The acute shortage of Roman Catholic priests worldwide has made the question whether to allow priests to marry a pressing issue for the synod of Catholic bishops now meeting in Rome.
Of course, some Catholic priests are already married. Anglican priests who convert to Catholicism while married are almost routinely accepted by Rome for re-ordination as Catholic priests.
They are not alone. Priests in Eastern Rite Catholic churches may also marry prior to ordination. Roughly half of the Catholic priests of the Maronite church of Lebanon elect to marry.
Eastern Rite Catholics like the Maronites and Melkites are following rules that would be familiar to any Greek Orthodox Christian. Priests may marry prior to ordination, but not after. If their spouse should die, they may not remarry. Furthermore, bishops are chosen from the ranks of celibate clergy.
However, the vast majority of Roman Catholics follow the Western or Latin Rite. These Western Rite Catholics have not been served by married clergy -- except for Anglican converts -- for a very long time.
It was not always so. Priests in Anglo-Saxon England were allowed to marry, though the practice was stopped after the Norman invasion of 1066. The Norman ban on clerical marriage was reinforced in 1139, when the Second Lateran Council declared priestly marriage invalid throughout the entire Catholic Church.
Of course, there were people, then as now, who broke the rule of celibacy -- some of them quite spectacularly. But the rule itself was clear. No celibacy, no priestly ordination.
Catholic bishops understand this rule. It is a constant theme of their lives as priests. But they also know that celibacy is not an unchangeable theological dogma. Patriarch Gregorios III Laham of the Melkite Catholics put it bluntly at an early session of the current synod: "Celibacy has no theological foundation." It is a longstanding discipline that could be modified by Pope Benedict XVI, if he deemed it appropriate to do so.
Working against the possibility of change is the fact that the practice of celibacy is deeply rooted in the ascetic impulses of Christianity. Catholics are not alone in thinking that self-denial is an important step in the human quest for a closer relationship with God. Self-denial may, in fact, be particularly important in a Western culture that denies itself nothing.
But celibacy also has a more pragmatic root. Priests who are single can be moved from Boston to Los Angeles within 24 hours. Priests who are married cannot. This is particularly true if the married priests have working wives and children in school.
Pope Benedict can, of course, elect to reaffirm tradition and avoid experimentation. However, if he simply reaffirms the status quo, he faces a tough dilemma. He is convinced that the Catholic Church can only be renewed by a fresh dedication to the eucharist, the sacramental meal of bread and wine in which Catholics believe the risen Christ is present and accessible to them.
But the eucharist can only be offered to the laity by priests. And the shortage of priests stands in the way of the fulfillment of Benedict's dream of renewal.
The pope could, of course, authorize the ordination of celibate women, but that is the least traditional, and therefore least likely, solution to his problem.
Or he could increase the rate at which priests are transferred from dioceses where there is a surplus of clergy to dioceses in which there is a shortage, a timid strategy that may prove inadequate to meet long-term needs.
He might also turn to married ex-priests for help. Former priests are allowed under canon law to function as priests in an emergency. An ex-priest who is a stockbroker or car mechanic can absolve a dying Catholic colleague, if no other priest is present. Does the current shortage of priests constitute in itself a continuing emergency?
Or the pope could authorize the ordination of the kind of mature married men now sometimes chosen as deacons. These seasoned men could be ordained as priests, but restricted in their functions to offering the eucharist when celibate priests are not available. Such a policy would be a limited Western adaptation of Eastern Rite practice.
What is clear is that the Roman Catholic Church cannot have it both ways. It cannot claim that devotion to the eucharist is vital to the renewal of its life and fail to provide priests to offer it regularly to every Catholic.
If the eucharist is truly vital, then it must be available.
There is no alternative.