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Analysis: Will Francis send Amazon celibacy decision up the river?

By JD Flynn and Ed Condon for CNA

Pope Francis meets Jose Gregorio Diaz Mirabal, a member of the Curripaco indigenous community, during a session of the Synod of Bishops for the Amazon at the Vatican Oct. 8, 2019. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

Vatican City, Feb 3, 2020 / 12:53 pm (CNA).- A leaked draft of an anticipated apostolic exhortation on the Amazon started a flurry of speculation last week that Pope Francis plans to allow the ordination of married men to the priesthood for ministry in the region.

But for all the talk about viri probati, it’s likely that the pope’s next move will be to call for even more conversation— establishing a commission to discuss the possibility of ordaining married men to be priests in the Amazon, without actually committing to the idea.

A draft version of the exhortation has been circulated widely Vatican departments, a normal part of the process before a final version is presented for the pope’s signature. On a topic as sensitive as clerical celibacy, several dicasteries are expected to weigh in, especially the Congregation for Clergy and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

While the draft leaked last week is far from the finished article, the wording of the text already suggests that a commission will be the next step.

The leaked text’s section on viri probati said that “the competent authority should establish criteria and provisions to ordain” married men to the priesthood.

In the jargon of the Vatican, the language of establishing “criteria and provisions” is a sure sign that a study commission is on the horizon.

During the Synod on the Amazon last October, the possibility of ordaining married deacons to the priesthood was widely discussed; some bishops from the region indicated that they wanted the authority to decide for themselves which and how many men to ordain.

Others bishops, including Cardinal Beniamino Stella of the Congregation for Clergy and Cardinal Marc Ouellet of the Congregation for Bishops, offered that since celibacy is a universal discipline for the Church, exceptions to it need to be discussed and decided at the universal level – meaning in Rome.

When St. John Paul II created an opening for married Anglican clergy to come into communion with Rome and be ordained to the priesthood, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith was given the job of vetting candidates, and approving them for ordination, on a one-by-one, case-by-case, basis. Sources familiar with the feedback being offered on the draft text have told CNA this week that something similar is being suggested in this case.

“I think delegation is the real question,” one senior curial official told CNA.

“Even those most in favor of holding the line on celibacy can make peace with a narrow exception for a remote region if it is on a case-by-case basis and if Rome is keeping control.”

The same official told CNA there is concern in several Vatican departments that if bishops in the Amazon are allowed to dispense from celibacy and ordain married men on their own authority, there will be little to stop other bishops, especially in Germany, from demanding the same power.

In short, the issue of viri probati is as much about Church governance and authority as it is about married priests themselves. And questions about governance and authority are themselves about competing ecclesiological visions of the Church.

On those issues, there is no easy compromise.

The fundamental disagreements behind the question of viri probati make it all the more likely that any forthcoming apostolic exhortation is likely to offer a “yes in theory,” but no practical mechanism for bringing that yes into action.

A yes-in-theory, it should be understood, is not the same as a yes-in-law. The pope is almost certain to say something affirmative about the idea of a case-by-case dispensation from celibacy in the region or the possibilities of married clergy. But if he doesn’t actually change the law, with a clear and explicit declarative statement, it won’t be changed.

“If you didn’t say it,” as Westley observes of juridic acts in The Princess Bride, “you didn’t do it.”

In the meantime, the pope must still address two competing views on the question of celibacy, and is likely to use a tool familiar to him.

In the Vatican, the most obvious way of finding a road forward between intractable positions, one that does not commit the pope to a controversial reform of which he may not be entirely convinced, is to put the matter out for a thorough consultation on how the idea might be implemented.

In the half-decade of his papacy, Francis has shown a marked preference for calling for “further study and conversation” as a way of grasping thorny problems lightly: admitting possibilities without committing to them.

In 2017, he established a committee to study the historical nature of the female diaconate. The group has since produced reams of paper, which the pope has left on the table, along with any resolution to the call from some corners for some kind of female “diaconate” in the Church – a question Pope Francis seems uneager to address.

That same year, amid calls for the Church to “reinterpret” Humanae vitae, the pope put together a committee of theologically diverse scholars to study Vatican archives and develop white papers, none of which have changed anything at all.

Even in the wake of controversial interpretations of 2015’s Amoris laetitia, the pope has called for study of his text — going so far as to retool the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for the task — but has not actually made any reforms to the Church’s law.

On the other hand, when Pope Francis has made up his mind, he is not timid about legislating. 2015’s Mitis iudex remade the Church’s annulment process. 2016’s Come una madre amorevole created a new court for bishops, and 2019’s Vos estis lux mundi effectively scrapped that court, and created a new penal process altogether.

Pope Francis has tweaked canon law to his liking at least 10 times, in several cases making substantial changes. But on matters about which the pope seems uncertain, or with decisions likely to generate controversy, he seems happy to use a study committee to punt the ball down the field.

In the case of clerical celibacy, the pope has indicated an openness to hear arguments from those with something to say – that was how the issue arrived on the synodal agenda in the first place. At the same time, he has been consistent about his commitment to the discipline of celibacy, saying at one point he would rather “lose his life” than give it up.

Caught between his progressive courtiers and his own conservative disposition, the pope may hope he can punt the ball as far as his successor. But if South American bishops (or German ones, for that matter), decide to ordain married deacons to the priesthood without Roman approval, Francis may be forced to confront the issue sooner than he wants – or expects.

In that case, getting ahead of the pope would likely prove an unwise tactic: While Francis might sometimes support a diocese that has acted on its initiative to address a pastoral need, if he senses that his tolerance for a new idea has been taken advantage of, or that his authority is being usurped, he could effectively kill ongoing discussion about viri probati.

On the other hand, the more avid defenders of celibacy, including a large number of the pope’s own curial advisors, might be equally wary of appearing to try to box the pope in before he has made up his mind.

For those who hope to see more married priests in the Church – and for those who don’t – if the pope punts the ball, the smartest play is to wait until it has landed.

This means, of course, that there will likely be no swift resolution to the discussion of ordaining married men for the Amazon. The ball will be in the air. Who the pope, or his successor, directs to eventually catch and run with that ball – and several others now hanging somewhere above the field – is anybody’s guess.

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  1. So as not to appear skeptical I’ll instead be cynical. “If you didn’t say it, as Westley observes of juridic acts in The Princess Bride, you didn’t do it” [Good observation by CNA]. Even better “Francis has shown a marked preference calling for further study and conversation as a way of admitting without committing” [CNA targets with ‘frightening’ accuracy the Pontiff’s MO]. If CNA is now become markedly cynical [cynics convinced of the worst skeptics await further evidence] what is afoot in the Rome Amazonia Munich Axis the world can’t be far aloft. Whenever questioning the benignity or detriment of the Pontiff’s actions [not his conscientiousness] corporeal effects are the rule for judgment. Many remain convinced of celibacy’s intended as well as actual sanctifying effect on priesthood. I’ve referred to it as a true mystical marriage an Apostolic witness to a unique identity with Christ. Although exceptions to that rule had seemed reasonable the depravity of our present world requires that totality of witness. Unfortunately Church is moving by stealth by hook or crook by rationale away from tradition toward a more accommodating posture. Upriver the Amazon ascends to the high Andes and some of the more remote virtually impenetrable forests. Rather cynicism assures Francis will send celibacy policy downriver toward Rio and the big cities.

  2. The emphasis is solely on the celibacy aspect of the Priesthood which in many ways works counter to the life of the Church. It appears that there is a desperate attempt to secure the lavish lifestyle that accompanies it not to mention entitlement and clericalism

    Something is missing and not enough discussion and action has been devoted to it, namely the Salvation of Souls. Celibacy is not going to put food in the mouths of the homeless.
    It is not going to be the dynamic that will draw all to Christ. A married Priest could have so much additional to offer and empathize with the world of the family.

    Drop your ranting and look at the real issues most importantly the Salvation of souls.

    • ODonovan it’s clear, evident to anyone with honest vision that further accommodation will not save souls. If you are concerned about saving souls fast pray and sacrifice in emulation of Christ.

      • You leave then your lavish lifestyle and enter a Monastery where all you enumerated are being offered to God. The secular clergy should take on the lifestyle of Saint Francis and leave their comfortable rectories. The Call was “to give up everything and come follow Me”. Instead, you gained everything. Have you sat down lately on the street lately with a homeless person and gave him something to eat?

  3. The purported logic of allowing viri probati to marry “because of difficulty in accepting a celibate clergy,” being from a remote, tribal region, is questionable in itself. Priests from all cultures find celibacy “too difficult.” Some live double lives. Some leave. Some grow in virtue through the struggle and remain faithful. It’s really absurd to tag celibacy as too hard for “tribal” people when men from all countries and cultures find it difficult. Plus, such logic negates the facts of Church history. The Church has thrived despite of it bucking the cultural mindset in various contexts. Recall the memorable line that critically express the oddity of Christian thought in pagan Rome: “They share their tables, but the do not share their wives.”

    The REAL question should be as follows: Why does the pope seemingly prefer to keep the door open by kicking the can down the road, instead of just saying yeah or nay? And: At what cost?

    It may be he is truly perplexed. After all, it is technically possible to ordain viri probati. It may or may not be pastorally advisable. But there is something to be said for the stabilizing power of taking a stand–at least for the duration of his papacy.

    That being said, I can’t help but express my own cynicism–not so much in terms of the pope, but in terms of the “progressive” bishops. One wonders if they are as concerned about evangelizing the Amazonian people or rather about using the Amazonian question as a means to change the discipline of celibacy in view of their own pastoral problems.

    • E X A C T L Y !
      Fr. Mann, thank you for describing so intelligently, concisely, and respectfully, what many of us are thinking. One can only hope and pray that the Bishop of Rome, and his brother Bishops, are listening with fervor, to the voices of common sense and reason such as yours. Amen and well done!

  4. I am truly astonished with this never ending debate on celibacy. Catholic celibacy is a man made Canon rule not Catholic dogma. There were married priests until the 12th century. I think that celibacy defies the natural law.

    Father Morello says “Celibacy has an actual sanctifying effect on priesthood”. That implies that those priests who are not celibate are less than sanctified. The real reason the church objects to celibacy is that obsession with anything sexual. The slim explanation that a married priest will be so distracted by family duties that his devotion to Jesus and his holy orders would be diminished.

    The only lasting fear I have is if the man made rule is a sin, those who reject the Lord’s natural law could be accountable.

    • Nothing you say here makes much sense, but I’ll just gently note that there still are married priests in the Catholic Church, mostly in the Eastern churches, but also some former Anglican and Protestant clergy who have been given special dispensation to be ordained as Catholic priests.

  5. Please read Canon 277, which places continence before celibacy, as is the historical fact. Before 691/2 all clergy observed sexual continence from the moment of ordination. Married ordinands were required to cease sexual relations with their wives. In 691/2 at the Council in Trullo, the bishops of the eastern Roman Empire relaxed the original rule for presbyters and deacons, but not for bishops. The rule of celibacy for the western clergy, then, does not originate from nothing but from a practice that has apostolic origins. Check Cochini, The Apostolic Origins of Priestly Celibacy. Why are Canon 277 and the tradition it embodies left out of this debate?

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