Pope Francis greets a new priest during a 2015 ordination Mass in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican April 26. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)
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
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.
2001, I published Priestly Celibacy: Its Scriptural, Historical, Spiritual, and
Psychological Roots (Newman
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.
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.
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.
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
(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?
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.
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.
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:
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!
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
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
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.
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.
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