In the lead up to this year’s closing session of the Synod of Bishops on Synodality, Belgian bishops have reportedly opened a national discussion on allowing women deacons and ending the requirement of priestly celibacy.
According to Belgian Catholic news site Kerknet, the Belgian bishops’ conference ahead of the October 2-27 synod happening later in the year have sent a letter to all dioceses proposing, among other things, an openness to the women’s diaconate and an end to mandatory priestly celibacy.
The draft text, apparently sent to various diocesan discussion groups and councils throughout Belgium, makes three basic points, the first of which is that “a synodal missionary church requires open dialogue with the world around us”.
The Church, it says, cannot limit itself “to a one-way street” when it comes to sharing the Gospel with the world.
In a second point, the bishops ask that the Synod of Bishops “define our Church tradition(s) as dynamic and in constant development”.
They also asked for encouragement in pursuing “concrete form to the decentralisation” of certain topics of discussion in the Church, “allowing us to work together in unity with more legitimate diversity”.
“We ask for a concretisation of the ‘accountability’ of the bishops in a synodal church,” they said.
The bishops then apparently call for a deeper reflection on the role of women in the Church, proposing that the decision regarding women deacons be left up to individual dioceses or national or continental bishops’ conferences.
Asking for “the green light to take certain steps per bishops’ conference or continental bishops’ meetings”, the bishops said that by doing this, “the giving of increasing pastoral responsibility to women and the ordination of women to the diaconate need not be universally obligatory or prohibited”.
They also weighed in on the longstanding debate over priestly celibacy, saying: “There have long been strong questions about the obligation of celibacy for priests and deacons who become widowed.”
In this regard, they said there is a need to “rediscover the symbolic-sacramental nature of the ordained ministry”.
They said the relationship between priestly ordination and absolute authority in decision-making requires new clarification and asked that both priests and deacons involve more laypeople in the decision-making process, working “within teams in which lay people also have their place and task”.
Regarding the controversial debate over ordaining viri probati, or tested married men of proven faith and virtue, to the priesthood – one of the major proposals of the 2019 Synod of Bishops on the Amazon that Pope Francis chose not to act on – the bishops also weighed in, signalling an openness to the proposition.
“The priestly ordination of viri probati should not be universally obligatory or prohibited,” the bishops said in their memo.
They also stressed the need to prioritise communication with young people and to invest more resources in how to spread the Gospel in and through the digital world.
To this end, they suggested that a mechanism local bishops’ conferences and continental assemblies be established, “so that every local church has the necessary opportunities to be present in the digital world”.
Going forward, according to Kerknet, the Belgian bishops’ letter containing the proposals will be submitted for discussion in the country’s various dioceses. The results of this discussion must be gathered and submitted to the bishops by 7 April 2024, and will then be sent to the Synod of Bishops office in Rome.
A theological committee within the Belgian bishops’ conference will also explore the issues addressed in the letter, delving further into questions surrounding Church tradition and the various offices and ministries in the Church.
A multi-year process formally opened by Pope Francis in October 2021, the Synod of Bishops on Synodality is based on a global consultation process that has unfolded at the local, continental and universal levels, and is set to close with this year’s second Rome gathering, scheduled for Oct. 2-27.
Aimed at making the Catholic Church a more collaborative, welcoming and inclusive place for all of its members, the synod has been controversial due to the hot-button topics being discussed, including women’s priestly ordination, the female diaconate, the married priesthood, and outreach to the LGBTQ+ community.
Issues related to women, specifically women’s ordination to the priesthood and the diaconate, and LGBTQ+ issues have so far been the most divisive and contentious, with synod participants sparring far more than they agree.
While Pope Francis has welcomed discussion on women deacons and the ordination of viri probati throughout his nearly 11-year papacy, and has had repeated occasions to take action, he has yet to make a move on either, and has not indicated what decision he will make, if any, at the close of this year’s synod process.
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