By Chico Harlan
In the sprawling Amazon region, the Catholic Church is severely short on priests. Clerics trek from one town to the next, sometimes requiring military transport to get to their remote destinations. Communities can go months without a visit. The church, as a result, is struggling to hold its influence.
One new proposal to ease the shortage would allow older, married men in the region to be ordained as priests.
South American bishops have advocated for the idea, and Pope Francis has indicated some willingness to narrowly open the door to married men in this specific case. But the proposal has set off a debate about whether Francis is trying to bolster the ranks of the priesthood or upend its deep-rooted traditions.
A vocal band of conservatives says permitting married priests in the Amazon could alter — and undermine — the priesthood globally, weakening the church requirement of celibacy.
“I see a destruction of the priesthood,” Swiss Bishop Marian Eleganti said in a phone interview, claiming that liberal bishops and cardinals under Francis’s “shadow and protection” were working to enact the changes. “This is the beginning of the end for celibacy.”
The Amazon would not be the first exception. Married Anglican ministers, in some cases, have been welcomed into the Catholic priesthood after conversions. And Eastern Catholic churches, even those in communion with Rome, allow for married men in the priesthood.
But conservatives note that the rationale for installing married clerics in the Amazon exists, too, across Europe, North America and other parts of the world, where seminaries are closing and dioceses are sharing priests.
“It is the elevation of a model,” said Roberto de Mattei, president of the conservative Lepanto Foundation in Rome.
The discussion has gained steam ahead of a Vatican meeting, scheduled for October, focused on the church in the Amazon. Although the meeting has many broad aims — helping the environment, aiding indigenous communities — one paragraph in the event’s working document mentions the possibility of ordaining older men “even if they have an existing and stable family” as a way to make up for the Amazon’s severe priest shortage. The text affirms the standard church teaching that celibacy is a “gift for the Church” and says the proposed exception is a “way to sustain the Christian life.”
With Francis more willing than his predecessors to consider how the faith might adjust in the modern age, and with a conservative pope emeritus still living in Vatican City, the church has been riven by cultural battles over everything from homosexuality to Communion for divorcés. But the idea of altering a tenet of the priesthood has caused an unusually public conservative backlash, even by the standards of Francis’s papacy.
Traditionalist groups have scheduled counterprogramming in Rome for the days leading up to the summit. Conservative religious media groups have given detailed coverage to objections about the event, while publishing treatises written by like-minded prelates.
In a representative missive, Kazakh Bishop Athanasius Schneider argued that “everybody knows” introducing married clergy in the Amazon would produce a “domino effect” across the Western church. He warned that were Francis to support such a move, the pontiff would “violate his duty” and “cause an intermittent spiritual eclipse in the Church.” Though Schneider predicted that Christ would send “holy, courageous, and faithful popes” in future.
A German cardinal, Walter Brandmüller, warned about “the abolition of priestly celibacy and the introduction of a female priesthood,” and took issue with other theological aspects of the summit document, which he called “heretical.”
The working document mentions, vaguely, the possibility of looking at expanded ministry positions for women. But Francis has shown little interest in ordaining women as deacons — ministers below the rank of priests who can perform some sacraments.
A final document would be voted on at the conclusion of the summit.
In an interview last week with Italian newspaper La Stampa, Francis said that ordaining married men will “absolutely not” be one of the Amazon meeting’s main themes.
Francis has stated clearly that he has no desire to significantly overhaul celibacy or make the practice optional. But during a news conference in January, he referenced what he described as an “interesting” book by retired bishop Fritz Lobinger, an advocate for married priests. Francis said he would consider ordaining “viri probati” — men of proven virtue — in “very far places . . . when there is a pastoral necessity.”
“I’m not saying that it should be done, because I have not reflected,” Francis said. “I have not prayed sufficiently about it.”
Lobinger, a German who spent his career in South Africa, said in a phone interview that, based on his assessment of the needs of dioceses across Asia, Africa and South America, the “possibility to ordain viri probati exists in all countries across the Southern Hemisphere.”
Progressive Catholics note that celibacy was not uniformly practiced during the church’s first millennium — and they say church teaching on the matter can be changed. Some early popes fathered children. Others were alleged to be sexually active during their pontificates. Celibacy was made law only during the Middle Ages, in part as a way to keep priestly wealth inside the church, rather than being divvied up among heirs.
In 1967, Pope Paul VI published a lengthy defense of the celibacy, calling it a “golden law” that should uphold every priest in dedication “to the public worship of God.” Four years later, bishops discussed a similar allowance for married men. A slight majority rejected the idea.
Today, some theologians and pundits, in a viewpoint with little support inside the Vatican, say celibacy has fueled the clerical sexual abuse crisis, fostering a culture in which even a consensual adult relationship becomes something to hide.
Some clerics make a different point: that legions of good would-be priests have stayed away, choosing instead to start families, to the detriment of the church.
“I think that we need married priests because we need more priests,” said the Rev. Thomas Reese, a Jesuit priest and a senior analyst at Religion News Service. “It’s as simple as that.”
According to Catholic tradition, priests are the only people who can perform all the sacraments of the church, including the Eucharist — the center of the Mass that Catholics are supposed to attend at least weekly. So the Catholic Church hasn’t been able to appoint lay people to fully substitute for clergy, as other denominations might.
German church historian Hubert Wolf, a celibacy critic who was invited by a summit organizer to Vatican City this summer, said in a phone interview that the Catholic Church “will be at its end” if it doesn’t incorporate married priests.
“This is the reason why the conservative part of the church is so aggressive,” Wolf said. “They are well aware that now is the time to talk about it.”
But traditionalists, instead, say they are on guard because they are suspicious that Francis, from Argentina, has chosen to hold a bishops’ meeting in Rome not on a universal theological issue, but on a particular region — a fairly small part of the Catholic empire.
Organizers have said the meeting is globally relevant for an obvious reason: because the church needs to evangelize in hard-to-reach places, and because the Amazon’s health is vital to the planet.
But Juan Miguel Montes, the Rome representative of the Plinio Correa di Oliveira Institute, a conservative Brazil-based Catholic group, said the meeting instead was a “laboratory experiment.”
With celibacy, he said, “they are trying to send a universal message.”
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