Many of us thought we were going to be safe from papal off-the-cuff remarks last week since the Pope and Curia were on their annual Lenten retreat. No such luck as we got treated to an interview he gave to a German paper the previous week. The biggest tidbit found there was Francis’ answer to a question about “optional celibacy,” which he indicated was not feasible – an observation remarkably absent from most of the news reports. He went on, however, to speak of his openness to study and discussion regarding the ordination of so-called viri probati, an expression used to identify older married men of proven character who could be ordained for some, limited types of priestly service – a proposal most recently surfaced once again by the bishops of the Amazon, which is said to be grossly lacking in a sufficient number of priests, supposedly due to the celibacy requirement.
In 2001, I published Priestly Celibacy: Its Scriptural, Historical, Spiritual, and Psychological Roots (Newman House), with six other contributors; that work was endorsed by dozens of bishops and has been used in many programs of priestly formation. Interestingly, the psychologist and I were the only “cradle Catholics.” With that information given in the interests of full disclosure, permit me to weigh in on the latest papal utterance.
If it is true that people in the Amazon suffer from such a dramatic dearth of priests, the first question to be asked is: How long has that been the case? And then: What have the bishops of the region been doing to address the crisis, besides calling for optional celibacy? Sources “on the ground” suggest that this regrettable situation is centuries-old and that the hierarchy has done next to nothing to deal with it. Perhaps they should be offered a tutorial by the bishops of Africa or large portions of Asia, which do not seem to be so severely strapped.
For the sake of argument, let’s say that an indult were granted to the beleaguered bishops of the Amazon, can one suppose that it will end there? History teaches otherwise. Some of us are old enough to remember that when Pope Paul VI gave an indult to allow for Communion-in-the-hand, it was only for the countries where the practice had been engaged in illicitly (in itself a bad idea since it rewards disobedience); that would have limited the scope to three or four countries (e.g., Belgium, Germany, Holland). Instead, the practice spread like wildfire with bishops from all the developed countries demanding the right to the indult. Surely, one can already hear the German bishops clamoring for an exemption from celibacy. In other words, we would be face to face with the proverbial camel’s nose in the tent, so that an indult for a limited population would become a universal practice – without ever having formally changed the law or even having discussed such a potential change. Hard cases make bad law.
The Pope seems to countenance the promotion of “Mass priests.” Have we not learned what that system produced in the Middle Ages? A raft of ignorant, unformed, superstitious priests replicating themselves among the laity, which, in turn, was a major cause of the Protestant Reformation. Was not one of the primary concerns of the Council of Trent the formation of priests who were not mere “sacramental magicians” but genuine teachers and preachers of the Faith? Closer to our own time, do we not remember how the first crops of permanent deacons were largely disastrous, due precisely to the lack of serious theological education?
Another (indelicate) question to raise is this: Are the dwellers of the Amazon more incapable of celibacy than the barbarians of the early centuries of Christianity? Or the pagan Romans, for that matter?
No, celibacy is not the cause of the lack of priests anywhere. If married clergy were the panacea, one would be hard-pressed to explain why Eastern Orthodoxy has a similar shortage. Indeed, in Greece the shortage is so extreme that close to a majority of parishes have been given over to lay pastoral responsibility. The difficulty is otherwise. It is a sign that basic Christian formation has not been provided for generations. After all, to be an apostle (“one sent”), one must first be a disciple (that is, a committed follower of the Lord Jesus). When that brick has been laid, one can then begin to build – and only then.
It is well known that in the Amazon (and many other places in Latin America), religious syncretism has been countenanced and a full-throated proclamation of Gospel truths has been almost non-existent. That’s where the bishops need to focus their attention and energies.
Perhaps I will scandalize some readers by posing one more question: Who says the lay faithful need to have Mass every Sunday or even every month? One thinks of the “hidden Christians” of Japan who, for centuries, were deprived of the ministerial priesthood but who lived authentic Catholic lives in anticipation of a better day. Or, of Catholics in the harshest years of Soviet oppression. That realization caused Pope John Paul II in 1979 to end the first of his (always anticipated, most welcome) Holy Thursday letters to priests with this poignant anecdote:
Dear Brothers: you who have borne “the burden of the day and the heat” (Mt 20:12), who have put your hand to the plough and do not turn back (cf. Lk 9:62), and perhaps even more those of you who are doubtful of the meaning of your vocation or of the value of your service: think of the places where people anxiously await a Priest, and where for many years; feeling the lack of such a Priest, they do not cease to hope for his presence. And sometimes it happens that they meet in an abandoned shrine, and place on the altar a stole which they still keep, and recite all the prayers of the Eucharistic liturgy; and then, at the moment that corresponds to the transubstantiation a deep silence comes down upon them, a silence sometimes broken by a sob… so ardently do they desire to hear the words that only the lips of a Priest can efficaciously utter. So much do they desire Eucharistic Communion, in which they can share only through the ministry of a priest, just as they also so eagerly wait to hear the divine words of pardon: Ego te absolvo a peccatis tuis! So deeply do they feel the absence of a Priest among them!… Such places are not lacking in the world. So if one of you doubts the meaning of his priesthood, if he thinks it is “socially” fruitless or useless, reflect on this!
St. John Paul’s story highlights not only the nobility of the priestly vocation but also how absence can truly make the heart grow fonder, in this case, the absence of a priest, which ought to make devout lay folk pray the Lord of the Harvest for the necessary number of holy priests.
A final practical consideration comes to mind. I have been very active in the Anglican-Catholic dialogue since my first days as a priest and thus know and count as dear friends many of the convert clergy (some of whom I have had the privilege of leading into full communion with the Catholic Church). With that assertion of bona fides, I make bold to say that I believe that John Paul II and Benedict XVI were somewhat overly generous in allowing for the married clergy to be ordained without renouncing conjugal rights. It is worth noting that not a few of these married priests have expressed a strong conviction that mandatory celibacy ought to remain the norm.
Yes, it is true that in the earliest centuries, married men were ordained priests, however (and it is a big “however”), they were required to embrace continence, to which their wives agreed in the midst of the liturgical assembly. In other words, it is not really priestly celibacy (being unmarried) that we are concerned with; rather, it is priestly continence. But that is a topic for another occasion or to be studied in my 2001 volume.
For the moment, let’s leave it at saying that a dispensation from the norm of priestly celibacy is ill-advised for a multitude of reasons. Creating a lower class of priests (which is really what is envisioned) would be degrading to those men; acquiescing to that approach would be equally insulting to the Catholics of the Amazon since it would suggest that they are possessed of a less than fulsome Christian commitment.