While TomKat Prepares to Wed, Exorcist Archbishop Heads to Italian Altar

As I head down to Rome today, wedding bells are in the air. Controversy, too, at the Vatican and at a top-secret location.

Marriage is a pretty straightforward sacrament, a rite of passage that most of us get around to eventually. Two people commit to each other in front of God, their friends and their families. A beautiful thing, and as it happens, I myself got married in Rome.

But in the stories I'll be covering this week, there are plenty of powerful naysayers.

The first has to do with a Roman Catholic archbishop, a man who's not supposed to be married at all. Emmanuel Malingo has been a bit of a maverick. He's an exorcist, known to borrow liberally from religious practices in his native Zambia.

He's also the founder of the group Married Priests Now! He got married himself (for the second time) in 2001. Even better: This Catholic archbishop got married in the Unification Church, in one of those mass weddings the Moonies made famous. The Rev. Moon himself presided over the ceremony.

But even that did not cost Malingo his bishop's mitre. A month later, Pope John Paul II welcomed Archbishop Malingo back into the fold. But John Paul's successor is not so tolerant. In September, when Malingo ordained four more married bishops in Washington, D.C., without the pope's permission, Pope Benedict excommunicated them all.

In the eyes of the church, marriage cost these priests their immortal souls.

Reconsidering Married Priests

Tomorrow the pope will host a special meeting with the curia -- the church equivalent of a Cabinet meeting.

According to the Vatican, the only item on the agenda is "reflection" on the issues raised by this schism. The pope is unlikely to relax the celibacy rule. The party line at the Vatican is that to do so would be an insult to every priest who has kept true to his vows.

But Pope Benedict is under pressure to give some thought to the issue in part because Malingo is a popular, charismatic church leader in Africa where Catholicism is expanding fast.

Novel as the concept might seem today, the notion of married priests is nothing new. St. Peter, the first pope, was a married man. So were most of the apostles. In the early days of the church, a married priest was no big deal.

But by the sixth century, those familiar Catholic anxieties about sex started creeping in. For hundreds of years priests were free to marry but risked excommunication if they actually slept with their wives. (Go figure.) By the early 12th century, the church decided it would be best if priests never married at all.

The idea is that priests are married to the church. (At least that's how it was explained to me by the priest who married my wife and me.) The celibacy rule is meant to protect the priest's marriage, because for him any sexual expression would be considered adultery.

Marry to Save the Priesthood

Today a few exceptions are made. Anglican priests can seek a sort of religious asylum in Roman Catholicism -- if they become Catholic because they're unhappy the Anglicans are now ordaining female bishops, they can become Catholic priests even if they're married. But such exceptions are few and far between.

Malingo's faction argues that priestly marriage answers several church problems -- the declining population of priests, for one.

One reason the church has had a hard time attracting new priests, they argue, is that too few men are willing to remain celibate for the rest of their lives. They point out that priests are men, faults and all.

Human beings have a natural (and healthy) sex drive. They argue that priests need a socially acceptable outlet for their libidos. Otherwise, they might misbehave. God knows plenty of priests have in recent years.

It's all fascinating stuff, and potentially very important. Tomorrow's story? Well, that's a whole other issue. Fewer lofty concepts but more star power. Here's a hint: It involves a certain celebrity closely associated with a very different church. Stay tuned.