A time for reflection

Chris McDonnell
CT March 13th2020

We live in a time of immediate news and instant reaction. Sometimes a period of reflection allows a more considered opinion to form.

Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation on the synod of the Amazon that took place during October, 2019 was published on February 12, 2020. The papal document is the response to the Synod’s theme “Amazon: new paths for the Church and for an integral ecology.”

So where do we stand? Back in February the reaction to the words of Francis concentrated more on what he did not address, the option of ordaining married men to the priesthood and the role of women in the Church. it was seen by the media as a matter of ‘win’ or ‘lose’ when in fact no doors have been closed.

That many were disappointed cannot be ignored; nor should it be. There is an issue that is stark and real. Many Christian people are denied the Eucharist over extended periods due to the severe shortage of priests. This was raised by the now retired Brazilian bishop, Erwin Krautler, in 2014 when he sought advice from Francis on how he might meet the crisis of so few priests. He was reportedly told then that it was up to the local bishops to seek a solution to present to Rome. Krautler was a member of the recent Synod whose request has been passed over.

But while there has not been affirmation from Rome on the matter, neither has there been rejection of the option. And there lies the nub of our concern. This is an on-going issue and it will not go away.

The struggle between groups within the Vatican is all too apparent. The publication the book, entitled From the Depths of Our Hearts, claimed to be co-authored by Cardinal Sarah and Benedict XVI, at the same time as Francis delivered his exhortation, was not coincidental. It reportedly addresses “the ‘dark time’ the Catholic priesthood is enduring because of Church scandals and ‘the constant questioning of their consecrated celibacy.’  ” Benedict has refuted his authorship and requested his name be withdrawn from the cover. But nevertheless it is a taste of background forces that are at work in Rome and the climate in which Francis exercises his office.

Time and again, those who wish to retain a celibate priesthood raise the threat of schism – which is nonsense. If holding the Christian Church together is dependent on a simple ‘discipline’ imposed on its priests, then we are in serious trouble.

It cannot be denied that for some the acceptance of celibacy is an integral aspect of their vocation but not for all. We should reflect on the words of the late Fr Daniel O’Leary whose first anniversary occurred earlier this year. In his final article, published in the Tableton January 31st2019 just after his death, he wrote:

 ‘Compulsory celibacy is a kind of sin, an assault against God’s will and nature.  The fall-outs of mandatory celibate life are the violence it does to a priest’s humanity and the wounds it leaves on his ministry.

That is one position; others would disagree. The contrast with the thesis of the Sarah/Benedict book could not be greater. We are being negligent to our mission if we continue avoiding full and open discussion, not just in Amazonia but throughout the Church. it will, for instance, be interesting to see how the German Church reacts.

We are faced with the growing crisis of a serious fall in the number of ordinations to the priesthood in many Western nations. Bishops are meeting this crisis in two ways. Either parishes are amalgamated and the work load of individual priests is increased, often beyond breaking point, or priests from other countries are invited to take parish responsibility here in our country.  We should be grateful for their generosity.

But neither of these measures is a satisfactory solution to our problem.

We are regularly asked to pray for vocations; no-one can argue with that. But it is imperative that we too prepare the soil of encouragement by attending to circumstances within the Church’s control. Insistence on celibacy is one obvious factor. The position on celibacy remains locked in an historical perception that distorts the evident needs that have given rise to the current discussion. It centres on the insistence on compulsory celibacy – the acceptance of voluntary celibacy has never been  in  question.

We must continue this discussion at all levels of the Church and across nations. Writing recently in the Catholic Times, Bishop Mark Davies tells us that ‘celibate consecration remains the hallmark of the Catholic priesthood’. I would suggest that comment leaves a large number of unanswered questions. Our missionary focus must be in the real world, with all its faults and issues. That’s why we must keep on talking.

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