicism (typically because they feel their churches are going squishy by ordaining women or gays).

"It's really kind of a nonissue," the Rev. John Gremmels, one of those married Catholic priests, in Fort Worth, told me of his status as a father of the usual sort.

The Vatican also permits Eastern Rite Catholics in places like Ukraine and Romania to have married priests. That was part of an ancient deal: they would be Catholics and accept the pope's authority, staying out of the Orthodox Church, and in exchange they would be allowed married clergy and liturgies in local languages.

Polls show that 70 percent of American Catholics believe priests should be able to marry. David Gibson, author of "The Coming Catholic Church," quotes Cardinal Roger Mahony as telling him that it's reasonable to raise the issue and adding: "We've had a married clergy since Day 1, since St. Peter."

It's true that St. Peter, the first pope, was married, and so were many of the apostles and early popes. But then Christians began to put more emphasis on chastity, with Tertullian describing women as "the gateway to the devil."

Origen of Alexandria, the great third-century Christian philosopher, castrated himself. And Hugh of Lincoln, a 12th-century bishop who was later canonized, claimed that a heavenly being had obliged him by coming down from heaven and castrating him, leaving him feeling much more peaceful.

By the Middle Ages, the church was clamping down on corruption and the tendency of priests to leave church assets to their sons. So in the 11th and 12th centuries the rules for celibacy became formalized.

Of course, the church sometimes adapts to local cultures. Christianity is at its most dynamic in Africa, but clergy in Africa have often complained that the effort to attract priests there is hobbled by a cultural emphasis on having children. In central Africa a few years ago, an Italian priest told me of a local bishop's children. I thought he was speaking metaphorically about the parishioners, but the missionary shook his head.

"No, he has a wife," the priest said of the bishop. "Celibacy just runs against the culture here. In fact, if we find a priest who sticks to just one wife, we promote him to bishop."

Ordaining women would also be an excellent way to provide a new source of clergy. John Paul wrote forcefully about the dignity and equality of women, even championing the female orgasm. One of his successors as pope will surely apply those precepts of equality to the church itself and allow the ordination of women. But maybe not in the next papacy.

It's often noted that Pope John Paul II chose all but three of the cardinals who will choose the next pope, but that doesn't necessarily mean another conservative pope. After all, Pope Pius XII chose all but two of the cardinals who in 1958 chose his successor, the far more open-minded Pope John XXIII.

As my Times colleague Peter Steinfels writes in "A People Adrift," his book about Catholics: "Today the Roman Catholic Church in the United States is on the verge of either an irreversible decline or a thoroughgoing transformation." Faced with that choice worldwide, losing ground to Pentecostals, the next pope will be forced to choose transformation.

E-mail: nicholas@nytimes.com