Pope Opens Debate on Celibacy Requirement for Catholic Priests
By Francis X. Rocca | Oct. 6, 2019
VATICAN CITY— Pope Francis formally opened a meeting of bishops that will debate whether the Catholic Church should loosen its 1,000-year-old requirement of celibacy for priests.
The potentially momentous debate pits those who say ordaining married men could relieve the church’s clergy shortage against those who warn that doing so would undermine the distinctive character of the priesthood.
In his homily on Sunday, at Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica, the pope didn’t refer specifically to the celibacy debate, but called generally for innovation in the church’s ministry: “If everything continues as it was, if we spend our days content that ‘this is the way things have always been done,’ then the gift vanishes, smothered by the ashes of fear and concern for defending the status quo.”
This month’s Vatican meeting, called a synod, is dedicated to “new paths for the church” in South America’s Amazon region. Organizers have stressed the ecological topics on the agenda, including deforestation and other threats to indigenous communities.
The most controversial “new path” scheduled for discussion over the next three weeks is the possibility of ordaining married men to serve as priests in the sparsely populated region, where Catholic parishes sometimes go for months without a visit from a priest.
The synod’s official working document calls for considering the ordination of “elders, preferably indigenous, respected and accepted by their community, even if they have an existing and stable family, in order to ensure availability of the sacraments that accompany and sustain the Christian life.” Such candidates for the priesthood are known as viri probati, Latin for “proven men.”
The pope has said that the “door is always open” to married priests in remote places such as the Amazon or the Pacific islands. He has also said he needs to pray and reflect further on the question.
The ratio of Catholics to priests in South America is 7,200 to one, almost four times the ratio in North America, according to Vatican statistics for 2017. In parts of the Amazon, the ratio is more than 8,000 to one. The world-wide ratio has risen sharply in recent decades, to about 3,200 to 1 from 1,900 to 1 in 1980.
On Thursday, at a press conference to introduce the synod, Cardinal Cláudio Hummes, a former archbishop of São Paulo, lamented that Catholics in the Amazon frequently lack access to the sacraments, especially the Eucharist, on account of the priest shortage. “The church draws her life from the Eucharist,” the cardinal said, quoting St. John Paul II.
The Catholic Church routinely ordains married men as deacons, clergy who can officiate at baptisms, marriages and funerals. But deacons cannot celebrate Mass or hear confessions, essential elements of Catholic life.
Married men do serve as priests in the two dozen Eastern Catholic Churches that follow the pope in Ukraine, Lebanon and elsewhere. In recent decades, some married Protestant ministers, mostly Anglicans, have been ordained as priests after becoming Catholics. But in the Roman Catholic Church—to which to which the vast majority of the world’s 1.3 billion Catholics belong—celibacy has been the norm since the 11th century.
Not all members of this month’s synod think expanding the pool of potential priests by ordaining married men is the solution to the Amazon’s priest shortage.
Canadian Cardinal Marc Ouellet, head of the Vatican office for bishops and an expert on Latin America, said the move could be counterproductive.
In a book on the subject published last week, the cardinal wrote that clergy working in the Amazon are “welcomed and integrated into local communities precisely because of their celibacy,” a status that lends a priest’s “preaching a weight or fire…from a life completely given to his Lord in ministry.”
The Rev. Martín Lasarte, an Uruguayan priest who is one of the 21 non-bishops among the synod’s 184 voting members, has said ordaining married men is an “illusory, almost magical proposal that does not touch the true fundamental problem” of the church in the Amazon.
Father Lasarte said the Amazon region has the potential to produce abundant vocations to the celibate priesthood but suffers from decades of inadequate evangelization. Catholic missionaries there have provided charity and fought for social justice but often neglected to teach the Catholic faith out of an exaggerated fear of showing disrespect for local cultures, he said.
Any decision to ordain married priests would finally be up to the pope, who would likely extend that permission only to bishops in the Amazon region, at least at first.
But such a move would promptly stoke demand for the practice in other regions with similar challenges, said Adam DeVille, a professor of theology at Indiana’s University of Saint Francis and editor of a forthcoming study of married Catholic priests.
“People will quickly pick that up and say, ‘well, if it can happen in the Amazon, then why can’t it happen in, say, the Yukon or the Northwest Territories or Greenland?’” Mr. DeVille said.
The Catholic bishops of Germany are already planning to debate priestly celibacy, along with other sensitive issues including homosexuality and women’s ordination, at a national synod starting in December.
Father Lasarte said that priestly celibacy wasn’t an appropriate topic to address at a meeting dedicated to only one region, such as the Amazon, because the unity of the church requires international consensus on the question.
“Any decision that touches fundamental elements of Christian life and pastoral care has repercussions throughout the global village,” Father Lasarte said, pointing to regional fissures in the Anglican Communion over disagreements about teaching on sexual morality. “Sometimes it’s necessary for everyone to walk at the same speed.”
Write to Francis X. Rocca at email@example.com
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