The Vatican's just-announced effort to recruit unhappy Anglicans away from a church that has embraced female priests and elected an openly gay bishop provides the Catholic Church with a way to deal with its shortage of priests - without allowing Catholic women to be ordained and without ending the celibacy rule.
If Anglican clergy and seminarians are among those who convert, the Vatican potentially gets more married men in its ranks of priests while continuing to forbid Catholic priests and seminarians to wed.
In fact, this very thing has been happening on a small scale for years. Since the early 1980s, dozens of former Episcopal priests, a good many married with children, have become Catholic priests in the United States. Published reports put the number at about 200 by now.
While the conversion of Episcopal priests has not solved the Catholic shortage, the Vatican's new effort to streamline the process for conversion of Anglicans - whole parishes, potentially - will certainly help.
So those of us who are Catholic and who for years have been calling for an end to celibacy (or leaving it only as an option) get to question a brewing hypocrisy in the Vatican's "Apostolic Constitution," revealed in Rome on Tuesday: Converts are allowed to be married, but those already ordained - or the minuscule number in the seminaries - aren't.
Reaching out to pull in those who oppose female priests, or openly gay prelates or same-sex marriage: This is Vatican marketing at its best. Disgruntled, conservative Anglicans represent a potentially rich customer base for the Roman Catholic Church.
But there's stunning irony in the "Apostolic Constitution." According to a Vatican official, the new process will allow Anglicans "to enter full communion with the Catholic Church while preserving elements of the distinctive Anglican spiritual and liturgical patrimony."
That includes the married priesthood.
This subject has been off the table for discussion for decades, though some of the Catholic faithful in the United States have tried to raise it - famously, a group of priests from Wisconsin in 2003. The retired archbishop of New York, Cardinal Edward M. Egan, suggested in a radio interview last March that the church would one day have to reconsider allowing priests to marry. According to The New York Times, Cardinal Egan called it a "perfectly legitimate discussion," particularly in light of the shortage of priests.
I've thought it perfectly legitimate in light of the clergy sex abuse scandal.
The announcement of the "Apostolic Constitution" and the questions it raises about priests come just as the Diocese of Wilmington files for bankruptcy.
The filing occurred on the eve of eight clergy sex-abuse trials, the first of dozens of cases that could cost the diocese anywhere from $100 million to $500 million. In a tragedy whose unfolding seems endless, claims of damages across the country, from Boston to Los Angeles, have caused seven other dioceses to file for bankruptcy protection and others to close parishes and schools. There have been thousands of allegations against hundreds of priests, living and dead, who served parishes and in schools between 1950 and 2000. As a result, American dioceses and other defendants have paid victims about $1 billion in recent years.
It is ironic that celibacy, injected into the priesthood in the 11th century to protect the Catholic Church from financial and property claims by the offspring of priests, has cost it so much in the 21st century.
Celibacy is one of the reasons for the widespread sexual abuse. Through the years, the requirement took its toll, sending thousands of priests out of the vocation and into less repressive lifestyles, and leaving a diminished population of celibate priests available for parish duty. As bishops faced shortages, they were forced to recycle their problem priests, to shuffle them from assignment to assignment. That's why some of the priests in these tragic cases appear to have been serial offenders.
Celibacy is the elephant in the room when Catholics discuss the sex abuse scandal and the shortage of priests. It remains on the books. But, for the sake of the future church, which now appears likely to include many Anglican converts and their married priests, it's time to drop it and see what good might come.
Dan Rodricks' column appears Thursdays and Sundays. He is host of the Midday talk show on WYPR-FM.