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.

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