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Beyond Amazonia

The priesthood is in crisis throughout the world because priesthood is too often reduced to a set of functions, rather than being understood and lived as a unique vocational configuration to Jesus Christ.

(Josh Applegate @joshapplegate | Unsplash.com)

The post-synodal apostolic exhortation Querida Amazonia [Dear Amazonia] did not accept or endorse the 2019 Amazonian synod’s proposal that viri probati — mature married men — be ordained priests in that region. So until the German Church’s “synodal path” comes up with a similar proposal (which seems more than likely), a period of pause has been created in which some non-hysterical reflection on the priesthood and celibacy can take place throughout the world Church. Several points might be usefully pondered in the course of that conversation.

The first involves celibacy and the Kingdom.

Christians live, or ought to live, in a different time-zone because the Kingdom of God is among us, by the Lord’s own declaration in the gospels. Different vocations in the Church bear radical witness to that truth and remind the rest of us of it. The vocations that live the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience in a consecrated way do that. So should the celibate priesthood.

It was said openly during the Amazonian synod, and it’s often muttered in other contexts, that celibacy makes no sense to many people. Which is quite true — if those people are living in pagan societies that haven’t heard the Gospel or post-Christian societies that have abandoned the Gospel and haven’t been re-evangelized. Celibacy, a total gift of self to God, only makes sense in a Kingdom context. So if celibacy doesn’t make sense in Amazonia or Dusseldorf or Hamburg, that likely has something to do with a failure to preach the Gospel of the inbreaking Kingdom of God in Amazonia, Dusseldorf, and Hamburg.

All of which is to say that the failures of Catholic Lite and Catholic Zero aren’t going to be addressed by lighter Catholic Lite or less-than-zero Catholic Zero.

The second point to ponder involves celibacy and the broader reform of the priesthood.

The brutal assault on Pope Emeritus Benedict and Cardinal Robert Sarah over their book From the Depths of Our Hearts obscured one of the crucial points these two eminent churchmen were trying to make: namely, that the priesthood is in crisis throughout the world because priesthood is too often reduced to a set of functions, rather than being understood and lived as a unique vocational configuration to Jesus Christ, the eternal high priest of the New Covenant. There were hints of this function-think at the Amazonian synod, where some bishops seemed to imagine ordained viri probati as a kind of Catholic variant on the local shaman: an elder who does magical things in the spirit world. But the dumbing down of priesthood — the reduction of priestly ministry to what was sometimes called in the 1970s “priestcraft” — is a problem throughout the world Church.

It is a problem in seminaries that are boot camps for a clerical caste system. It is a problem where priesthood is thought to be a step up the social ladder in poorer countries. And it can be a problem in pastoral settings where the priest is so overwhelmed by the many things he must do that he can be tempted to forget just what he is: an icon of the priesthood of Jesus Christ.

So any serious discussion about the reform of the priesthood must begin with a deep dive into the Church’s theology of Holy Orders, rather than with debates about how to “make things work better.” Those debates are important. But they are secondary to the authentic Catholic reform of priestly ministry.

Then there is the question of celibacy and clerical sexual abuse. It’s been said many times but it evidently it needs saying again: a married clergy is not the silver-bullet answer to clerical sexual abuse because marriage is not a crime-prevention program. That is an obvious sociological truth, in that most sexual abuse takes place within family settings, and denominations with a married clergy have their own serious problems of clerical sexual misbehavior and abuse. In a Catholic context, it should also be an obvious theological truth, given the Catholic understanding of the sacramentality of marriage. Thus it would help facilitate a real conversation about the reform of the priesthood in the Catholic Church if the nonsensical notion that abandoning celibacy would solve the crisis of clerical sexual abuse were taken off the board, permanently.

The reform of the priesthood, including a deepening of the Church’s commitment to the value of celibacy as a radical witness to the Kingdom, begins, as does all authentic Catholic reform, with deeper conversion to Jesus Christ and the Gospel.


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About George Weigel 267 Articles
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington's Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies. He is the author of over twenty books, including Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II (1999), The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II—The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy (2010), and The Fragility of Order: Catholic Reflections on Turbulent Times (Ignatius Press, 2018). His most recent book is The Irony of Modern Catholic History: How the Church Rediscovered Itself and Challenged the Modern World to Reform.

12 Comments

  1. One can only wonder what any author means by phrases like “a deeper conversion to Jesus Christ and the Gospel,” or “Catholic Lite.”

    Indeed, in our contemporary Catholic faith, we have a man who was deemed worthy of being a Bishop and was so consecrated in June 1989, during the papacy of Pope John Paul II, and then personally elevated to Cardinal by Pope John Paul II in February 2001, despite having devoted his life to teaching generations of young Catholics and seminarians that (1) the Gospels are packed with fiction (Kasper’s “Jesus The Christ “ published 1974); (2) Jesus didn’t rise from the dead (same book 1974); and (3) the notion that God is “changeless” is “an offense to Man,” is not revealed truth, but “idolatry,” and must be “opposed” (Kasper’s “God in History” published in 1969).

    Reasonable Catholic adults can certainly understand Mr. Wiegel’s recommendation to be “non-hysterical.”

    And by a mere reflection of the historical facts I have recounted above, reasonble Catholic adults can conclude that Pope John Paul II promoted a man to Cardinal who for 25-30 years prior had publicly taught heresy (but for some reason was not confronted for teaching heresy).

    No one can really ever know what Mr. Wiegel means by his caricature “Catholic Lite,” and my sense is that (after 25 years of reading Mr. W) this is because defining what “Catholic Lite” means would cause “discomfort,” and perhaps “discomfort” is what Mr. Wiegel prefers to avoid, and “hysteria” is just a code word for “discomfort.”

    One can actually reach the conclusions that Kasper teaches heresy, and do so without being inducted into what a recent CWR contributor (who also employs caricatures) has entitled the “hyper-traditionalist fundamentalist Catholic” cult.

    It is quite obvious that Cardinal Kasper has been publicly teaching heresy to young Catholics and seminarians since 1969.

    Yet Mr. Wiegel never comes to grips with that.

    Is Mr. Wiegel (a) simply afraid to stand up to Cardinal Kasper; or (b) is he actually ignorant of Kasper, having never bothered to read anything Kasper has published; or (c) does he think Kasper is a sound Catholic teacher whom he admires?

    Or…what?

  2. “the nonsensical notion that abandoning celibacy would solve the crisis of clerical sexual abuse”

    It certainly would not SOLVE the crisis. But it might begin a sea change that would help dilute the percentage of homosexual clergy and what appears to be a clerical view of sexuality that justifies the reflex to cover up child abuse.

    I’d like to see celibacy maintained. I’d also like to see a resurgence of well-formed and orthodox priests. After so many scandals, I question of both those things can happen at the same time.

    • Dear Joe M, just as Weigel states SO clearly that, as he said in the before-last paragraph, “… a married clergy is not the silver-bullet answer to clerical sexual abuse because marriage is not a crime-prevention program”. It is not and it will never be, as many ungodly marriages can be cesspools of abuse, sin, crime, etc. Marriage was instituted directly by God together with sexual intercourse within a legitimate marriage, but God NEVER appointed any of those, marriage and/or sexual intercourse, as magic remedies for anything.

      Marriage is an institution that must be respected in its God-given eternal principles, not as a solution to every problem and infinitely less as a solution to predatory homosexuality, as homosexuality itself is profoundly promiscuous in every way and every direction. Heterosexual intercourse does not magically eliminate sin or guarantee a solid masculinity or solid femininity in anyone, ever. Behold sinful bi-sexuality, etc., etc.

      What makes marriage between one man and one woman a most powerful instrument in God’s hands is not its sexual intercourse but its self-transcendence, its mutual total self-giving, growing together in Christ and holy sacrificial attitude, imitating Jesus as the Eternal Bridegroom and the Church as the Eternal Bride (“Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her”, Ephesians 5:25). Gonads will be consumed first after death, True Love is mightier than death (Song of Songs 8:6).

      Those VERY SAME four qualities that make marriage a REAL marriage, make Priesthood a REAL Priesthood, elevated now to the highest degree with the Catholic Priest being “in persona Christi”, another Christ on Earth in Priestly form (Hebrews 5:2-10).

      The rabid, meth-like, narrow, criminal obsession with sex brought by the False Sexual Revolution has cheapened, hollowed out and dehumanized sex itself, marriage, Priesthood and all other human activities, making us a generation of perverts that can never enjoy sex legitimately, deeply and wholeheartedly, and therefore we have to look for increasing sexual perversions (and now sex robots) as patches ever more depraved to the Hoover Dam of our greatest need: the True God! HE IS THE SOLUTION TO ALL OUR PROBLEMS!

  3. I think that, given the appalling state of our Catholic people, if we ever switched to married priests, we’d simply find that the number of abuse cases never decreased, but the distribution of cases would 60-70% homosexual abuse of teen boys, instead of the universal 80% ascit stands now.

  4. The Church having been allowed many occasions of persons / devotions / apparitions having not been immediately fully recognized for what they are , by those who had to make decisions on same , is a well known pattern ; the Diary of Divine Mercy was prohibited due to misunderstanding of translations .
    In other situations, may be God having allowed the human factors to come into play , to even make them better intercessors for the hereafter , just as St. John Paul 11 who was allowed to suffer from Parkinson’s had the miracle for same .
    Thus , if there had been ( God allowed ) oversights under his care , he could also be powerful Patron for any similar areas in what The Church is dealing with now – such being the true mercy of God .
    The good series of books by Pope Emer. Benedict on ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ , may be one such likely good fruit of St.J.P 11 ‘s intercession .

    The issues related to the topic of the article and all too , similar areas .

    The writings of the visions of the illiterate Bl.Emmerich helped The Church to correct the previous ‘tradition ‘ of Bl.Mother having died in Jerusalem , that she spent her last years in Ephesus from where she is assumed to heaven . Very likely that St.Paul would have met her there , yet no mention of same, for reasons we may not know yet . The Church has not chosen to make demands /restrictions about the claims of the Jerusalem site either .
    And thank God that our times are blessed with the simple writings of saints such as that of St.Faustina and Bl.Emmerich , God often using ‘uneducated ‘ ones ,
    ? to bypass the intellectual pride may be , to reach for the heart – the words of the Holy Father on such meekness as our inheritance / patrimony , fits right in with same .
    Glory be !

  5. It’s important to analyze the reasons for the crisis, but prayer is most important.
    Prayer is always the first resort.
    I have been saying for years that we need Vocations Holy Hours,40 Days for Vocations…just as we have ProLife Holy Hours,40 Days for Life or Religious Freedom.
    Prayer works!
    Also, the prayers of the faithful should always include “an increase in vocations…”
    My diocese (Rockville Centre, NY) just began a 54 day Rosary Novena for an increase in priestly vocations (someone finally listened to me ;).
    However, we should have started this about 10 years ago.
    How about bumper stickers “Pray for vocations”?

  6. About 40 years ago the bishops of Indonesia asked the Holy Father for a married priesthood because without that they would never have enough priestly vocations. The Pope denied their request. Now Indonesian seminaries are full, and Indonesian priests work throughout the world.

  7. It seems to me that the fact that priestly ordination is in no way “destroyed” by marriage has been insufficiently explored. If priesthood and matrimony CAN exist together, it might mean they should in some cases, or that some advantages are found in some cases. This doesn’t solve a global question, but then, neither does a blanket insistence on celibacy. Why? Celibacy, per se, I believe, has replaced, in the minds of most Catholics, an understanding of the sacramentality of Holy Orders. That is, many view the reality of their priest in terms of a man who has special sacramental powers BECAUSE he has given up sexual activity. Consequently, many regard the idea of a priest who has sexual relations as detestable and even “unnatural.” I have no solutions to offer here, but I do think that celibacy has commonly swallowed Holy Orders as a distinct sacramental reality over and beyond celibacy, again, in the minds of most Catholics.

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