Are married priests next on Pope Francis’ reform agenda?

Pope Francis likes to say that he prefers to raise questions rather than issue edicts or change doctrine, and he has certainly generated plenty of debate with his off-the-cuff remarks about gays and his cold-call chats on topics like divorce and Communion, as happened recently with a woman in Argentina.
Now a recent conversation between the pope and a bishop from Brazil about the priest shortage may be moving the issue of married clergy onto the pontiff’s agenda.
It began when Bishop Erwin Krautler, an Austrian-born bishop who heads a sprawling diocese in the Brazilian rain forest, had a private audience with Francis on April 4 in the Vatican.
During the meeting, Krautler and Francis compared notes on how much the priest shortage affects the church, especially in the Southern Hemisphere. Krautler’s diocese, geographically the largest in Brazil, has just 27 priests for 700,000 Catholics, most of whom might attend Mass a couple of times a year.
Francis said he knew of a diocese in Mexico where parishes had a deacon but no priest, and the pope wondered how things could go on that way — which is when Krautler raised the idea of married priests.
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“The pope explained that he could not take everything in hand personally from Rome. We local bishops, who are best acquainted with the needs of our faithful, should be ‘corajudos,’ that is ‘courageous’ in Spanish, and make concrete suggestions,” the bishop told an Austrian newspaper the next day.
Francis, Krautler reiterated, wanted national bishops’ conferences to “seek and find consensus on reform and we should then bring up our suggestions for reform in Rome. … It was up to the bishops to make suggestions, the pope said again.”
It didn’t take long for other bishops to pick up on that cue.
Three prelates in Great Britain said they planned to raise the issue of married priests at a meeting of the hierarchy of England and Wales this month. Such a change could help relieve the clergy shortage in their dioceses, they said, noting that many of them have married priests already under a plan that allows Anglican clergy to convert.
“I would be saying personally that my experience of married priests has been a very good one indeed,” Bishop Thomas McMahon told The Tablet, a Catholic weekly. McMahon said he has 20 former Anglican priests, many of whom are married, in his Brentwood diocese.
“People look to their priest as a man of God, to lead them to God,” McMahon said. “If he is a real pastor at their service then it is rather secondary as to whether he is married or not.”
That Francis would be open to the change is not too surprising. As then-Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires, Argentina, Francis commented that while he was in favor of retaining celibacy “for now,” it was a matter of church law and tradition, not doctrine: “It is a matter of discipline, not of faith. It can change.”
More recently, Francis’ secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, echoed those views in comments last fall when he said that celibacy “is not a church dogma and it can be discussed because it is a church tradition.”
So is optional celibacy a real possibility under Francis? “I think the topic is open for discussion,” said Jesuit Fr. Thomas Reese, senior analyst for National Catholic Reporter.
There are at least three reasons Francis may be amenable to the debate:
One, while a married priesthood is often seen as part of the “liberal” agenda for reform that includes ordaining women priests and overturning teachings on homosexuality and birth control, it’s not. In fact, church officials across the spectrum periodically raise the option of married priests — while keeping celibacy as the norm — but they often do so in private.
Two, because celibacy is a matter of law and tradition, not doctrine or dogma, it can be debated or even changed without signaling that the entire edifice of church teaching is about to crumble. Such a reform would be a pragmatic way of addressing a pastoral problem, and it has received a boost from none other than Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, a favorite of conservatives, who allowed some married Anglican clergy to become Catholic priests.
Three, Francis has framed the celibacy reform as one that should emerge from a local context, which reinforces his goal of decentralizing power and authority in the church. Celibacy could be a useful means of solving a problem while promoting collegiality and the idea of organic change in Catholicism.
“If, hypothetically, Western Catholicism were to review the issue of celibacy, I think it would do so for cultural reasons … not so much as a universal option,” as Francis said in 2010 remarks on the issue, three years before he was pope.
In fact, it is not surprising that the issue came up in discussions between Francis, an Argentine, and a churchman in Brazil because bishops in Latin America, Africa and Asia have often been the most outspoken about the need to consider a change.
Whether the American hierarchy would press the issue is unclear.
Russell Shaw, a former spokesman for the U.S. bishops, said he is leery about any change that does not take into account the views of lay people and “real-life experience that already exists” in churches that have married clergy or in Eastern Rite branches of Catholicism that also allow married priests.
But above all, Shaw, author of a new book on the “uncertain future of Catholicism in America,” warned that “a piecemeal approach — married priests in this country, celibate priests in that one — would cause confusion or worse.”
“There has to be a uniform policy on something like this,” he said. “If the pope thinks the question should be studied, let him ask the bishops’ conferences to study it and then see what they say. Any change in this area would be momentous, so we need to take our time.”
David Gibson:
National Catholic Reporter
This story appeared in the May 9-22, 2014 print issue under the headline: Are married priests next on Francis’ agenda? .

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  1. Maureen Saliba says:

    Thank you for another great article.
    Though I am hopeful the celibacy issue will finally be discussed, I am afraid if left to the bishops, it will not change, as many, many are conservative. And my only issue with the article is the fact that the rule of celibacy, as it stands now is wrong, regardless of the shortage of priests. This cannot be the sole reason for change, it’s missing the point. In my opinion, the rule should have never changed; celibacy should have remained an option, its as simple as that.

  2. Sean O'Conaill says:

    As far as I know the only Irish bishop to speak out on this recently is Archbishop Diarmuid Martin. As a body Irish bishops have been singularly torpid since the arrival of Pope Francis – to the extent that one wonders (as my Mother used to when her brood seemed lacking in oomph) if a good dose of Epsom salts all round mightn’t be appropriate.
    None responded to Francis’ ‘dream speech’ Evangelii Gaudium with any dreams of their own – so do they have any? Certainly they seem as usual totally uninterested in the dreams that anyone else might have for the recovery of the Irish church.
    Coming up to Pentecost let us all pray fervently for signs of vibrant intellectual life in our episopacy. And if they don’t show any by then we could petition the nuncio to find out if they are still alive.

  3. Paul Summers says:

    Thank you for this topic.
    If it be true that this is a man made rule, then we face a crucial point and it is this: the Eucharist is Christ’s gift to us all.
    Pope Benedict himself says it like this: “Therefore, we cannot immediately see the effects of being with Jesus and of going to Communion. But with the passing of the weeks and years, we feel more and more keenly the absence of God, the absence of Jesus. It is a fundamental and destructive incompleteness. I could easily speak of countries where atheism has prevailed for years: how souls are destroyed, but also the earth. In this way we can see that it is important, and I would say fundamental, to be nourished by Jesus in Communion. It is he who gives us enlightenment, offers us guidance for our lives, a guidance that we need.”
    If a ‘human rule’ is the cause of this “lack of nourishment, this fundamental incompleteness” in the lives of millions of people, then how can we truly say we ‘love” others? How can we let them live without this gift?
    I am deeply convinced that this law, this rule should be well and truly discerned. How many of us know of men who were in love with Christ, in love with His mission and had to bind themselves to this rule in order to follow HIM. It is enough to ask the thousands of priests who have left to get married, to realize that they never lost their love for Christ but found that they could not live within the confines of this ‘human rule’. the Church has an army of men who would readily be at Christ service to offer this ‘nourishment” and to offer ‘the deep gift of forgiveness’. YET, it is a human rule that holds it all back!!!!!
    I would bet that many priests who have left would just love to serve Christ and bring His ‘nourishment’ to the many who starve for Him.
    I think of the many priests who on one side see with joy former Anglican ministers join the Catholic faith. they come with their wives, their children. They bring the ‘nourishment’ to the souls, yet because of a ‘human rule’ many Catholic ministers cannot enjoy the same deep joy of family!
    I pray in the depth of my heart that very soon, we will truly behold the following: that those who truly discern to live in celibacy may do so but that also those who discern to continue their service to Christ as priests be allowed to discern to marry!
    Lord here our prayer!
    Mother Church, we must not block the ‘nourishment’ that we say is so vital!

  4. Sean @2, If they are not as alive as we`d like, maybe it is the nuncio who has put them in that state?

  5. mjt: the Nuncio – I heard him preach at a Mass in Cork in 2013. He is certainly not asleep, but very much alive in the Faith.

  6. Joe O'Leary says:

    Cardinal Conway commented at the 1971 Synod that Irish clergy — “non nobis, Domine, non nobis” — have had no problem with celibacy. Paul VI asked the Synod fathers if they approved of the Pope ordaining married men in cases of pastoral necessity, and they did not approve.
    Then the topic seemed to become taboo. Bishops were forbidden to discuss it at their meetings. Bishops like the good Brendan Comiskey, who spoke up on it, met official reprobration.
    Now, suddenly, the Pope is asking bishops to speak up on it! This is a dizzying turn-about.
    The ordination of married men was a no-brainer 43 years ago, and it is disheartening to think of how much grief all round the failure to seize the moment then has caused ever since.

  7. Gene Carr says:

    Vocations to the priesthood are way down in places like Ireland and other parts of the West. But in other parts of the world,such as Africa, Asia and parts of Latin America they are flourishing. Some religious orders attract plenty of new vocations while other languish. Some dioceses in the US have plenty of vocations; other not. Now if the celibacy rule is such a downer, why this difference, since the rule is common to both groups? Surely a fruitful line of enquiry would be to compare and contrast both groups and ask what are the significant differences that might have a causal effect?

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