American Catholics know that there’s one thing they’ll never see in their parish: A priest saying “I do” to his lawfully wedded wife. But with the help of 26 "Vatican mistresses," there could possibly be wedding bells ringing through cathedrals: Pope Francis has received a letter from 26 Italian women wanting to marry their priest lovers. The women, who say they hail from "all over Italy" and "further afield," have called on Francis to make celibacy — a long-held Catholic law — optional among clergy.
Because celibacy has been required of all clergy in the Roman Catholic Church since the 12th century, it looks like these women are fighting an insurmountable uphill battle. But the 26 women, each of whom claim to be either in a loving relationship or would like to start one with a priest, are passionate about their illicit affairs. The women write:
As you are well aware, a lot has been said by those who are in favor of optional celibacy but very little is known about the devastating suffering of a woman who is deeply in love with a priest. We humbly place our suffering at your feet in the hope that something may change, not just for us, but for the good of the entire Church.
"We love these men," the women continue. "They love us." They add that they're just a "small sample" of women in Italy and beyond who are currently in love or carrying out a relationship with a priest in secret.
Although councils tried mandating celibacy during the Church's early years, it wasn't until the Second Lateran Council in 1139 that established the ban. The tradition was reaffirmed in the 16th century, and supported well into the 21st century by popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI.
Celibacy was long considered holier than the sacrament of marriage, as Pope Paul VI wrote in his encyclical defense of celibacy in 1967. Attitudes among Catholics, however, have been changing for quite some time. In recent years, there have been movements for married clergy, especially as more priest scandals come to light. Just last month, a German Catholic priest sent Francis a letter asking to be released from his vow of celibacy after admitting he fathered a child.
“There is a human right to partnership, marriage and starting a family, even if you can voluntarily waive it for religious reasons,” priest Stefan Hartmann wrote on his Facebook page.
A recent Univision poll found that 50 percent of Catholics worldwide support married clergy, with European Catholics having the highest rate of support at 70 percent (61 percent of American Catholics agreed).
Additionally, a Pew Research Center poll conducted before Francis was elected found that 58 percent of American Catholics thought the next pope should allow priests to marry. Interesting enough, Catholic women were more inclined to believe that marrying clergy would be a "good thing," as 61 percent of women agreed compared to 53 percent of men.
"Catholics are praying for change in church policy to allow everything from married priests, women priests, birth control ... and a host of other issues," Catholics For Choice President John O'Brien said in a recent statement. "The burning question is: will Pope Francis deliver any or all of the reforms the laity are crying out for?"
Allowing clergy to marry in the Catholic Church may not just be a pipe dream; in fact, there are already some married priests among the ranks. In 2012, the Catholic Church opened its doors to married Episcopal priests. Rev. D. Paul Sullins, a married Episcopal priest who became Catholic, told The New York Times there's about 80 priests like him in the U.S.
The Eastern Catholic Church — which is composed of more than 20 self-governing entities that are in full communion with the Pope but follow more Orthodox, rather than Latin-based, rites — also allows married clergy. Earlier this year, Francis approved the ordination of Deacon Wissam Akiki, a St. Louis resident who's not only married but also has a young child, into the Maronite Church, which predominately reigns in Lebanon. Akiki emigrated to the U.S. from Lebanon more than a decade ago, and is the first Maronite ordained priest in the U.S. in more than a century.
However, the feasible ordination of married priests doesn't mean there's equal rights for clerical members — churches like the Maronites and Ukrainian Catholics still deny unmarried clergy the right to marry. Most of these contemporary married-priests cases came about because the men didn't want to abandon their families for the priesthood.
Francis, who has set himself apart as an empathetic and accepting pope, seems to understand the pull between clerical and familial obligations — to an extent. The forward-thinking pope has clerical marriage on the mind due to the worldwide priest shortage. According to the National Catholic Reporter, Francis recently discussed the idea of married priests with a Brazilian bishop struggling to provide for his diocese. At the end of the conversation, it seems that Francis left the door open for married priests if it would alleviate clergy shortages and attract more men to the priesthood.
However, it's unclear just how much the forward-thinking pope wants to change in the Church — and when. Although Francis has made remarks in the past about wanting to "shake up" the Church, he has yet to make any substantial changes to such pressing issues. For now, the Vatican mistresses — and their faithful lovers — will have to live on in secrecy or face leaving a church disgraced and shamed.