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How might the synod of bishops of the Amazon affect priestly celibacy?

If the bishops of the vast priest-short Amazon region ask for married priests and the Pope approves—and both of those things seem likely to happen—the synod will have taken a large step toward married priests in many areas besides the Amazon.

Pope Francis wears an Indian headdress presented to him by members of the Pataxo tribe of Brazil July 27, 2013, in Rio de Janeiro. (CNS photo /L'Osservatore Romano)

The news that Pope Francis has set in motion the planning for a synod of bishops of the Amazon region next year may not strike most U.S. Catholics as a matter of great interest. But hold on—there’s a lot more at stake here than may appear at first glance. For if the bishops of the vast (2.1 million square miles), priest-short Amazon region ask for married priests and the Pope approves—and both of those things seem likely to happen—the synod will have taken a large step toward married priests in many areas besides the Amazon.

If so, it won’t mark the end of priestly celibacy. But it will have set the Church on a path of radical change in ways that lie far beyond anybody’s ability to predict now.

The idea of ordaining viri probati (mature, trustworthy men) to celebrate Mass and provide other sacramental services in places where celibate priests are in short supply goes back at least to the time of the Second Vatican Council but only lately has come to life again. If the experiment in the Amazon—supposing it’s approved—succeeds in meeting the need there, it is likely to be repeated by bishops in other places with the same problem.

That includes not only remote regions like the Amazon but areas such as parts of Western Europe where ordinations of new priests have slowed to a trickle. Quebec’s bishops are said to be looking at the idea, and there could be interest elsewhere.

The regional synod for the Amazon will take place at the Vatican in October next year. The planning group established by Pope Francis includes prominent advocates of ordaining married men such as Cardinal Claudio Hummes, a Brazilian who formerly headed the Vatican’s Congregation for the Clergy and who spoke well of the viri probati proposal before coming to Rome.

Married priests already are present in the Eastern churches, and married clergy from some other Christian churches—notably, former Anglicans—have for some time been allowed to receive ordination and serve as priests in the Western Church.

But priestly celibacy has a long and honored place in the Church dating back centuries—indeed, to apostolic times. Vatican Council II, in its Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests, finds its basis in Jesus’ words in Matthew 19.12, where he praises those who forgo marriage “for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.” In a cultural context like ours, in which many people take it for granted that celibacy is impossible, Vatican II urges priests to pray for “the grace of fidelity, which is never denied to those who ask” (Presyterorum Ordinis, 16).

The priest shortage is a serious problem wherever it exists, and there are places in the U.S. where the crunch is felt. But how realistic is it to imagine that a radical solution like ordaining married men could be limited to just the areas of acute need? The impact this would have on the acceptance and practice of priestly celibacy everywhere requires serious consideration before moving ahead anywhere.

The Church already has some married priests, but a move toward universal institutionalization of what would be a de facto two-tier structure for priesthood, with some celibate priests and some married, should be weighed carefully for its likely consequences before taking any irreversible action. And it’s fair to ask if a handful of bishops from a remote region, engaged in a laudable effort to solve their special problems, are best situated to do that.

About Russell Shaw 163 Articles
Russell Shaw was secretary for public affairs of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops/United States Catholic Conference from 1969 to 1987. He is the author of 20 books, including Nothing to Hide and the highly acclaimed American Church: The Remarkable Rise, Meteoric Fall, and Uncertain Future of Catholicism in America.

17 Comments

  1. All this tricky dick Pope needs to do is make the synod small enough, and invite only the group that wants the change, and he can get any change introduced.

  2. It seems rather – can’t think of a word. Icky? Creepy? Sad? – that the attitude appears to be, “Well, yes, I know You are calling me to be a priest but frankly I’m not going to listen to Your call unless I’m allowed to marry.”

  3. Will God ever exonerate the church for allowing priests to marry? I thought that the church already permitted married clerics as long as they lived like brother and sister. We seem to burn important hours, like the loss of priests, on relatively low yield subjects like celibacy and contraception.

    • “Low yield subjects?” Like every other matter of dogma or discipline with which you disagree (which would be most of them, judging by your posts)?

      If you want to be Protestant, why don’t you just go *be* a Protestant, instead of staying in the Church so that you can attack Her from the inside? It would be more honest.

    • Instead of thinking – aka emoting in your case – you should engage in much needed edification on a number of topics.

  4. Saints Paul and Jerome were very at ease traveling with or being with women….Augustine would not be alone in a room even with his sister according to a friend of his. There’s relaxed celibacy and fragile celibacy….maybe Augustine needed a wife and he would have avoided that unbaptised infants in hell period of his life…or the asking for the debt is venial sin if you don’t will birth…period of his life which lasted til 1850 in small t tradition thanks to Aquinas in the Summa T. parroting him on all things sexual.
    Eastern rite Catholics were always allowed married priests. Did it bring disaster? We already have the disaster of gays still being drawn to the celibate priesthood and to the colors of vestments and to the new pacifism of voice tone and of anti western military announcements etc….34 of them in southern Italy ratted out by a well known male prostitute. We’re losing more hetero men than Angelina Jolie. The Church could allow it but with strongly worded prenuptial agreements that say leaving wives leave with no children or money or rectory house….which means civil law must be permissive of that. And no…I’m not listening to OMC’s How Bizarre….as I type this….” every time I look around…every time I look around…it’s in my face…”.
    Speaking of that…Brazilian degree of female skin exposure on Ipanema beach….or among uncontacted tribes in the jungle et al is another reason this issue is not arising in Anchorage or Greenland. I vote yes…in the long run…hetero men will return…and some…some celibates like Augustine are less safe morally in Brazil than in Anchorage.

  5. Certain Latin dioceses need to be reduced to missionary areas and treated accordingly first. A married priesthood is not a solution to the problem of the lack of adequate catechesis and formation.

  6. Why would a wife and children want to go into the depths of the Amazon region? It would seem to me that this would be an “unaccompanied tour” if it applied to the military. How many separations and divorces would an initiative like this result in?

    • Yup.
      And the next item on the agenda, ladies&gents, will
      be annulments for married priests. Step right up as we discern
      our way out of that swamp.
      Dear Jesus, come quickly.

  7. Well – we will certainly need married priests and priestesses in Quebec – and very soon. Otherwise – who will perform the Last Rights for all of the assisted suicide petitioners?

    Or I have an idea – maybe Pope Francis can have Archbishop Carballo “re-exile” all of the young FFI priests and nuns they sent to the Phillipines, and re-cycle them over to the Amazon.

    Better yet – have Archbishop Carballo repeat his FFI act and go after the next target – say the FSSP – and exile the FSSP priests to the Amazon. That’s a win-win for Team Francis: end celibacy and destroy another traditional order.

  8. Married priests will only give us divorced priests, but do not fear – now that we have Amoris Laetitia a married priest who gets divorced should be able to enter a civil marriage and still partake in Holy Communion.

  9. This issue, especially regarding the rise of an hereditary priesthood, a kind of “Christian Brahmin” class, would be on the front burner except for the pandemic hemorrhaging the Church is undergoing about marriage, contraception and adultery. Hillsdale College history professor emeritus, Paul Rahe, writes “Given that the Church in the West made clerical celibacy one of its principal practices (whether it was honored in the breach or not), the hereditary principle could play no role in its governance. Inevitably, it resorted to elections. Monks elected abbots, the canons of cathedrals elected bishops, the college of cardinals elected the Pope.” https://ricochet.com/archives/american-catholicisms-pact-with-the-devil/

    Israel’s penultimate judge Eli neglected to punish his sons Hophni and Phineas for taking better portions of the sacrifice than allowed them, and for sexual abuse of Temple serving women; the loss of the Ark of the Covenant on the day of father and sons’ deaths, make be imputed as a consequnce. That Samuel was apparently was personally unpunished for his sons’ crimes of suborning justice, nevertheless fails to obviate the consequence of their crime, in the context of an hereditary priesthood, punishing the whole nation by the loss of the institution of the Judges itself and the rise of the kings, which Adonai accounted to Samuel as an attack upon Himself.

    More recently, a “Little House on the Prairie” type book detailing the lives of 1870s North Dakota Pentecostals (the people mentioned in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich as the most devout zeks), complains of systematic injustices in the hereditary Russian Orthodox priesthood. In Kristin Lavransdatter, the town priest Sira Eirik has an hereditary office; his grandson, Bentein Priestson, murders Kristin’s adopted brother Arne.

    I have seen how a Catholic parish with a married clergy functions, with an elaborate set of private prerogatives; everyone of note is a special person, from the Khouria, the Priest’s Wife, to his daughter, and especially his sons, who are presumed to be little priests in training.

    We would not have the inestimable gift of reservation of the Blessed Sacrament without the dedicated, celibate priesthood of the West.

  10. 1 Cor 7, The greatest way to live is as a virgin. The Holy Family members, 1.2.3 were all virgins. The greatest of martyrs are virgins. Priest receive at Ordination, a gift of extreme value and important, the fetus of their In Persona Christi. They are to become other virgin Christs. The whole idea of married priests is a diabolical attack on the greatest of the great, the virgin and celibate priests. Oh yes. Jesus was celibate! He is the Way, The Truth, the Life. A priest cannot be divided into a Christ and a married man. It is NOT what He taught. We MUST NOT reinvent our God given theology. Saints are heroes. There needs to be fight in us for God’s ways.

    • Gary…you do know that the first Pope had a mother in law correct? Douay Rheims Catholic Bible….

      Matthew 8:14-15 Douay-Rheims 1899 American Edition (DRA)

      14 And when Jesus was come into Peter’s house, he saw his wife’s mother lying, and sick of a fever:
      15 And he touched her hand, and the fever left her, and she arose and ministered to them.
      ……………………………………………………
      It does not say the mother of Peter’s widow.

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