For the past five years, the very mention of a synod sends chills down the spines of countless Catholics as the disastrous effects of the two synods on the family are still fresh in memories and the 2018 synod on youth is anticipated with growing concern. This is the case because even the most objective observer has discovered that the synod process has been consistently manipulated to coincide with pre-conceived agendas.
The instrumentum laboris for the 2018 synod was not even available when a Special Assembly of the Synod of Bishops of the Pan-Amazon Region, to take place in October 2019, was announced, leading one to ask what the purpose of such a gathering could be. To be sure, during the pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI there were regional synods to strategize on ways and means to promote John Paul’s “new evangelization.” The title should help us understand the goals of this assembly: “Amazonia: New Pathways for the Church and for an Integral Ecology.”
What kind of gobbledygook is that? Can anyone imagine a potential schema to flesh out such a title? If the purpose is indeed to advance the new evangelization on the Latin American continent, we already have the very fine Aparecida document of 2007, which was largely guided by Pope Francis when he was the Archbishop of Buenos Aires. If “ecology” is to be the focus, didn’t we get “the word” on that in Laudato sì in 2015? So, it appears that there must be some other pressing issues that would require prelates to become once again the “airport bishops” whom Papa Bergoglio constantly castigates. The overriding conclusion is that the hidden agenda item is to open the door to married priests being presented as a pastoral necessity, given the lack of priests for that vast region. Let’s examine this more closely.
Any Catholic ought to be concerned that fellow believers do not have access to the sacraments for a prolonged period of time. However, a very uncomfortable fact of life is that throughout the history of the Church in Latin America, there has been a dearth of priests. In the twentieth century, this reality caused Pius XII to write Fidei Donum and John XXIII to pen Princeps Pastorum, both dealing with the phenomenon and calling for the sharing of priests from “priest-rich” countries with those not so fortunate (although it must be noted that Pius’ attention was more directed to Africa, which was still in its first evangelization). In April of 1958, Pope Pius established the Pontifical Commission for Latin America. By July of that year, Boston’s Cardinal Richard Cushing responded to the papal appeal by founding the Missionary Society of St. James (now in its sixtieth year).
If the point of the Amazon synod is to ask why there has been such a problem on the continent (and not just in the Amazon), that would be helpful. Why, for example, do we have so many priests from Asia and Africa working in the United States, without whom we would be in dire straits? The evangelization of those continents, for the most part, was much more recent than that of South America. There is no indication, however, that such a disconcerting and self-accusatory question will be raised. Instead, we have been told that a “pastoral” solution needs to be considered, namely, the ordination of so-called viri probati, that is, older married men of proven character.
These men will not only be married but also will not be required to attend seminary. In effect, they will be “Mass priests.” It is said that they will function as a kind of “lower” rank of priest, so that we would have a two-tiered situation, not unlike the existence of “choir” monks and “lay” monks in many monasteries prior to Vatican II. The intimation was that some monks were “more” monks than others, which distinction was largely abandoned. So now, we would have some priests who are “more” priests than others? Aside from the theologically insupportable nature of such a distinction, there is an additional problem: These second-rank priests will not merely celebrate the Eucharist (like the simplex priests of medieval monasteries); they will also preach, counsel and hear confessions. Without a serious theological grounding?
Have we learned nothing from history? Wasn’t one of the biggest contributors to the Protestant Reformation the abysmal ignorance of the Catholic clergy, which created an ignorant laity? And wasn’t one of the most important decisions of the Council of Trent precisely the demand for priests to be properly trained to address this most pressing lacuna? Thus we find from Session 23 (15-18 July 1563) the following determination regarding the education of future clergy:
And [this Synod] wishes that the children of the poor be principally selected; though It does not however exclude those of the more wealthy, provided they be maintained at their own expense, and manifest a desire of serving God and the Church. The bishop, having divided these youths into as many classes as he shall think fit, according to their number, age, and progress in ecclesiastical discipline, shall, when it seems to him expedient, assign some of them to the ministry of the churches, the others he shall keep in the college to be instructed; and shall supply the place of those who have been withdrawn, by others; that so this college may be a perpetual seminary of ministers of God. And that the youths may be the more advantageously trained in the aforesaid ecclesiastical discipline, they shall always at once wear the tonsure and the clerical dress; they shall learn grammar, singing, ecclesiastical computation, and the other liberal arts; they shall be instructed in Sacred Scripture; ecclesiastical works; the homilies of the saints; the manner of administering the sacraments, especially those things which shall seem adapted to enable them to hear confessions; and the forms of the rites and ceremonies. The bishop shall take care that they be present every day at the Sacrifice of the Mass, and that they confess their sins at least once a month; and receive the Body of our Lord Jesus Christ as the judgment of their confessor shall direct; and on festivals serve in the cathedral and other churches of the place.
The all-encompassing vision of priestly formation is quite clear. Without such in-depth training, can we suppose that there would not be a return to the ignorance and superstition of the Middle Ages? What was the object lesson learned with the training (or lack thereof) of the first permanent deacons in the United States – and they actually went to class for two or three years? The abominably poor education of those early men (very unfair to them and grossly unjust to the People of God) caused most dioceses to make significant upgrades and higher demands. Will deacons actually be better prepared than priests?
Not infrequently, one hears that the evangelical/fundamentalist cults of Latin America have so many ministers because their clergy can marry. Not necessarily. The principal reason, in my estimation, is that the Protestant clergy are not required to undergo any serious theological or spiritual formation. Indeed, anyone can declare himself “called,” hang out his shingle, and get into the business of “ministry.” Even though the quality of Catholic theological education has regrettably declined in all too many places over the past several decades, it is still true that, by and large, the educational level of the average Catholic priest is superior to that of the average Protestant minister. This is not noted arrogantly or triumphalistically. On the contrary, it places a great burden on us to give from what we have received.
The Tridentine decree on priestly formation found strong echoes at Vatican II with Presbyterorum Ordinis and Optatam Totius, let alone from the 1983 Code of Canon Law and John Paul’s Pastores Dabo Vobis. Or equally strong affirmations of priestly celibacy with Paul VI’s Caelibatus Sacerdotalis in 1967 and the 1971 synod on the priesthood, along with twenty-seven years’ worth of papal promotion of the charism under St. John Paul II. Where is the flag being waved for Vatican II and the post-conciliar renewal?
So, if the negatives to this proposal are so self-evident, who is pushing it and why? Three names of Brazilian hierarchs regularly surface: Cardinal Claudio Hummes (we need to recall that as the newly appointed prefect of the Congregation of the Clergy by Pope Benedict, he told the media he was in favor of a married priesthood and then had to retract, disingenuously claiming that he had been misquoted), Bishop Erwin Kräutler, and Bishop Fritz Lobinger.
What do they have in common? The German connection! All three have German roots and, surprise, surprise, the major donor to the Church in Brazil (and all of Latin America) is the German episcopate. Follow the money.
Of course, Germany probably doesn’t have that much concern about the ecclesial mess of Latin America but believes it can use their predicament to move the Church Universal yet further in the leftward direction. First, Communion for the divorced/remarried. Then, Communion for Protestant spouses in mixed marriages. Now, married priests for the Amazon. In the modern global village, we all know that what happens in a Brazilian rain forest will find advocates in Germany and Holland and. . . . Already some bishops in Quebec are offering themselves as willing participants to deal with their clergy crunch. And what about ex-priests, who left to get married decades ago? Why should they be excluded (at least they had some serious theological background)? Simply put, once the floodgates are open, the deluge is inevitable. More to the point: Hard cases make bad law.
The Amazon shortage of priests is not unique in the history of the Church. We think of the “hidden Christians” of Japan who, for more than two centuries without a single priest, preserved the Catholic Faith. Or believers in Soviet gulags (read the account of this by the indomitable Bishop Athanasius Schneider in Dominus Est [available from Newman House Press] reflecting on his boyhood experience). For real Catholics, the absence of priests (and thus, a full sacramental life) makes them yearn and pray and encourage, so as to alleviate the crisis. In them is proven true the adage, “Absence makes the heart grow fonder.”
Appointees to the 2019 synod already announced do not give much hope for a balanced discussion. In addition to the three Brazilians of German ancestry, various Curial officials are on deck. If past is prelude to future, one can only expect more of the same manipulation we have encountered in the previous synods of this pontificate. I find interesting the absence of one particular bishop from the list thus far; for my money, he would have been my first choice. I refer to Bishop Steven Lopes of the Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter (the ecclesial entity for former Anglicans in North America). He is the only bishop of the Latin Rite to have a predominantly married presbyterate: 68 married men and five celibates (but with eight celibate seminarians in the pipeline)! Would his input not be worth hearing? However, when you know what results you want, you don’t countenance possible counter-evidence. I must admit that the door to the “Amazon solution” was opened by John Paul II’s magnanimity in allowing married former Anglican clergymen to apply for Catholic ordination without committing to perpetual continence (in keeping with the immemorial practice of the Church).
History also teaches another lesson. In every era when clerical celibacy has been depreciated, it revealed a general decline in Catholic observance and spirituality. Conversely, every era which has evinced a deep appreciation for celibacy can be pointed to as a time of strength, growth and renewal.
The first question bishops at the Amazon synod should ask is, admittedly, very embarrassing but absolutely necessary, one to which I alluded a bit ago: How is it that the Church in Africa after barely a century of evangelization is able to send missionaries to the secularized, desiccated dioceses of the West, while Latin America after five centuries cannot hold its own?
I would also recommend an hour of meditation by the Synod Fathers of 2019 on a paragraph from John Paul II’s first Holy Thursday letter to priests on April 8, 1979 (those letters that were so eagerly awaited because of their constant re-affirmation of his love for priests as he stressed our necessity for the life of the Church). Who can read these poignant words without emotion?
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!
Decades ago, I wrote an essay entitled, “Getting the Priests We Deserve.” The thrust of the article was that parishes, dioceses and religious communities not winning priestly vocations are not to be pitied; they are to be challenged. God is calling, but is His voice being silenced due to bad theology and life-styles not conducive to promoting appropriate responses?
The story of Japan’s “hidden Christians” has a fascinating and happy ending. When priests were finally able to return after 243 years, the faithful were not about to be duped by interlopers or imposters. They had three criteria: Did these would-be priests have devotion to the Mother of God? Did they have a “father in Rome”? And, were they committed to perpetual celibacy? Yes, perpetual celibacy!