US-based female bishop wants to hear from Irish women who are ‘ready to lead’

The US-based group is holding a conference today in Dublin.

by Hayley Halpin

THE ASSOCIATION OF Roman Catholic Women Priests is hoping to have a conversation with Irish women to see if their message “touches their soul and fires their spirit”.

The US-based group, which promotes equal rights and justice for women in the Catholic Church, is holding a conference today in Dublin.

The association has held events in the Republic of Ireland and the North in 2017.

They believe in defying the Vatican’s ban on women becoming members of the clergy.

The group claims that the Vatican states the ordained women are excommunicated. However, they do not accept this and are of the stance that they are “loyal members of the church”.

Bridget Mary Meehan, based in Florida in the US, is speaking at the event.

Explaining the purpose of the association, Meehen said: “It is a renewed model and we believe it’s really more in line with the model that Jesus had because his table was always open to everyone.

We’re trying to really put in play here, and everywhere in the Catholic Church, a new model that welcomes everyone, that’s hospitable to everyone, that everyone finds their home there.

The Association believes that everyone should be welcome in the Church, such as the LGBT community and those who have been divorced.

“What we feel is very missing in the Roman Catholic Church is the rights of women, the equality of women, the leadership of women as spiritual equals,” Meehan said.

The movement began with the ordination of seven women on the Danube River in 2002. The first women bishops were ordained by a male Roman Catholic bishop.

Meehan explained that they call this man ‘Bishop X’.

“He is a bishop who ordained these two women in secret because he wanted it to be a women-led movement, so he just did the first ordinations of these women bishops,” Meehan explained.

From there, the movement began to spread across North America, Latin America and elsewhere in Europe.

Meehan, born in Co Laois, emigrated to the US in 1956. She was ordained in 2006.

The Vatican does not recognise the women. Meehan said she had been ex-communicated from the Catholic Church.

Nonetheless, after she was ordained, Meehan set up a congregation in her home in Florida.

“There were Catholics who were ready. They were sick and tired of the exclusivity of the institution,” she said.

“They were tired of their friends who were divorced and remarried not finding a spiritual home in a church that they loved. They were tired of gays being treated as second class citizens and women.”

Through the years, her congregation grew in numbers and in 2008 she began renting a premises. Now, her congregation has up to 50 members at times.

The Association of Roman Catholic Women Priests currently has congregations in 13 countries and 34 states in the US.

Irish conference 

Today, the association is holding a conference at the Maldron Hotel beside Dublin Airport this afternoon between 2pm and 4pm.

Meehan will be speaking alongside Mary Theresa Streck, another member of the association, and theologian Angela Hanly.

Meehan is hoping the event will “gather women who really want to have a serious conversation” about their movement.

“We’re looking for women who are leading inclusive communities now, who are ready to do it now, or who are already doing it now,” she said.

She added that they are aware of a group of women in Dublin who are already involved in an “inclusive community”.

Speaking of those who may turn up to the event, Meehan said: “We want to have a conversation with them to see if it’s something that really touches their soul and fires their spirit as a new way of bringing about justice in the church.”

Complete Article HERE!

A penthouse, limousines and private jets: Inside the globe-trotting life of Bishop Michael Bransfield

A view from Le Sirenuse, a hotel where then-West Virginia Bishop Michael J. Bransfield stayed in Positano, on Italy’s Amalfi Coast, for a side trip during a visit to the Vatican in April 2018. Bransfield racked up a $3,333 bill, records show.

By Shawn Boburg Robert O’Harrow Jr.

It was billed as a holy journey, a pilgrimage with West Virginia Bishop Michael J. Bransfield to “pray, sing and worship” at the National Shrine in Washington. Catholics from remote areas of one of the nation’s poorest states paid up to $190 for hotel rooms and overnight bus rides to the nation’s capital.

Unknown to the worshipers, Bransfield traveled another way. He hired a private jet and, after a 33-minute flight, took a limousine from the airport. The church picked up his $6,769 travel bill.

That trip in September 2017 was emblematic of the secret history of Bransfield’s lavish travel. He spent millions of dollars from his diocese on trips in the United States and abroad, records show, while many of his parishioners struggled to find work, feed their families and educate their children.

Pope Francis has said bishops should live modestly. During his 13 years as the leader of ­the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, Bransfield took nearly 150 trips on private jets and some 200 limousine rides, a Washington Post investigation found. He stayed at exclusive hotels in Washington, Rome, Paris, London and the Caribbean.

Last year, Bransfield stayed a week in the penthouse of a legendary Palm Beach, Fla., hotel, at a cost of $9,336. He hired a chauffeur to drive him around Washington for a day at a cost of $1,383. And he spent $12,386 for a jet to fly him from the Jersey Shore to a meeting with the pope’s ambassador in the nation’s capital.

Pope Francis has said bishops should live modestly. During his 13 years as the leader of ­the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, Bransfield took nearly 150 trips on private jets and some 200 limousine rides, a Washington Post investigation found. He stayed at exclusive hotels in Washington, Rome, Paris, London and the Caribbean.

Last year, Bransfield stayed a week in the penthouse of a legendary Palm Beach, Fla., hotel, at a cost of $9,336. He hired a chauffeur to drive him around Washington for a day at a cost of $1,383. And he spent $12,386 for a jet to fly him from the Jersey Shore to a meeting with the pope’s ambassador in the nation’s capital.

Bransfield was barred from public ministry in July after an internal church investigation found he had engaged in financial abuses and sexually harassed young priests, allegations Bransfield has denied. The Post previously obtained the investigative report and revealed its major findings, including that he spent $2.4 million of church funds on travel and gave $350,000 in cash gifts to other clerics.

To gain a deeper understanding of Bransfield’s travel expenditures, The Post reconstructed his movements in the year before he retired in September 2018. The reporting drew on receipts obtained by The Post, public flight records and the confidential findings of the church’s own investigation as well as interviews with some of Bransfield’s companions and travel company representatives.

Bransfield was outside of West Virginia for a total of almost four months, according to documents and interviews. Though most of that travel was not related to his duties in West Virginia, the diocese routinely covered Bransfield’s expenses as well as those of the young priests who accompanied him, The Post found.

“This is so much worse than we ever imagined,” Michael Iafrate, a church activist in West Virginia, said when told about The Post’s reporting. “It is profoundly, morally wrong.”

In an interview, Bransfield, 76, did not dispute the findings but defended his frequent vacations as necessary breaks from his religious responsibilities.

Bransfield said he never made travel arrangements for himself, and he blamed his aides for selecting luxury accommodations, including the penthouse in Palm Beach. “I did not arrange that room,” he said. “That was done by staff.”

He said much of his travel was related to his role as president of the Papal Foundation, a nonprofit entity that raises money from wealthy Catholics for Vatican initiatives.

“Usually it was business,” he said.

The church’s internal investigation, completed in February, found that three of Bransfield’s top aides had enabled him. After The Post reported on the probe’s findings in June, the diocese announced that the aides had resigned from their administrative positions. They have not responded to interview requests.

Bransfield could face financial consequences for his actions. Pope Francis has said the former West Virginia bishop must “make personal amends,” and in response to questions from The Post, the diocese said it may seek to recover money Bransfield spent inappropriately.

In a statement, the diocese said Bransfield’s successor, Bishop Mark Brennan, has launched an internal audit “to determine what, if any, of Bransfield’s expenses were connected to Church business.”

“If Bishop Bransfield is not cooperative, Bishop Brennan has stated he intends to exercise his unilateral authority to recover funds that we can determine were primarily used for personal benefit,” the diocese said.

Bransfield, at the time the bishop of Wheeling-Charleston in West Virginia, processes at the beginning of an antiabortion youth Mass at the Verizon Center — now known as Capital One Arena — in Washington on Jan. 22, 2016.

Bransfield arrived in West Virginia in 2005 after a quarter-century in Washington in various posts at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, the largest Catholic church in North America.

Bransfield told The Post that he had grown accustomed to the comfortable lifestyle he led in those years. He had befriended celebrities and politicians, including former House speaker Newt Gingrich, who credited Bransfield and others at the National Shrine with helping convert him to Catholicism. His allies and friends included some of the most powerful clerics in the country.

In West Virginia, Bransfield took responsibility for a vast diocese in great need. Nearly 1 in 5 state residents lived in poverty, the opioid epidemic was spreading and even coal mining jobs — a mainstay of West Virginia’s hardscrabble economy — were hard to come by.

Bransfield had access to an obscure source of riches. More than a century ago, a New York heiress donated land in West Texas to the West Virginia diocese. The land turned out to be rich with oil, generating annual revenue of almost $15 million in recent years.

Bransfield did not call attention to that revenue publicly, but the diocese drew on it to cover his travel expenses and other personal spending, according to the confidential investigative report. During his 13 years in West Virginia, Bransfield spent $4.6 million on renovations to his church residence, almost $140,000 at restaurants, $62,000 on jewelry, and thousands on alcohol, the report shows.

By his final year, records show, Bransfield’s use of private jets and limousines had become routine — even as the diocese closed or cut funding for nearly two dozen parishes and parochial schools.

On Sept. 16, 2017, as parishioners traveled by bus for the pilgrimage to the National Shrine, Bransfield boarded an 11-seat Learjet.

When Bransfield arrived at Dulles International Airport, a hired luxury car was waiting outside a small terminal devoted to executive jets, according to receipts from the chauffeur service Limolink. The firm told The Post that its fleet is primarily made up of Mercedes-Benzes and BMWs. The ride to the National Shrine and back to the jet several hours later cost $440, receipts show.

In his last year, Bransfield flew by chartered luxury jet at least 19 times at a cost of over $142,000, according to receipts from Skyward Aviation, a charter firm that provides “concierge” service for well-heeled travelers from an airport about 30 miles from the diocesan headquarters. During his entire tenure in West Virginia, Bransfield spent almost $1 million on private jets, according to the investigative report.

“Welcome to luxury and comfort at its finest,” Skyward Aviation says on its website.

Bransfield’s use of private jets was no secret to two of the pope’s close advisers. The Vatican’s diplomatic representative in the United States, Christophe Pierre, and his predecessor Carlo Maria Viganò each rode on a jet paid for by the diocese, according to receipts and interviews.

Pierre’s July 24, 2017, flight back to Washington from a Boy Scouts event in Charleston, W.Va., cost $7,596.

Pierre and officials in his office did not respond to requests for comment about the previously unreported flight.

Viganò previously told The Post he did not know his 2013 flight — also to a Boy Scouts event — was paid for by the West Virginia diocese.

A Vatican spokesman did not respond to emails seeking comment.

Bransfield also routinely traveled in luxury overseas. During his tenure, he visited Paris, London and Geneva, often flying first-class and staying in leading hotels, and was at times accompanied by young priests, according to records and interviews.

Fr. Andrew Fisher

One of those priests is the Rev. Andrew Fisher, the pastor at St. Ambrose Catholic Church in Annandale, Va., who worked with Bransfield at the National Shrine. Fisher described the trips — including at least four to Paris and London — as “a blend of vacation and work.”

“After he moved to West Virginia, I was asked to take a number of trips as his guest and was told the trips were paid for out of the bishop’s personal finances,” Fisher said in a statement. “I had no role in selecting the accommodations or making travel arrangements, and I was unaware of the costs.”

In late October 2017, Bransfield asked a cleric in his mid-20s to accompany him on a trip to Rome, according to the confidential investigative report. The priest, based in West Virginia, only reluctantly agreed. He had confided to one of the bishop’s top aides that Bransfield had once slapped his buttocks during a summer party, the report said.

The Post generally does not name the victims of alleged sexual harassment. He declined to comment.

The pair visited Castel Gandolfo, a lakeside village south of Rome, according to the investigative report. During the visit, Bransfield upset the priest by again slapping him on the buttocks, the investigative report said.

Bransfield has denied any inappropriate contact with priests or seminarians.

Several weeks after returning to West Virginia, Bransfield took another charter jet to Washington, for a meeting of the Philadelphia-based Papal Foundation. The group is run by U.S. cardinals and was founded by a close ally of Bransfield’s, then-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who was defrocked earlier this year for sexual abuse.

As president of the group, Bransfield helped manage more than $225 million in total assets, according to internal Papal Foundation documents. He also used private jets and limousines paid for by his diocese to visit wealthy Catholic contributors.

Bransfield arrived in the nation’s capital several days before the foundation’s December 2017 meeting. He racked up nearly $2,000 in bills at the Hay-Adams Hotel, which overlooks the White House. Bransfield dined at the Capital Grille in Chevy Chase, Md., and at Cafe Milano in Georgetown. He also spent $400 at Nieman Marcus, documents show.

In an interview with The Post, Bransfield lamented the lack of shopping opportunities in the Mountain State. “I didn’t have the opportunity in West Virginia to live the lifestyle I lived in Washington,” he said.

A favorite store in the nation’s capital was Ann Hand Collection, a boutique jeweler where he spent $61,785, according to the investigative report.

Owner Ann Hand said in an interview that Bransfield often visited the showroom and bought pins, cuff links and silk scarves for friends and colleagues. Bransfield blessed the shop when it moved to its location in Georgetown several years ago, she said.

Hand expressed surprise when told how much church money Bransfield spent on the gifts.

“That is shocking it would be that much,” Hand said. “I guess I honestly thought he was a priest who had his own money.”

On the final day of his D.C. visit, Bransfield attended the Papal Foundation meeting. The Dec. 12 gathering brought together top U.S. Catholic leaders and a handful of wealthy Catholic donors who helped steer the foundation.

Bransfield assured the donors that Pope Francis would meet with them to acknowledge their generosity during the group’s annual pilgrimage to Rome in the spring, according to minutes of the meeting.

Afterward, Bransfield stepped out of the Vatican’s embassy on Massachusetts Avenue and got into a limousine that took him to a private jet waiting to fly him back to West Virginia, according to a Limolink receipt.

Nearly two weeks later, at midnight on Christmas Eve, Bransfield was standing at the altar at the Cathedral of St. Joseph in Wheeling, W.Va. He was surrounded by red and white poinsettias. He celebrated a Mass that was broadcast on television stations across the state.

Hours later, he was gone again.

On Christmas afternoon in 2017, he flew by private jet to Philadelphia, his hometown. He hosted a holiday soiree at a catering hall not far from a Philadelphia home he owns — at a cost to the diocese of more than $5,000, according to a person familiar with the event who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a private matter.

Monsignor Charles P. Vance

On Dec. 28, Bransfield and another Philadelphia priest, the Rev. Monsignor Charles P. Vance, flew on American Airlines to Palm Beach International Airport. Records show Bransfield routinely took winter vacations at the diocese’s expense — and not just to Florida but to the Cayman Islands, St. Maarten and St. Barthelemy in the Caribbean.

As a tax-exempt charity, the church is prohibited from spending on luxuries or services that unduly benefit an individual.

A general view of the Colony Hotel in Palm Beach, Fla., in May 2011. Over the years, Bransfield spent almost $50,000 of his diocese’s money at the boutique hotel, sometimes for multiple rooms, records show.

In Palm Beach, Bransfield and Vance stayed for a week at the Colony, a boutique hotel that hosted Presidents Bill Clinton and George H.W. and George W. Bush and once was a favorite of British royalty.

From Dec. 28, 2017, to Jan. 4, 2018, the two clerics stayed in the Presidential Penthouse, a 1,640-square-foot spread with two bedrooms as well as living and dining rooms and a private sun deck, according to a hotel executive, accounting manager Mimi Hector.

Over the years, Bransfield spent almost $50,000 of the diocese’s money at the hotel, sometimes for multiple rooms, records show.

In his Post interview, Bransfield described the hotel as “a very classy little place,” convenient to the beach and Palm Beach’s legendary shopping district. Yet he called the choice of the suite an error of judgment by his staff.

“It only happened once,” Bransfield said. “I made sure it was not repeated.”

Hector told The Post that Bransfield had previously stayed in another of the Colony’s premium suites — the Duke of Windsor Penthouse.

For the return flight from Palm Beach, Bransfield did not use his round-trip ticket on American Airlines. He never sought a refund for the return portion of the $2,854 trip, an airline representative said.

Instead, he took a private jet from Palm Beach International Airport to the airport near his residence in Wheeling.

Bransfield said he did not recall forgoing the commercial flight.

“I had nothing to do with arranging the flights,” he said. “That was staff.”

Vance, the pastor of St. Philip Neri Church in Lafayette Hill, Pa., traveled to Palm Beach with Bransfield for winter vacation four times in recent years. He told The Post that he assumed that the trips and related expenses were “gifts” from Bransfield’s diocese.

“I never felt comfortable in Palm Beach,” he said. “It was just too extravagant for me.”

Vance said he had nothing to do with the arrangements.

“I was just a guest,” said Vance, who had attended seminary with Bransfield. “As far as I knew, it was something they were doing for him. It was arranged by his staff.”

Bransfield flew south twice more last winter at church expense.

In late January, he visited Miami Beach for a week-long vacation with the same young priest who accompanied him to Rome. Bransfield’s aide, Monsignor Kevin Quirk, the judicial vicar of the West Virginia diocese, instructed the priest to accompany Bransfield because “there is no one else” willing to go, according to the investigative report. The priest reluctantly agreed, according to the investigative report.

Quirk did not respond to requests for an interview.

Monsignor Kevin Quirk

Bransfield also spent four days in Aruba in March. In an interview, he described the visit as “a small vacation.”

In April 2018, when Bransfield returned to Rome with Papal Foundation contributors, he took a side trip to relax. This getaway was in the seaside village of Positano, on Italy’s Amalfi Coast.

“I was working very hard,” Bransfield told The Post. “And I took two or three days off. That was strictly personal.”

Bransfield racked up a $3,333 bill staying at Le Sirenuse, regularly ranked in leisure magazines as one of Europe’s finest hotels, records show.

“I did not pick the hotel,” Bransfield said. “Someone else did.”

Bransfield declined to say who selected the hotel.

Two weeks after returning to West Virginia, Bransfield was again headed to Washington aboard a private jet. A limousine picked him up at 11:09 a.m., a receipt shows. Bransfield stopped at the Vatican diplomatic office and another church facility. While the limousine waited, he got a haircut at Salon ILO in Georgetown, according to a salon employee. The diocese covered the $80 haircut, records show.

A growing number of Bransfield’s subordinates, including some of his closest aides, were privately grumbling about his financial and sexual conduct, according to interviews and the investigative report.

Complaints about Bransfield’s financial activity were not new. Parishioners in the state had sent letters to Vatican officials six years earlier seeking an investigation of his spending, The Post previously reported. Four senior clerics in the United States and at the Vatican who received written complaints about Bransfield in previous years had also received cash gifts from the bishop.

But in the summer of 2018, the allegations took on a new significance.

Two young priests who had traveled with Bransfield overseas had gone to Baltimore Archbishop William Lori with claims that Bransfield sexually harassed them. In August, Quirk wrote an eight-page letter with allegations about financial abuses, including that Bransfield spent money excessively on travel, according to a copy obtained by The Post.

Quirk made many of the travel arrangements, according to the travel receipts.

At the time of Quirk’s Aug. 8 letter, Bransfield was on his annual vacation on the Jersey Shore, where he regularly spent up to a month with family members and friends, with the diocese footing many of the bills. He made a $276 purchase at one of his regular stops each summer: a liquor store in Somers Point, N.J. He spent $1,002 at the Flanders Hotel in Ocean City, and he rented a car for the month at a cost of $2,975.

On Aug. 25, Bransfield was summoned to the nunciature in Washington. Instead of driving down Interstate 95 — a trip that could take up to four hours — he chartered a private jet from Atlantic City. He hopped into a limousine for the trip to the nunciature, the Vatican’s diplomatic office in Washington, receipts show.

Bransfield told The Post that that was when he first learned that his job was imperiled.

“It was the worst day of my life,” Bransfield said.

He took the jet back to the Jersey Shore.

Complete Article HERE!

Black Victims Of Sexual Abuse By Catholic Priests Got Dramatically Smaller Settlements Than White Victims

Two Mississippi survivors received minuscule payouts compared to their white counterparts.

by Angela Wilson

Two Black male victims who received settlements over sexual abuse allegations against Catholic priests are coming forward to revealing that they were paid far less than white victims.

The Associated Press reports the Diocese secretly paid two Black men from Mississippi $15,000 each, requiring them both to sign NDAs (Non-Disclosure Agreements), also known as confidentiality agreements.

In 2006, the Catholic Diocese of Jackson settled lawsuits brought on by 19 different victims. Of those survivors, 17 are white and were paid at least $250,000 each — some up to $1.3 million — in similar settlements.

A Franciscan Friars official claims the settlement amounts had nothing to due with the two Black men’s race.

One victim, La Jarvis D. Love, who accused two Catholic priests of sexual abuse when he was 9-years-old, received a $15,000 payout during a meeting at an IHOP restaurant.

“He said if I wanted more, I would have to get a lawyer and have my lawyer call his lawyer,” Love said Rev. James G. Gannon, leader of a group of Wisconsin-based Franciscan Friars replied. “Well, we don’t have lawyers. We felt like we had to take what we could.”

At the time, Love was unaware other accusers who were white were paid significantly more in similar settlements when he was confronted by Rev. Gannon with legal paperwork.

Love’s cousin, Joshua K. Love, who also experienced physical and sexual abuse, was initally offered only $10,000. He eventually settled his abuse claim for $15,000. “They felt they could treat us that way because we’re poor and we’re Black.”

In 2018, the St. Paul-Minneapolis archdiocese agreed to pay an average of nearly $500,000 each to clergy abuse survivor.

Both men were attending St Francis of Assisi School when they were sexually assaulted by two Franciscans, Brother Paul West and Brother Donald Lucas, as small children. They claim they were beaten, raped, and forced to perform sexual acts.

Joshua recounted how, on some occasions, Brother West “gave me the option to whup me or play with my penis,” he said.

Brother West, now 59-years-old, declined to answer questions. Brother Lucas was found dead in a church in 1999 of an apparent suicide.

During an interview with the Associated Press, Rev. Gannon said he believes both La Jarvis and Joshua’s allegations. “We’ve hurt them tremendously and no amount of money would ever account for what happened to them,” he said.

In 2002, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops pledged to respond to abuse allegations in an “open and transparent” manner. Earlier this year, a mandatory church law was issued by Pope Francis requiring all Catholic officials to report sexual abuse, and abuse cover-ups, to their superiors.

Complete Article HERE!

Priest accused of stealing $98,000 from parish to pay boyfriends and for a beach house

Father Joseph McLoone

By Deanna Paul

Father Joseph McLoone’s alleged scheme was a tricky one.

The 56-year-old pastor used his position at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Downingtown, Pa., to open a secret bank account in 2011, according to charges filed Wednesday by the Chester County District Attorney’s Office. With unbridled access to parish funds, he diverted donations and misappropriated fees, moving more than $100,000 into the “St. Joseph Activity Account,” and spent the money on boyfriends, a beach house and fine dining with men he met on dating apps, court documents say.

The theft went unnoticed for six years, according to court documents reviewed by The Washington Post, but McLoone was arrested on Wednesday and charged with 19 counts, including theft and receiving stolen property.

“Father McLoone held a position of leadership, and his parishioners trusted him to properly handle their generous donations to the church,” said Chester County District Attorney’s Office chief of staff Charles A. Gaza. “Father McLoone violated the trust of the members of St. Joseph for his own personal gain.”

In all, prosecutors allege McLoone stole $98,405 from the parish “to fund his personal lifestyle,” which included a beach home in Ocean City, N.J., travel and dining and payments to more than a dozen adult men whom McLoone admitted to meeting on Grindr, a police affidavit of probable cause said.

In early 2018, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia discovered McLoone’s off-the-books account, a violation of archdiocesan procedures. According to chief communications officer Kenneth Gavin, the archdiocese froze the account and launched an investigation into the parish’s financial records.

McLoone admitted to administrators that some of the account’s expenses were “of an inappropriate nature” and, Gavin said in a statement, “were related to relationships with adults that represented a violation of ‘The Standards of Ministerial Behavior and Boundaries’ established by the archdiocese.”

Soon thereafter, McLoone was placed on administrative leave; St. Joseph Parish did not respond to The Post’s request for a comment.

Attorney Melissa McCafferty, who represents McLoone, told The Post Thursday that the charges were “based on a lot of suspicion, innuendo and personal feelings about [McLoone’s] personal life, which have nothing to do with a crime being committed.”

Released on $50,000 bail, McLoone is to appear in court for a preliminary hearing on Sept. 18.

Complete Article HERE!

A bid to allow married priests in the Amazon ignites debate about celibacy

Pope Francis speaks to representatives of Amazon basin indigenous communities in January 2018. An October Vatican summit will focus on the Catholic Church in the Amazon.

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.

During a drought in 2015, a girl and dog play in front of a Catholic Church designed to float on Brazil’s Negro River.

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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