It is not quite right to say that married priests are coming to the Catholic Church — they have been here for quite some time. But recent decisions by Pope Francis mean that something new is almost certainly coming in a few years — the ordination of married men to the priesthood for the Amazon region of South America. Whether it will be extended more widely remains to be seen.
Earlier this fall, Pope Francis announced that in 2019 there will be a special synod of bishops to consider the pastoral care of the Amazon region in South America, a vast area sparsely populated by mostly aboriginal peoples. The region is largely in Brazil, but it also includes neighboring countries.
For decades, the region has so lacked priests that the remote areas often see a priest only a few times a year. Also for decades, it has been proposed by some that the so-called viri probati (“tested men”), perhaps akin to elders in an aboriginal tribe, be ordained as priests to serve the local population. These would be married men who currently would not be eligible for ordination in the Latin rite of the Catholic Church. This proposal never went anywhere.
However, in recent weeks, it was reported that Pope Francis gave permission for this proposal to be discussed at the special synod of 2019.
Some quarters, therefore, consider the synod an instrument to advance the cause of a married clergy. To a certain degree, the experience of the two recent synods on the family support this reading. The topic — the pastoral care of marriage and the family — was broad, but the driving agenda was narrow, namely to modify the sacramental discipline for those living in conjugal relationships outside of a valid marriage, for example the civilly divorced and remarried.
It would not be implausible to see the same dynamic at work here. A regional synod, the membership of which is drawn only from the relevant countries, would presumably be more amenable to the proposed changes. There would be no African, Polish and American delegates resisting it.
Mistaken reports in the secular media — some of which made front-page news — spoke of priests being allowed to marry. That is incorrect. Once ordained a deacon, priest or bishop, a man may never marry. That is true even in those Eastern Catholic Churches that have a married clergy. Likewise, a married permanent deacon who is widowed after ordination may not remarry. Any ordained clergy who wish to marry after ordination leave their ordained ministry and must apply for a papal dispensation to marry.
The Latin rite of the Catholic Church, by far the most numerous, permits married men to be ordained deacons but not priests. In the Eastern Catholic Churches — Ukrainians and Maronites, for example — married men are also eligible to be ordained priests but not bishops.
In recent years, married clergy from other Christian communities — Anglicans (Episcopalians), most notably — who have converted to Catholicism have been given special permission to be ordained as priests in the Latin rite.
What’s new in the viri probati proposal is that married men, always Catholics of the Latin rite, could be ordained not only deacons, but priests. It would be a substantial change and a novelty, but not a complete novelty.
It is a novelty as a response to the lack of clergy in a large mission territory. Those familiar with the history of the Church in the United States and Canada would recognize the situation of the Amazon as similar to the early years of the Church in North America, where the few missionary clergy from France and Spain had immense territories to cover. Those historical accounts can be read in the Jesuit Relations or in the letters of the Spanish missions or the first bishops of Quebec. Willa Cather’s acclaimed novel Death Comes for the Archbishop gives that same history dramatic treatment in the setting of New Mexico.
The problem of pastoral care of the Amazon is, therefore, not a new problem. The viri probati solution is new. It argues that the local population is, for whatever reason, unable to provide priestly vocations and that missionary vocations are not to be had. By default, therefore, a relaxation of priestly celibacy is in order.
The viri probati proposal, therefore, is not advanced as a good in itself, but, rather, as a concession to a sustained missionary failure. This constitutes two failures, actually: a failure of evangelization, in that the local Catholic population seems incapable of producing priestly vocations, and a failure of the surrounding countries to provide missionary priests to serve the people.
The latter problem is acute. Latin America, even 500 years after the arrival of the early missionaries, still does not produce priestly vocations in the numbers that have been seen in Europe and North America. Hence, it has few missionary priests to send even in its own lands, to say nothing of going abroad. The Church in Brazil, for example, most proximate to the Amazon, has nothing compared to the clerical strength of numbers that permitted Irish, French and Spanish missionary priests to come to the New World, or even current priests from India and Nigeria who serve abroad.
Modifications of priestly celibacy in the Latin rite have come largely in response to the desire for Christian unity and out of respect for the Eastern tradition of married deacons and priests. A modification in response to pastoral failure within the Latin rite would be a new step.
It remains to be seen whether arguments in favor of the viri probati will include the view that the indigenous cultures of the Amazon simply cannot accept celibacy. Similar arguments are heard in North America about the paucity of priestly vocations in the native Indian communities.
That is a more delicate argument that would not be confined to the Amazon. For example, traditional African cultures are not hospitable to celibacy either — several even include polygamy — but have proved in the past century to produce an enormous number of priestly vocations. No culture is initially receptive to celibacy in imitation of Christ and for the sake of the Kingdom; such an acceptance is the fruit of conversion to the Christian Gospel.
The special synod of 2019 is only for the Amazon region, but might it be the first step, the prime mover, in the discussion of priestly celibacy elsewhere? The shortage of priests afflicts countries of ancient Christian heritage, too.
The synods on the family are instructive here, as well. While the novelties in Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love) could be read very narrowly, they can also be read very widely. Will the same thing happen when, as expected, novelties are introduced after the Amazon synod in 2019?
Father Raymond J. de Souza is the
editor in chief of Convivium magazine.