What Will the Pope’s Post-Amazon Synod Document Say About Priestly Celibacy?

Various outcomes are possible in the papal document, which will be released next Wednesday.

Pope Francis celebrates the closing Mass of the Pan-Amazon Synod of Bishops, St. Peter's basilica, Oct. 27, 2019.
Pope Francis celebrates the closing Mass of the Pan-Amazon Synod of Bishops, St. Peter's basilica, Oct. 27, 2019. (photo: Daniel Ibáñez/CNA)

A mixture of anticipation and apprehension surrounds Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation on the Pan-Amazon synod, which the Vatican announced today will be published Wednesday at a Vatican press conference.

The reason is that through the document, entitled Querida Amazonia (Dear Amazon), the Pope could make a historic change to the mandatory celibacy rule for priests in the Latin Rite.

The majority of synod fathers voted in favor of an exception to allow ordaining married permanent deacons as priests at last October’s synod, ostensibly to help deal with shortages of access to the sacraments in remote Amazon regions.

But critics warn that if carried forward, it would be tantamount to abolishing, or at the very least weakening, the discipline of priestly celibacy, because the Church in countries suffering a vocations crisis — such as Germany, whose bishops are championing such a change — could invoke the same principle.

In recent weeks, rumors have swirled that the document is likely to contain exactly the proposal that the synod fathers passed in October, others that it contains no reference to viri probati (the ordination to the priesthood of married men “of proven virtue”), and still others who claim to have seen the text but say it makes only a passing and inconsequential reference.

According to a Vatican communication official, the document was delivered to the Pope on Dec. 27, and since then has not undergone any changes in content apart from style adjustments to translations. The definitive text was completed Feb. 2.

Given the possibilities regarding its content, what scenarios could emerge?

The first could be that the post-synodal apostolic exhortation indeed contains no reference to viri probati, and so the document presents no danger to the mandatory celibacy rule. This is possible, given Francis’ seeming ambivalence about the issue, although no one knows exactly what he thinks about the matter. No action may also be taken due to continuous criticism from concerned faithful who want to see the universal Church maintain the discipline of priestly celibacy. Added to the chorus is the recent book defending priestly celibacy by Benedict XVI and Cardinal Robert Sarah.

Pope Francis could also make no reference to the issue with intention of just leaving the issue for a successor to pick up. But the possibility that this issue will now be left alone is generally considered unlikely as it prompts the question: Why open up a Pandora’s box of questioning the rule via the synodal process, with the harm this might do to people’s faith, unless there is a will to change it?

The second possibility is that the document firmly reasserts the Church’s discipline and so appears to adhere to orthodoxy, but allows an exception for the Amazon synod proposal. This would tally with what Cardinal Walter Kasper said last June, that if the synod fathers voted for such a measure for the Amazon, Francis would “in principle probably accept it.” But it would be seen as a major defeat for defenders of priestly celibacy who believe that the reasons for allowing such an exception for the Amazon would instantly be used elsewhere, even if disallowed in the document. (Numerous post-conciliar examples exist of exceptions becoming the rule, such as use of the vernacular, Communion in the hand, Mass celebrated versus populum and the widespread use of extraordinary ministers.) For such critics, it would therefore be tantamount to abolishing the rule, however much priestly celibacy is valued and reinforced in the exhortation.

A third scenario is that the document contains no reference to viri probati and the celibacy rule would appear to have survived intact. But in reality, rather than being completely shelved, the matter would be transferred to the new constitution for the Roman Curia and, in turn, bishops’ conferences. This is possible given the draft constitution revealed last year, which handed greater authority to episcopal conferences, in line with Pope Francis’ plans outlined in his first apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium. So rather than decide on the issue himself in the exhortation, Francis would in effect delegate the responsibility of allowing married priests to bishops who could handle it according to their particular local situation.

One possible reason, said or unsaid, might be because changing the priestly celibacy rule would in reality be a costly burden on diocesan finances, due to the additional material care dioceses would need to provide to priests’ families, and so Francis could pass the responsibility to regional bishops to decide if they can afford it.

A fourth hypothesis is that the Pope says the exhortation must be read in light of the final document, allowing him to make no reference himself to the issue of viri probati and so at least avoid the accusation that he, himself, caused the abolition of priestly celibacy. The change would be enacted all the same, however, based on Pope Francis’ 2018 apostolic constitution on the Synod of Bishops, Episcopalis Communio (Episcopal Communion) which rules that “if it is expressly approved by the Roman Pontiff, the final document participates in the ordinary magisterium of the Successor of Peter.” It could in effect act the like footnote 351 in his apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia, which allowed some remarried Catholic divorcees to receive Holy Communion, even though the main text, in this case the exhortation itself, could be read differently.

A fifth possibility is that no reference is made to viri probati and a change to the priestly celibacy rule is postponed. It would then be dealt with either in a “study commission” on the matter, or in light of the next Synod of Bishops which will probably be on synodality. That synod could well create a new institutional and canonical framework, possibly involving a “permanent synod,” analogous to a permanent revolution, along the lines envisioned by the late Cardinal Carlo Martini. This could then go in two possible directions, either as a synodal experiment on the local level, similar to the current synodal path in Germany, for which there is currently no canonical structure and a Vatican synod would provide one for it. Or a “permanent synod” could be established on the universal level, creating a kind of “synodal parliament” in which bishops would be able to grant more and more exceptions to allow married priests. Any of these options would provide the opportunity to change the celibacy rule through alternative means.

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