Will Pan-Amazonian Synod Result in End to Clerical Celibacy?

Appointments announced today show the issue will be discussed, and could result in wide-ranging and concrete changes.

Pope Francis at the general audience in St. Peter's Square on January 31, 2018.
Pope Francis at the general audience in St. Peter's Square on January 31, 2018. (photo: Daniel Ibáñez/CNA)

The Vatican announced today that Pope Francis has appointed members of a pre-synodal council who will collaborate with the secretariat of the Synod of Bishops in preparation for the Pan-Amazonian synod next year.

Also announced was the theme of the October 2019 synod: Amazonia: new pathways for the Church and for an integral ecology.

Of particular, though not unexpected, interest are the appointments of Cardinal Claudio Hummes and retired Bishop Erwin Kräutler to the council. Both have advocated a change in discipline to allow married clergy in the Latin rite, and the Pan Amazonian synod is expected to provide a forum to at least discuss the matter.

Although some exceptions already exist to allow married priests in the Catholic Church (the Eastern rites and the Ordinariate for former Anglicans for example), the Amazonian case could be used to allow for married clergy wherever priest shortages might exist, and therefore permit a far wider provision.

Bishop Kräutler, an Austrian who headed the Xingu diocese in Brazil from 1981-2015, has long argued for viri probati (ordination or married men of proven virtue) to make up for a shortage of priests in remote Amazonian regions.

A supporter of the ordination of women despite Pope Francis and his predecessors definitively ruling it out, Bishop Kräutler said in an interview last year that he thinks the Pan-Amazonian synod might consider the issue of viri probati, and disclosed that after meeting Pope Francis in 2014, the Holy Father had encouraged him to “courageously” explore the matter.

Francis reportedly wanted the issue discussed at the next synod this October, but the theme was voted down by the majority of members on the ordinary council of the Synod of Bishops, the body charged with drawing up the theme. Instead, they opted for a synod on “Young People, the Faith and the Discernment of Vocation.”

Cardinal Hummes, meanwhile, has made comments in the past advocating for a change in the discipline.

A friend of the Holy Father who gave him the inspiration to choose the name Francis, the Brazilian cardinal made headlines back in 2006 when he argued that “even though celibacy is part of Catholic history and culture, the Church could review this question, because celibacy is not a dogma but a disciplinary question.”

He made the comments shortly before taking up his position as prefect of the Congregation for Clergy, and was made to sign a statement supporting the discipline of clerical celibacy soon after arriving in Rome.

Whether any change to the discipline will actually happen remains speculative, but past statements along with today’s appointments makes it clear that a push for some change to the discipline is already going ahead.

In January, the current prefect of the Congregation for Clergy, Cardinal Beniamino Stella, said the idea of exceptionally ordaining older married men of proven virtue to celebrate the Eucharist in isolated Catholic communities should be discussed. He also brought up the issue at the Congregation’s plenary meeting last year, saying it was something the dicastery was “following.”

He also mentioned at the plenary a subject later discussed by the C9 Group of Cardinals last year, about transferring authorisations concerning the passage of a new marriage for a widowed permanent deacon, and requests for priestly ordination by widowed permanent deacons, from the Vatican to bishops’ conferences.

At the moment, without a good reason such as dependent children, a widowed permanent deacon cannot remarry and continue to serve as a deacon. Informed Vatican sources have told the Register that moving authorisation ultimately to bishops' conferences, especially concerning dispensation (from the impediment to remarry), would end up weakening the sacrament as cases could be handled faster, less rigorously and be affected by personal sentiment.

Some therefore see this as part of a “back-door” attempt to introduce changes to clerical celibacy. “It could further pave the way to a progressive degradation of such a requirement, and then for priests too,” said a source with detailed knowledge of the matter. “It's the building of a tendency, forcing people to become used to not cherishing such a requirement, to becoming less and less used to it, bit by bit.” The prohibition of a second marriage, he added, “dates back to the beginning of Christianity.” 

Other indications of a push to change discipline in this area have included comments made by Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin. In 2013, he hinted that he would welcome such a change, saying it was a tradition not a dogma and so “open to discussion.” He went on to note that while the Church is not a democratic institution, it needs to “reflect the democratic spirit of the times and adopt a collegial way of governing.” More recently, he has underlined the importance of priestly celibacy while continuing to advocate for a possible change.

Last year in an interview in the German newspaper Die Zeit, Pope Francis said: “We have to study whether viri probati are a possibility. We then also need to determine which tasks they could take on, such as in remote communities, for example.”

Next year's synod will also address a wide variety of other topics including inculturation and abuse of the environment.  

Here below is the full list of the pre-synodal council:

1. His Eminence Cardinal Cláudio HUMMES, O.F.M., archbishop emeritus of São Paulo (Brazil), President of the Red Eclesial Panamazónica.

2. His Eminence Cardinal Peter Kodwo Appiah TURKSON, prefect of the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development.

3. His Eminence Cardinal Carlos AGUIAR RETES, archbishop of México (Mexico).

4. His Excellency Msgr. Pedro Ricardo BARRETO JIMENO, S.J., archbishop of Huancayo (Peru), Vice President of the Red Eclesial Panamazónica.

5. His Excellency Msgr. Paul Richard GALLAGHER, titular archbishop of Hodelm, Secretary for Relations with States.

6. His Excellency Msgr. Edmundo Ponciano VALENZUELA MELLID, archbishop of Asunción (Paraguay).

7. His Excellency Msgr. Roque PALOSCHI, archbishop of Porto Velho, Rondônia (Brazil).

8. His Excellency Msgr. Oscar Vicente OJEA, bishop of San Isidro, President of the Episcopal Conference (Argentina).

9. His Excellency Msgr. Neri José TONDELLO, bishop of Juína, Mato Grosso (Brazil).

10. His Excellency Msgr. Karel Martinus CHOENNIE, bishop of Paramaribo (Suriname).

11. His Excellency Msgr. Erwin KRÄUTLER, C.PP.S., prelate emeritus of Xingu, Parà (Brazil).

12. His Excellency Msgr. José Ángel DIVASSÓN CILVETI, S.D.B., formerly vicar apostolic of Puerto Ayacucho (Venezuela), titular bishop of Bamaccora.

13. His Excellency Msgr. Rafael COB GARCÍA, vicar apostolic of Puyo, titular bishop of Cerbali (Ecuador).

14. His Excellency Msgr. Eugenio COTER, vicar apostolic of Pando, titular bishop of Tibiuca (Bolivia).

15. His Excellency Msgr. Joaquín Humberto PINZÓN GÜIZA, I.M.C., vicar apostolic of Puerto Leguízamo-Solano, titular bishop of Ottocio (Colombia).

16. His Excellency Msgr. David MARTÍNEZ DE AGUIRRE GUINEA, O.P., vicar apostolic of Puerto Maldonado, titular bishop of Izirzada (Peru).

17. Rev. Sr. María Irene LOPES DOS SANTOS, S.C.M.S.T.B.G., delegate of the Confederación Latinoamericana y Caribeña de Religiosos y Religiosas (CLAR).

18. Mr. Mauricio LÓPEZ, executive secretary of REPAM (Ecuador).