With the Amazonian road show concluded, what do we have as a result? For the most part, a big “nothing-burger.” Most of the essentially non-theological items treated were done in the predictable way: parroting the party line of the groups that paid the piper. The three hot-button items from an ecclesial perspective could not have pleased those who inhabit the left wing of the Church (regardless of their public protestations). I don’t want to waste any time talking about the lunacy of idols and pagan worship – all of which have been duly covered over the past three weeks.
Over two years ago (March 12, 2017), I reflected on the Amazon Synod – in advance! To save readers’ time, let me summarize the principal points I made then:
1. Granted, there is a serious lack of priests in the Amazon region, thus obviating regular recourse to the sacraments for many. However, one must ask why such a dearth of priests after five centuries?
2. Why is the priest shortage not anywhere near as critical in Asia and Africa – much more recently evangelized?
3. The case will be made, I prognosticated, that the solution to the problem will be the ordination of the so-called viri probati, that is, elderly married men who will not be full-fledged priests, lacking faculties for confession and preaching, due to a lack of full theological training.
4. Those pushing forward this agenda are largely octogenarian and nonagenarian hierarchs of German extraction, financed by German money.
5. And yes, already in 2017, it was clear that the deck was being stacked with participants supporting this agenda.
So, what were the three items that should concern us?
The first was that of a female diaconate. Paragraph 103 of the final document acknowledges that Pope Francis empaneled a commission to study this issue. The text here seems to suggest that the commission’s conclusions were inconclusive (“a partial result”); my reading was quite different as was, apparently, that of Francis himself, who said that the deaconesses of the Early Church seem to have received the equivalent of the blessing of an abbess (in other words, this was not an ordination). That doesn’t stop the request: “We would therefore like to share our experiences and reflections with the Commission and await its results.” What is the English translation? Proponents of a female diaconate could not muster sufficient support for their project and now are reduced to asking for further study.
Current Church law already allows properly deputed laity (male and female) to baptize, witness marriages, conduct funerals, and distribute Holy Communion under certain conditions. So, what lies behind this obsession with ordaining deaconesses? Clearly, it is seen as the camel’s nose in the tent for the ordination of priestesses – very honestly admitted by its principal protagonist, the 80-year-old Bishop Erwin Kräutler.
Although it is annoying to have this topic served up with such regularity, only the most deluded can imagine that the project has any legs. As Francis himself once remarked – rather cynically – that in Argentina they have a saying: “Establish a commission, and everybody forgets about it.”
Secondly, paragraph 119 calls for the forging of an Amazonian Rite. Presumably, this will reverse the hemorrhaging of Catholics into the proliferating sects? Surely, if such a rite had been created five centuries ago, the Church in the Amazon would be the shining star of Catholic practice, with no cohabitation, infanticide, and Sunday liturgies of the Word packed to overflowing. No, this is just more foolish polishing of the brass on a sinking ship. What has attracted Catholics to the sects is their provision of a transcendental horizon with serious presentations of matters like sin and redemption (albeit faulty versions of those issues).
Of what use would an Amazonian Rite be to a man like Bishop Kräutler, who proudly proclaims that he has not baptized a single indigenous person in thirty years? Furthermore, the Church permitted just such an experiment in 1988 with its approval of the Zairean Use, the two principal agents of which ended up leaving the priesthood. The Pope has indicated that he is willing to hand over this prospect to the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, whose prefect is none other than inestimable Cardinal Robert Sarah; I can’t picture him rushing to his desk to help create that liturgy.
Thirdly, the proposal most in need of reflection is that of Paragraph 111, “ordination of married men in the Amazon.”
While paying the usual lip service to priestly celibacy, the document goes on to press its case for an exception for the Amazon due to the historic shortage of priests in that region. Of course, there is no attempt to go to the roots of the shortage: Why is it so acute there? The ridiculous answer given by the peripatetic Bishop Kräutler is, frankly, a racist slur on the indigenous peoples of the region, namely, that they cannot appreciate consecrated celibacy, which suggests that they are sexually unhinged unlike any other group in the history of the Church. Again, recall that this is the one who proudly proclaimed that he has never baptized anyone in thirty years. If that is the case, then whom would he be ordaining, to begin with? An indigenous, unbaptized pagan?
Further, those clamoring for this exception are not among the most fervent devotees of either the priesthood or the Eucharist. Indeed, many of them openly express deep admiration for the pagan rituals, which St. Paul taught were completely incompatible with the celebration of the Eucharist (see, for example, 1 Corinthians 9 and 10). At least, they ought to have the honesty of the Women’s Ordination Conference in the United States, which asserts that they have no interest in the priesthood as it has been known in the Church of all time; that also goes for an understanding of the Holy Eucharist. While we’re at it, let’s also include an understanding and acceptance of Catholic ecclesiology. Truth be told, in every instance of genuine evangelization, an orthodox understanding of the Eucharist brings in its wake a sincere longing for the priesthood which, in turn, begets native vocations.
The document indicates that the candidates they have in mind are men “who have had a fruitful permanent diaconate.” This is an interesting statement because Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna expressed surprise that there were so few permanent deacons in the region. Very coyly, he said that for years he has been ordaining viri probati – to the diaconate! Why is that a missing link more than fifty years after the re-institution of the permanent diaconate in the Church of the West?
The text goes on to say that these men will “receive and [sic] adequate formation for the priesthood.” What is meant by “adequate formation”? In the past, everyone took as a given that these men would not be receiving a theological education qualifying them to be more than “Mass priests,” and thus unable to hear confessions or preach. Where and how will this now-envisioned “adequate formation” take place? Are they going to be uprooted from their families? Surely, courses cannot be offered in such remote sites. If the cultural situation is as dire as generally presented, would these men have the basic education to absorb the necessary theology? Are they even literate? As I asked in my earlier article, have we learned nothing from the Middle Ages and the ordination of theological illiterates?
Interestingly, the paragraph in question also hedges its bets by indicating that “some [of the Synod Fathers] were in favor of a more universal approach to the subject.” In other words, many bishops knew that this “exception” could be claimed throughout the Universal Church. Sure, the bishops of Germany who have done as little evangelization as the bishops of the Amazon are in desperate need of priests. This “disclaimer” leads me to conclude that this proposal is not going to get any traction, Deo volente. My interpretation is worthy of serious consideration because Cardinal Michael Czerny, one of the Synod’s secretaries, said exactly this in the final press conference.
The elephant in the middle of the living room, however, is what has the Church meant by viri probati historically. Why has she insisted on “older” men? Very simply, because the presumption was that these men (although married) would no longer be sexually active. Remember, to put it somewhat crudely, we were dealing with a pre-Viagra phenomenon. Why is that important? Because there is an historic link between priesthood and continence (which is total abstention from sexual activity of any kind; and not celibacy, as such). Let’s review that chapter of history.
When married men were admitted to the priesthood in the Early Church, they and their wives gave up their marital rights and lived as brother and sister (this is well documented in Roman Cholij’s Clerical Celibacy in East and West and in shorter form by Cardinal Alfons Stickler’s work recently reprinted by Ignatius Press). With the passage of time, the Church of the West took a slightly different tack by calling only men who showed a capacity to live the charism of celibacy, not unlike Our Lord’s admonition in Matthew 19:12.
The first major departure from the expectation of clerical continence  occurred with the eastern regional Council of Trullo. Its most problematic canon dealt with clerical marriages and effectively turned the entire Tradition on its head (with its falsification of an earlier conciliar norm ) by not only permitting married men to be ordained but by allowing for their continued use of sexual activity. The legislation, however, was rather convoluted and demanded continence before a priest could celebrate the Eucharist. In many ways, Trullo set the stage for what later became the Protestant notion of priesthood, reducing priesthood to a liturgical function. The ontology of Holy Order (namely, that a man is changed at the very core of his being, which identity is a constant aspect of his existence) had been downgraded to functionalism (that is, that a man is a priest when he is “doing” something priestly). Doing had replaced being – the very dichotomy the Eternal High Priest had reversed. Not surprisingly, ten centuries later, the functional concept of the priesthood among the Protestant Reformers came to allow, and even demand, the demise of mandatory celibacy.
Much more could be said about the appropriateness of clerical continence (yes, including for deacons), for which I would refer interested readers to a work I edited on this topic some years ago – Priestly Celibacy: The Scriptural, Historical, Spiritual, and Psychological Roots (Newman House Press).
The bottom line, though, is that I seriously doubt if these would-be viri probati are going to be held to perpetual continence, especially since Pope John Paul II opened the door to former Anglican clergy being ordained to the Catholic priesthood without the requirement of foregoing conjugal rights. John Paul’s paternal solicitude may now be coming back to haunt us. If, on the other hand, those convert clergy had been asked to renounce their conjugal rights, what a powerful witness that would have been to their commitment to the Catholic Church in general and to the Sacred Priesthood in particular. Once more, we see, however, that one exception breathes life and hope into even broader future exceptions.
As I indicated at the outset, I have chosen to restrict myself to these three issues, prescinding from the very thin (and, at times, seriously defective) theology of other parts of the document – along with its silly and foolish promotion of agendas which are not only secular but often inimical to a Catholic view of reality.
Given Pope Francis’ proclivity for saying and doing things to unnerve orthodox Catholics – and then doing nothing in the end (like his taunt about bringing into St. Peter’s the pachamamas for the concluding Mass of the Synod) – I foresee a similar pattern here: Keep the pot boiling. ¡Hagan lio! My belief is that the shallowness of these three proposals will result in their being consigned to the fate of ecclesiastical study commissions where they will die an ignominious death. As the Irish say, “from my lips to God’s ears.”
 I deliberately use the word “clerical,” rather than “priestly,” because the norm applied to deacons as well as to priests – a point that canonist Edward Peters has made repeatedly.
 This sleight-of-hand action reminds one of the same attempt on the part of the former Communications director of the Vatican, Msgr. Dario Viganò (no relation to the “whistle-blower” Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò , who willfully deleted a paragraph of Pope Benedict’s letter, so as to suggest that the Pope Emeritus supported the theology of his successor.
 This injunction is as old as the Old Testament itself. Even soldiers were enjoined from having relations with their wives while engaged in battle (because the act of war on behalf of Israel was regarded as a sacred act).
 And so, one cannot claim that a married presbyterate in the Eastern Churches (either Orthodox or Catholic) is a “venerable” tradition; it is a clear aberration of the apostolic tradition.
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