The men who drafted the Westminster Confession believed, as do I, that a lifetime of celibacy for a man not specially gifted by God for that calling is an impossibility. They said:
“No man may vow to do any thing forbidden in the Word of God, or what would hinder any duty therein commanded, or which is not in his own power, and for the performance whereof he has no promise of ability from God. In which respects, popish monastical vows of perpetual single life, professed poverty, and regular obedience, are so far from being degrees of higher perfection, that they are superstitious and sinful snares, in which no Christian may entangle himself” (WCF 22.7).
In short, a man may not lawfully vow to do something forbidden by the law of God. Neither may he bind himself with a vow to a sin of omission — as when men dedicated as Corban the resources needed to take care of parents (Mark 7:11). To vow celibacy outside the will of God is to wrong a future spouse. And last, he may not vow beyond his abilities to fulfill. It is a superstititous snare for a man to believe he can get along without a woman, absent an unusual gift from God.
So as a Protestant, I of course believe that it is long past time for the Roman church to lift the requirement of priestly celibacy, allowing priests to marry, along with other reforms. Unfortunately, in the current chaos, many of the voices calling for this particular reform are also calling for the “reforms” of allowing for expressions of homosexuality, feminism, and so on. We are in an age when Shift the ape has more influence than he ought to have.
In order to address these problems rightly and forthrightly, the next pope will need to be a brawler. It will not be enough for him to exude a saintly demeanor — the last two popes had that, and the corruptions riddling the Roman church proceeded apace. This outcome is unlikely because this next reforming pope — let us call him Dirty Harry — would have to be selected by college of cardinals, among whom the foresaid corruptions are greatly advanced. For one small sample, take the recent resignation of Cardinal O’Brian in the UK.
If serious reforms are attempted, I anticipate the whole thing will blow up. If they are not attempted, I anticipate the whole thing will melt down. So why do I as a Protestant care which way it goes, up or down? For my Roman Catholic friends who are serious about their faith, such an event would present a dogmatic crisis, and for me not at all. But there are more kinds of crisis than crises of faith. The Roman Catholic church is immense, and if they fall to the forces of liberalism, I believe that things will fare badly for all Protestants, starting the following week.
In making the distinctions I am, I am taking the same line offered by J. Gresham Machen in his magnificent book Christianity and Liberalism. He there argues, persuasively to my mind, that liberalism is not a deficient expression of Christianity, but rather is not Christianity at all. It is unbelief simpliciter. He compared this to what he regarded as the sub-par Christianity of Romanism, but still recognizably Christian for all that. The forces of rot within the Roman communion, and the barbarian clamoring without, are not Christian in any foundational sense of the word.
Now I grant that the errors of conservative Romanism (such as the aforementioned requirement of priestly celibacy) opened many doors of opportunity to those looking for the chance to do what they are doing now. Sow the wind, and there will be times you reap the whirlwind. But whatever happens, I don’t think we can argue that the results are irrelevant to Protestants. They are doctrinally irrelevant, but an event of great moment can easily be — as far as doctrine goes — neither here nor there.