Conan O'Brien's recent joke about the Pope and marriage turned out to be a lot more timely than the Irish American talk show host realized. "Pope Francis said that married people should have more kids. When asked for comment, married people said the Pope should have a kid and then get back to us," O'Brien quipped.

I wonder if Irish American Archbishop Joseph Tobin -- one of the more fascinating, lesser-known U.S. Catholic power brokers -- was laughing.

O'Brien made this joke the same week a group with the tongue-twisting name, the North American Orthodox-Catholic Theological Consultation (NAOCTC), released a very interesting statement.

The NAOCTC, "a high level group of Catholic and Orthodox officials," according to The New York Times, is calling on the “Vatican to allow married men to serve as Eastern Catholic priests in North America."

We are talking not about Roman Catholic priests, but instead Eastern Catholic priests who serve Orthodox Catholic churches, which have doctrinal differences with the Roman Catholic church, though they are obedient to the Pope.
"Eastern Catholic priests, but not bishops, are permitted to marry in Africa, Asia and Europe, and when Eastern Catholic immigrants came to the United States in the late 19th and early 20th century, their priests were married," the Times noted.

"But in 1929, the Vatican issued a decree requiring that only celibate men be ordained as Eastern Catholic priests in the United States. It is that decree that the officials are now seeking to reverse."

Nevertheless, given the sense of reform Pope Francis has unleashed, given the severe priest shortage, and given the various deep and complex questions that have been raised about priestly celibacy and sexuality, it's easy to see how this issue could lead to larger questions about marriage and Roman Catholic priests.

And just in case you suspect NAOCTC is some hippy granola group with negligible ties to the realities of Catholic doctrine, you should learn about the Irish American who plays a leadership role in the group.

His name is Joseph Tobin, archbishop of Indianapolis, one of 13 children described by one Indiana radio station as “a Detroit native and product of Irish immigrant parents and Catholic schools.”

Tobin served in Ireland in 2010, at the request of Pope Benedict, helping the Irish church in the wake of terrible sex abuse revelations.

Tobin is also an outspoken advocate for the rights of immigrants in the U.S. Earlier this year, Tobin said that 21st century immigrants are the “new Irish in our midst.” 

He said, “In this country, except for Native American Catholics, every one of us is a child or grandchild or great-grandchild of immigrants.  My grandparents lived with the ‘Irish Need Not Apply’ signs, and that is still very ingrained in the memory of my family. If we are uncaring about the new Irish in our midst -- the Hispanics, the Africans, the Asians -- on the day of judgment, it won't be them who condemn us. It will be our grandparents.” 

Powerful stuff.

Tobin has also defended various factions of nuns who some believe have been persecuted by anti-feminist higher-ups at the Vatican. All this would make it seem as if Tobin might fall out of favor with the Vatican.  But Tobin was the leader of the Roman Catholic delegation of NAOCTC, which just suggested that Eastern priests should be allowed to marry.  

Prior, he served as (take a deep breath) secretary for the Vatican’s Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life.  In short, he’s managed to build bridges between liberal and conservative Catholic factions.

Does that mean we can soon expect the end of celibacy for Roman Catholic priests? The short answer is “no,” because even Pope Francis has dismissed this. But we tend to forget that we already have married Roman Catholic priests.  Less than 100, true, the vast majority of them former Protestants who were married, then converted.
Still, given the various crises enveloping Roman Catholicism these days, who knows what small open door will lead to a kind of reform that even Pope Francis could not envision?

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