Married priests ignites debate about celibacy

married priests

In the sprawling Amazon region, the Catholic Church is severely short on priests.

Clerics trek from one town to the next, sometimes requiring military transport to get to their remote destinations.

Communities can go months without a visit.

The church, as a result, is struggling to hold its influence.

One new proposal to ease the shortage would allow older, married men in the region to be ordained as priests.

South American bishops have advocated for the idea, and Pope Francis has indicated some willingness to narrowly open the door to married men in this specific case.

But the proposal has set off a debate about whether Francis is trying to bolster the ranks of the priesthood or upend its deep-rooted traditions.

A vocal band of conservatives says permitting married priests in the Amazon could alter — and undermine — the priesthood globally, weakening the church requirement of celibacy.

“I see a destruction of the priesthood,” Swiss Bishop Marian Eleganti said in a phone interview, claiming that liberal bishops and cardinals under Francis’s “shadow and protection” were working to enact the changes. “This is the beginning of the end for celibacy.”

The Amazon would not be the first exception. Married Anglican ministers, in some cases, have been welcomed into the Catholic priesthood after conversions.

And Eastern Catholic churches, even those in communion with Rome, allow for married men in the priesthood.

But conservatives note that the rationale for installing married clerics in the Amazon exists, too, across Europe, North America and other parts of the world, where seminaries are closing and dioceses are sharing priests.

“It is the elevation of a model,” said Roberto de Mattei, president of the conservative Lepanto Foundation in Rome.

The discussion has gained steam ahead of a Vatican meeting, scheduled for October, focused on the church in the Amazon.

Although the meeting has many broad aims — helping the environment, aiding indigenous communities — one paragraph in the event’s working document mentions the possibility of ordaining older men “even if they have an existing and stable family” as a way to make up for the Amazon’s severe priest shortage.

The text affirms the standard church teaching that celibacy is a “gift for the Church” and says the proposed exception is a “way to sustain the Christian life.”

With Francis more willing than his predecessors to consider how the faith might adjust in the modern age, and with a conservative pope emeritus still living in Vatican City, the church has been riven by cultural battles over everything from homosexuality to Communion for divorcées.

But the idea of altering a tenet of the priesthood has caused an unusually public conservative backlash, even by the standards of Francis’s papacy. Continue reading

  • Image: RNS

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