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