18 June 2019

Discussing married priests
and clerical celibacy with
Ivan Yates on ‘Newstalk’

Pope Francis with Archbishop Justin Welby … is Pope Francis about to soften the rules on clerical celibacy?

Patrick Comerford

I was part of a panel on Newstalk this earlier this afternoon [18 June 2019] being interviewed by Ivan Yates on the topic of clerical celibacy and married priests.

I was invited with Father Tony Flannery, the Redemptorist priest and former editor of Reality onto the Hard Shoulder programme to discuss my experiences as a married Anglican priest with a grown-up family in response proposals this week that many see as a potentially ground-breaking move in the Roman Catholic Church.

A document released by the Vatican this week is seen as having the potential to open a new discussion on ordained married priests, with its invitation to bishops in Latin America to hold a discussion in the Vatican next October on the ordination of elderly men to the priesthood, albeit to meet pastoral needs in remote parts of the Amazon.

The proposal comes as a response to the dearth of priests in many parts of South America. It would involve ordaining viri probati, or ‘men of proven character,’ as they are known in Canon Law.

Some people, obviously, wonder whether conceding this exception would be a step towards ordaining married men in other areas of the world.

The Vatican document published this week affirms celibacy as ‘a gift for the Church, but notes that there have been requests to consider, for the most remote areas of the Amazon, ‘the possibility of conferring priestly ordination on elderly men, preferably indigenous, respected and accepted members of their community.’

Such men, the document says, could be ordained ‘even if they already have an established and stable family.’

Pope Francis has already said that he would consider the possibility of ordaining viri probati in remote areas that are deprived of the sacraments. But he has also made clear that his Church retains its broader commitment to priestly celibacy.

The Vatican proposal was drawn up after consultations with bishops and church leaders in the Amazon region.

Even if this proposal is accepted, these married priests would not be the first within the Roman Catholic tradition. Pope Benedict XVI allowed the ordination of some married Anglican priests who moved across to the Roman Catholic tradition.

Some Eastern-rite Catholic churches that are in communion with Rome, such as the Greek Catholics in Eastern Europe and the Melkites, Maronites and Coptic Catholics in the Middle East, have always had married priests alongside priests who are celibate monks. However, married priests in any of these traditions have never been allowed to become bishops unless they are widowed.

The proposed exception for remote areas of South America would address the extreme shortage of priests that is found in many parts of the world today.

The change is proposed in a working document for a meeting of bishops in Rome in October to discuss the pastoral needs communities in Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, French Guiana, Guyana, Peru, Suriname and Venezuela, which are known collectively as the Pan-Amazon Region.

The Vatican document also contains a proposal for an ‘official ministry’ for women in the Pan-Amazon region, although it does not specify what type of ministry.

Pope Francis had convened a panel of experts to study the history of women deacons in the early Church, but he said in May that the panel’s findings were inconclusive.

Parishes in the Amazon area often experience frequent and lengthy periods of difficulty in celebrating the Eucharist and of waiting for with Baptisms, Confessions and Church weddings because of the lack of priests.

The working paper was released on Monday by the Synod of Bishops, the Vatican department overseeing the world’s bishops. ‘For this reason, instead of leaving the communities without the Eucharist, the criteria of selection and preparation of the ministers authorised to celebrate it should be changed.’

The document urges the bishops meeting in October to address the pastoral needs of moving the Church from one ‘that visits’ to a ‘Church that remains.’ However, the Vatican insists that the working document of the Amazonian Synod is no more that a working document, and it remains open to being discussed and modified.

The Vatican proposal also suggests that the Church should incorporate indigenous ‘music and dance, in native languages and clothes, in communion with nature and with the community.’

Cardinal Walter Kasper said earlier this month that if bishops from the Amazon together propose that married men should be ordained to the priesthood, Pope Francis would ‘in principle probably accept it.’

In an interview with the German daily Frankfurter Rundschau, the former president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity said the change to the tradition of a celibate priesthood in the Latin Church could come at the Synod on the Amazon in October.

Cardinal Kasper, who is considered one of Pope Francis’s preferred theological advisors, said in the interview that ‘celibacy is not a dogma, it is not an unalterable practice.’

The First and Second Lateran Councils in 1123 and 1139 explicitly forbade priests in the Western Church from marrying, so celibacy has been part of that tradition for almost 1,000 years. Eliminating the prospect of marriage ensured that children or wives of priests did not make claims on property acquired throughout a priest’s life, and this helped to prevent the alienation of land and property belonging to the Church.

However, it took centuries for the practice of priestly celibacy to become widespread. As Tony Flannery pointed out this afternoon, there were married priests, and perhaps even married bishops, in Ireland until as late as the 16th century. But while celibacy eventually became the norm in the Western Catholic Church, it was rejected by many parts of the western Church, and in the East remains a tradition only within monasticism.

Sandro Magister, a Vatican expert at the Italian magazine L’Espresso, said that he was confident that allowing married priests in the Amazon would ‘open the door for other bishops’ conferences all over the world to allow married priests,’ including in the heart of Europe. He said that German bishops plan to hold a synod on this topic next year.

Málaga statue remembers
Solomon ibn Gabirol, a long
forgotten poet and philosopher

The statue of the poet and philosopher Solomon ibn Gabirol in a small square in Málaga (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

Between the Roman amphitheatre in Málaga and the proposed Sephardic Museum in La Judería in the southern Spanish city, a statue beneath the shade of some trees in a small square commemorates the Jewish poet and philosopher Solomon ibn Gabirol, also known as Solomon ben Judah and Shlomo Ben Yehuda ibn Gabirol, is known in Arabic as Abu Ayyub Sulayman bin Yahya bin Jabirul.

He was an 11th-century Andalusian poet and Jewish philosopher who was influenced by Neo-Platonism. He published over 100 poems, as well as works of biblical exegesis, philosophy, ethics and satire. One source credits ibn Gabirol with creating a golem, possibly female, for household chores.

Researchers in the 19th century realised that mediaeval translators had Latinised ibn Gabirol’s name to Avicebron or Avencebrol and had translated his work on Jewish Neo-Platonic philosophy into a Latin form that in the intervening centuries had been highly regarded as a work of Islamic or Christian scholarship.

Because of this work, ibn Gabirol is known in the history of philosophy for the doctrine that all things, including soul and intellect, are composed of matter and form (‘Universal Hylomorphism’), and he is also known for his emphasis on divine will.

However, little is known about ibn Gabirol’s life. However, most sources agree he was born in Málaga, in late 1021 or early 1022. They are less certain about the date his death, although he died sometime between the age 30 and age 48.

Although ibn Gabirol lived a materially comfortable life, it was a difficult and loveless life, and he suffered ill health and misfortunes, and had fickle friends and powerful enemies.

His health problems – which may have been caused by lupus vulgaris – gave him constant pain and left him embittered for the rest of his life. His poetry shows how he thought himself short and ugly. Indeed, he was dismissed by many of his contemporaries as a social misfit.

The plaque in Málaga commemorating Solomon ibn Gabirol (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

ibn Gabirol’s writings indicate his father was a prominent figure in Córdoba, but was forced to move to Málaga during a political crisis in 1013. His parents died while he was a child, leaving him an orphan with no siblings or close relatives.

He was befriended, supported and protected by a prominent political figure, Yekutiel ibn Hassan al-Mutawakkil ibn Qabrun, and moved to Zaragoza, then a centre of Jewish culture. There he immersed himself in studying the Talmud, grammar, geometry, astronomy and philosophy.

He was an accomplished poet and philosopher at an early age. By 17, he had composed five of his known poems, one an azhara (‘I am the master, and Song is my slave’) enumerating all 613 commandments of Judaism. At about this time, he also composed a 200-verse elegy for his patron Yekutiel, and four other notable elegies to mourn the death of Hai Gaon.

However, when ibn Gabirol was still 17, his patron was assassinated , and by 1045 ibn Gabirol had to leave Zaragoza.

He was then sponsored by Samuel ibn Naghrillah, the Grand Vizier of the King of Granada.

By 19, he had composed an alphabetical and acrostic poem in 400 verses teaching the rules of Hebrew grammar. By the time he was 23 or 25, he had composed, in Arabic, ‘Improvement of the Moral Qualities,’ later translated into Hebrew by Judah ben Saul ibn Tibbon.

By 25, he also composed his collection of proverbs Mivchar Pninim (‘Choice of Pearls’), although scholars are divided on his authorship.

At 28, he composed his philosophical work Fons Vitæ.

But ibn Gabriol and Samuel ibn Naghrillah eventually argued, and ibn Gabirol spent the rest of his life wandering. He may have died in either in 1069 or 1070, or around 1058 in Valencia.

One legend claims that he was trampled to death by an Arab horseman. Another says he was murdered by a Muslim poet who was jealous of ibn Gabirol’s poetic gifts, and who secretly buried him beneath the roots of a fig tree. The tree bore fruit in abundant quantity and of extraordinary sweetness. Its unique qualities attracted attention and brought about an investigation. ibn Gabirol’s body was found under the tree, and his murderer was identified and executed.

Scholars disagree about the date and circumstances of the death of Solomon ibn Gabirol (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Although ibn Gabirol’s legacy was esteemed throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, it was historically minimized by errors in scholarship that misattributed his works.

He seems to have often been called ‘the Málagan’ because of the city of his birth, known in Arabic days as al-Mālaqa. The 12th-century Arab philosopher Jabir ibn Aflah ascribed 17 philosophical essays by Gabirol to the Biblical King Solomon. The 15th-century Jewish philosopher Yohanan Alemanno introduced this error into Hebrew scholarship, and added another four works to the list of false ascriptions.

In 1846, Solomon Munk identified him with the Latin work known as Fons Vitæ and ascribed to Avicebron. For centuries, Avicebron or Avencebrol had been thought of as either a Christian or Arabic Muslim philosopher. confusion was in part because Fons Vitæ is independent of Jewish dogma and does not cite Biblical verses or Rabbinic sources.

ibn Gabirol also wrote sacred and secular poems in Hebrew, and was recognised even by his critics as the greatest poet of his age. His lasting poetic legacy, however, was his sacred works, often considered to be the most powerful of their kind in the mediaeval Hebrew tradition.

His long cosmological masterpiece, Keter Malchut (‘Royal Crown’), written for recitation on Yom Kippur, is regarded as one of the greatest poems Hebrew literature. In 900 lines, it describes the cosmos as testifying to its own creation by God, based on the then scientific understanding of the cosmos.

He also wrote more than 100 piyyuṭim and selichot for the Sabbath, festivals, and fast-days, most of which have been included in the prayer books for Holy Days used by Sephardim and Ashkenazim.

The Roman amphitheatre in Málaga … the statue of ibn Gabirol is in a small square nearby (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)