Academic exercises on whether to alter the Roman Catholic Church’s norm of priestly celibacy have turned into serious discussions among bishops in Brazil and Quebec.
Prompted by the shortage of priests in these formerly Catholic bastions, their bishops are raising the topic of changing the discipline of celibacy to ordain older married men to the priesthood.
Pope Francis gave permission for the October 2019 Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazon Region to discuss ordaining married men of proven virtue (viri probati) to the priesthood, after a request by Brazilian Cardinal Claudio Hummes. Bishop emeritus Erwin Kräutler, the secretary for the Commission on the Pan-Amazon Region, last year told Austrian news agency Kathpress that the synod would consider proposals advocating ordaining viri probati to celebrate Mass and other sacraments.
The issue gained renewed prominence June 8, when the Vatican released a preparatory Pan-Amazonian synod document calling for “courageous” and “daring” proposals to address pastoral care in the Amazon region.
The lopsided ratio of priests to laity in Brazil — often 1 for every 10,000 Catholics — has led to concerns that adequate pastoral care is unattainable for the local Church.
According to one specific proposal Bishop Kräutler mentioned, the Church would have a tiered hierarchy of men able to celebrate sacraments, with viri probati receiving no seminary education and being distinguished from celibate priests educated in the seminary.
The Assembly of Catholic Bishops of Quebec also discussed ordaining married men at a meeting in March. While no decision was made at the meeting, Bishop Noel Simard of Valleyfield told Canada’s Catholic Register the discussion was prompted by Pope Francis’ decision in November 2017 to allow the Pan-Amazon synod to discuss the question.
Bishop Simard expressed concerns for how viri probati would integrate with the Church’s current clerical order and said that ordaining married men would inevitably renew discussions about women’s ministry in the Church: “If we speak of viri probati, what about the role of women in the Church and the possibility of ministers?” he said.
Bishop Simard’s concerns were substantiated by the synod’s preparatory document: It advocates for an undefined new “type of official ministry that can be conferred on women, taking into account the central role which women play today in the Amazonian Church.”
Conditions on the Ground
The Pan-Amazon region covers part or all of nine countries in South America. Many Latin American countries have experienced a significant decline in the Catholic population, often over a single generation.
A 2014 Pew Research report on religion in Latin America found that 1 in 5 Brazilians are former Catholics. Only 23% of Brazilian Catholics say that faith is very important in their lives and that they pray daily and attend Mass weekly. Even fewer report being interested in sharing their faith. Catholics as a percentage of the population dropped from 92% in 1970 to 61% in 2014.
The survey found that the top reasons Latin Americans gave for leaving the Catholic Church for other Christian denominations (predominantly Evangelical churches) were a desire for a closer connection to God, greater enjoyment of worship at their new church, a wish for more emphasis on morality and the charitable and evangelical outreach by their new church.
While the lack of priests in countries like Brazil is a serious problem, it’s not the only factor in the decline of the Catholic faith in Latin America. And the ordination of viri probati alone will not make a long-lasting difference in the priest shortage, according to Father Gary Selin, the formation adviser at St. John Vianney Seminary in Denver, Colorado, and author of Priestly Celibacy: Theological Foundations.
Father Selin told the Register that if the Pan-Amazon synod decides to approve the ordination of married men, he expects there could be a slight rise in the number of vocations, but the trend would be short-lived.
“In the long term, there would be no substantial increase in priestly vocations,” he said.
Father Selin explained the vocation crisis in the Church does not emanate from the issue of priestly celibacy, but rather a decline of a culture of faith that requires sacrifice as opposed to the pursuit of wealth.
He pointed out that contraception in Catholic families leaves fewer men growing up who might consider the priesthood. Because of the “earthbound” vision of many Catholics, he said, “the value of forgoing marriage for the sake of the kingdom of heaven” often goes unrecognized.
Father Selin said he had lived in a central Brazilian diocese that had a large number of seminarians. The difference with other local dioceses, he said, was that its bishops and priests committed themselves to teaching the Catholic faith in its fullness, “and they lived a joyous and sacrificial priestly life.”
“Their example inspired many young men to seek entrance into the seminary,” he said.
Father Selin said serving at the altar from elementary school through high school was “a key factor” in discovering his priestly vocation, and his pastor approached him and invited him to consider the priesthood.
“Many priests will say that they first seriously considered the priesthood after their pastors asked them to pray and think about it,” he said.
The Celibate Priesthood
The tradition of ordaining married men and celibate men to the priesthood goes back to the early Church. No priest can marry after receiving ordination, and the apostolic Churches, both East and West, maintain a practice of ordaining only celibate priests as bishops. The Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Churches have maintained the normative practice of a married priesthood and a celibate — typically monastic — priesthood in their churches.
The discipline around married clergy developed along different lines in the Catholic Church. Because it insisted on perpetual continence for all priests, the Church gradually placed more restrictions on ordaining married men. By the late fourth century, local councils in Spain and Carthage began codifying a preference for married priests to exercise complete sexual abstinence with their wives, and by the 12th century, the Latin Church had legislated against cohabitation of priests with their wives, establishing priestly celibacy as the norm.
In the Latin Church, celibacy and living in community with other celibates traditionally went hand in hand: Both Pope Pius XII and the Second Vatican Council strongly encouraged priests to live in a communal life as an aid to priestly holiness and chastity and mutual assistance in carrying out their ministry.
In his 2007 apostolic exhortation Sacramentum Caritatis, Pope Benedict XVI stated, “This choice [of celibacy] on the part of the priest expresses in a special way the dedication which conforms him to Christ and his exclusive offering of himself for the Kingdom of God. The fact that Christ himself, the Eternal Priest, lived his mission even to the sacrifice of the cross in the state of virginity constitutes the sure point of reference for understanding the meaning of the tradition of the Latin Church. It is not sufficient to understand priestly celibacy in purely functional terms. Celibacy is really a special way of conforming oneself to Christ’s own way of life.”
At the heart of the discussions around ordaining married men to the priesthood is concern for Catholics to have access to the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. But arguments against changing the current discipline of the Church also show a concern to preserve the priesthood as a reflection of Christ’s ministry.
Father Selin said there were three theological arguments for priestly celibacy — Christological, ecclesiological and eschatological — and that by maintaining its celibate tradition, the Church illuminates the fullness of priestly ministry.
As a celibate, a priest becomes one of the “eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven” and imitates Christ’s own life of perpetual virginity. Through his ordination, the priest also takes on the relationship of Christ to his Church, as a bridegroom to a bride. The priest’s celibate state is also a visible sign of “the life of the saints in the heavenly liturgy,” particularly when he celebrates Mass.
“Celibacy therefore enhances and, in a certain sense, perfects the priest’s relationship to the Church,” Father Selin said.
Responses for the Church
Father Paul Sullins, a sociology professor at The Catholic University of America, told the Register that discussions around ordaining viri probati have typically occurred in very rural areas where clergy minister in remote places. Father Sullins, a former Episcopal priest who is married with children, said he found the present discussions “sensible,” but believed previous attempts to raise the issue had usually found “better alternatives.”
Father Sullins said that deacons could be placed in charge of remote communities to which priests could periodically visit to celebrate Mass and provide the Eucharist, which the deacon could then distribute through the year at Eucharistic prayer services.
Nevertheless, the declining number of priests means in absolute terms that Mass and confession are becoming less and less available to Catholics. No other minister can provide these sacraments, the primary reason prompting some Catholic bishops to consider adopting the practice of the Eastern Churches, which cultivates both celibate and married-priest vocations.
At the same time, the crisis is prompting a reawakening of the roles in the Church that belong to the diaconate and laymen and women by virtue of their baptism.
“Every person is called to be an apostle by baptism; it isn’t just priests called to spread the Gospel,” Legionary Father Matthew Schneider told the Register.
Father Schneider, a frequent commentator on the Church, said that “when we think of renewal in the Church, it isn’t primarily an institution that changes, but individuals who have experienced Jesus and are on fire with him.”
Forming Disciples and Apostles
While there are several different approaches, contemporary ideas for renewal of the faith of the Church, he said, have focused on forming disciples and becoming apostles.
“Being an apostle or disciple means that you have let Jesus reach down and touch your heart, and from this touching of the heart, you are moved to share his message in some way,” he said.
Father Schneider said vocations are intimately tied to discipleship and involving more young people in ministry. Nearly every priest and consecrated person he knew had been involved in ministry to some extent when they felt called by God.
“I was the sacristan of the campus ministry at my state university; another was a leader in a youth group; and another was a regular volunteer with the local St. Vincent de Paul,” he said. “If we want vocations to flourish, we need to help young people first become apostles.”
Nicholas Wolfram Smith writes from Oakland, California.