Roman Catholic predictions

St John Lateran

With the announcement of Pope Benedict’s abdication, the media has not been short in offering predictions of change in Rome — or, if not predictions, there’s plenty of pontificating (no pun) about Rome’s need to finally jump on board the modernity train. So, it’s worth recounting what is actually possible, merely plausible, or impossible.

Women priests: nope, not possible. The Catholic doctrine of the priesthood — with the priest as alter Christus to his bride, the Church — is too deeply embedded in Catholic orthodoxy and influences how the priest functions in a dramatic re-presentation of Christ in the mass and in confession. In terms of the magisterium, a change is made even more difficult, since a male-only priesthood can be said to fall under the “ordinary and universal magisterium” of the church which is designated as part of the infallible magisterium (see Vatican II’s Lumen Gentium, 25).

Married priests: This already exists. The Eastern rite churches of the Catholic Church have a married priesthood (except, like the Eastern Orthodox, for the bishops), and there is even a provision for Anglican ministers who convert to Rome to be ordained in the Catholic priesthood while being married. As for the rest of the Western rite — the vast majority of Rome’s jurisdiction — the priesthood is celibate, but since this is a matter of discipline, not dogma, there is some plausibility that it could change. I’m skeptical that it will change, but it is plausible, unlike women priests.

Contraception: This probably belongs in the “not possible” category, since Rome has argued that it falls under the infallible authority of the “ordinary and universal magisterium.” However, many will argue that certain contextual factors call into question whether past proscriptions still apply; thus, doctrinal development is needed. That argument hasn’t impressed Rome heretofore. Moreover, Rome’s position against contraception is part and parcel of a larger natural law position that lends a great deal of intellectual integrity to her sexual ethics — which should be recognized even by those who disagree.

Gay marriage: nope, not possible. Given that Rome has thwarted the entire sexual revolution from its inception (with contraceptives), she is far removed from gay marriage even being a possibility. And, once again, the claims from the “ordinary and universal magisterium” are, as with an all-male priesthood, especially strong.

Well, that covers the most discussed issues.


Image: St. John Lateran Basilica, the cathedral church of the Bishop of Rome



  1. Nice analysis.

    It would have been interesting, though, to weight the hypothesis of new council (Vatican III) which some analysts had thought possible with the last pope.

    • My sense is that a new council (a Vatican III) would just make official definitions of these issues. In that case, we would have the infallibility of the “extra-ordinary” magisterium, which is certainly harder to dispute with. My guess is that Rome has avoided this option (and the ex cathedra option) for pragmatic reasons.

      • Well, if I remember correctly a document on opening to contraception was written during Vatican II, but was not voted because the pope himself blocked it, fearing that such a thing would “trivialise” sexuality.

        So if the next pope would be weaker than Paul VI and the members of an hypothetical Vatican III as open as some of Vatican II were, something could be changed.

        Although I do not consider of much importance this topic, since many Catholics already use contraception anyway, what I would like to see is a little more ecumenical approach to other (i.e. Reformed) churches, which right now are just “ecclesial communities”

      • Yes, you are right about the contraception issue — Paul VI held the line and John Paul II directly connected it to the “ordinary and universal magisterium.” And, it is noteworthy, John Paul II also provided much of the theological rationale, in his “theology of the body” homilies.

        The ecumenical front is worse than ever. Rome has little incentive to take Protestantism seriously — as the mainline churches, one by one, capitulate on gay marriage. If anything, we may see a closer dialogue with evangelicals, but not with the long-established Protestant churches of Europe and North America. Yet, the evangelicals are not interested in doctrinal sloppiness and misdirection (as seen in the Joint Declaration on Justification), but there is still a strong heritage of common beliefs and morals between Catholics and evangelicals, as a part of their common catholic heritage, making them natural allies in the years ahead. Also, it will be interesting to see how Rome engages pentecostal and charismatic churches in the years ahead, especially as these movements get more established, with seminaries and greater doctrinal awareness.

      • Your analysis is quite on the spot.

        Sancta Romana Ecclesia has indeed something in common with evangelical movements / churches, but they’re still stuck with a Pope-centrical view, so I’m guessing all they’ll do will be what they always do, that is what they did with unhappy Anglicans.
        They’ll just say “come here, we’ll let you keep your wives (and maybe liturgy)”.

        Plus I think it’s all on their (Rome’s) advantage the opening of mainline protestantism to LGBT issues, this means a bigger chance of getting former-Reformed clergy/people under their wing
        (Again, see the Anglicans).

      • Yep, for traditional Protestants who take theology seriously, the confidence and moral resolve of Rome is an attractive option — not to mention the unity, the grandness, and the aesthetic of Rome.

      • Now, I should probably get you just another serious answer, but you just reminded me of the “Stuff Presbyterian Seminarians Say” video.

        So I’ll go with «Candles!»

        There are some theological barriers, though, that should counteract the attractiveness of Rome: I’m thinking of transubstantiation as a symbol* of the whole idea of “owning the truth” ( «the religious experience … as soon as it is something more than empty space … is the impudent and inept usurpation of what can be and become true only from the unknown God»** ) because people have been repeating something for centuries, which from my point of view is like closing the Spirit in a cage.

        This should be at least a little bit annoying for someone who was raised thinking “ecclesia semper reformanda”.

        * you could read that as a really convoluted joke on the nature of the Lord’s Supper
        ** I’ve probably completely misquoted that passage from Barth, but my RB is in Italian

      • Yes, there are serious theological barriers, as Barth identified accurately for the most part — connected in various ways to the usurpation of God by what is other than God, which Catholics call “grace perfecting nature” and Protestants call “idolatry.” Either the Catholics are right or the Reformed are right…there’s no middle way.

    • I just don’t see how a new council could do anything but follow the last ~50 years of work to weave the radical notions of Vatican II back down into the stable magisterial tradition and make them conform to what the Church has “always” meant.

      And besides, I don’t see the curia being fooled twice by the same trick. If there are enough pressing issues for a council, the answers in the opening drafts will likely be the answers published in the final statements, and the assembly will not be given the opportunities that were seized upon in the 60s.

  2. I don’t see any way that the RCC could implement marriage as an option for the “native” priesthood without there being a comprehensive teleological justification for it. It’s been pushed so far outside of the bounds of the nature of the priesthood that there’s very little chance of the curia permitting it.

    As a matter of discipline, it has a massive set of time-honored rationales (and rationalizations) behind it. Refusing to force something like divorce on married converts is really a separate issue, in many ways, because that’s an area of conflict where preferable priestly discipline yields to the value of the sanctity of marriage.

    So while I agree that it’s possible, and perhaps the only possible thing on your list, I just don’t see what could provide the necessary unequal force to push the church in that direction for “its own” in the Western rite.

    All this crazy optimism, as though the election of a new pope were a time when outside ideas stood a chance… 🙂

    • Yes, dropping celibacy for the priesthood is the only real possibility on my list. The “time-honored rationales” are why I’m skeptical that it will change, especially given that the Roman curia and the bishops worldwide (nearly all appointed by JP2 or B16) are rather committed to those rationales. Yet, there is the practical issue of the priesthood shortage. Parishes are closing and being consolidated, and priests are increasingly governing either more than one parish or a single parish of 2,000+ families (the latter is very common here in N. Carolina). Time will tell. There are signs of renewal: conservative parishes (esp. in the South) are sending young men to the priesthood and there are some impressive communities, like the Dominicans in D.C. and the Dominican sisters in Nashville.

  3. As far as I’m aware there is no agreed upon mechanism for identifying what is “ordinary and universal magisterium” . I read a really good case by a cannon lawyer that JP11’s encyclical that stated female ordination came under OaUM was just his opinion and as such could come under revision.

    • That’s a good point, Richard. There is no mechanism, but any doctrine that has been held universally by the bishops at any one time, and presumably with a substantial pedigree in antiquity, is considered infallible under the OUM (at least, that seems to be the straightforward reading of Lumen Gentium 25). As for women’s ordination, we have several centuries with no evidence of a bishop affirming the ordination of women. When the (Roman) Church speaks in unison it speaks infallibly.

      [To be clear, I’m not agreeing with their position or arguing whether it is cogent. After all, I am an evangelical Protestant. I’m just trying to understand it and faithfully articulate it.]

      Yet, because there is no clear mechanism for determining the OUM, the only sufficient means for truly silencing dissent is through the extra-ordinary magisterium: conciliar definitions or papal ex cathedra definitions. In regards to the four issues I enumerate above, Rome has elected to not do so, for now. I can only guess that their reasons are pragmatic (especially in regards to the widespread dissent over contraception). Or, in the case of women’s ordination, they are already in the position to control uniformity of practice, so there’s no need to define it.

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