When considering any organised religion – let alone one as old and institutionalised as the Catholic Church – it would be unwise to expect change to come quickly, if, indeed, at all. But there are now discernible glimmers of shifting sentiment that may yet turn into real progress.
The matter in question is whether priests should be allowed to marry. While in the Anglican tradition they may, their Catholic counterparts have been bound by vows of abstinence since the fourth century. Now, however, a softer tone from the Vatican suggests that the tide may finally be turning. The Catholic weeklyThe Tablet reports that on a visit to Brazil earlier this month Pope Francis responded somewhat equivocally to a bishop’s suggestion that it was time for the ordination of married men.
It is as well not to overstate the case – the Holy Father’s response was notable for its failing categorically to rule such a development out, rather than for any ruling of it in. But every revolution must start somewhere. And already there is more than just the pontiff’s ambiguities to go on. As The Independent reports today, three British bishops have spoken out in support of a change in the rules. Meanwhile, although the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales is refusing to publish its own local results, it is nonetheless significant that the Vatican has conducted a worldwide survey of sexual ethics, touching on such sensitive topics as contraception and homosexuality.
All of which adds up to an encouraging picture of a profoundly traditionalist institution reconsidering its relationship with the modern world. Not before time. The appalling revelations of clerical child abuse are the most compelling possible argument for reform.
It would be a mistake to expect too much from Pope Francis, even so. For all the high expectations fostered by his dislike of the trappings of office, his exhortations of compassion for homosexuals and his concern for the plight of the poor, the church will not join the 21st century in a single bound. Signs that the leadership may be open to change are welcome, though; and efforts to normalise the priesthood with the ordination of married men is a fine place to start.