Married priests for Amazon straightforward, say canon lawyers

married priests

If the prelates attending the Vatican’s Synod of Bishops for the Amazon ask that Pope Francis allow married priests to address a lack of Catholic ministers across the nine-nation region, the path for implementing such a proposal is fairly straightforward, say four eminent canon lawyers.

Although the canonists have slightly different ideas about the concrete method the pope could use to allow for married priests on a regional basis, they agree that the way forward is relatively easy, as celibacy is only a practice of the church and not a revealed dogma.

Among the two main possibilities: Francis could issue new norms allowing bishops in the region to deviate from the church canon requiring clerics to remain celibate, or could invite the bishops to make appeal to the Vatican for special permission on a case-by-case basis.

“Celibacy is a discipline of the church,” Nicholas Cafardi, a civil and canon lawyer who has advised bishops and dioceses on canonical issues for decades, told NCR.

“Disciplines exist by creation of the law, so if the law were to be changed, the discipline would change.”

“Pope Francis could, since he is the sole legislator for the universal church … allow married priests in the Western church, either across the board, or in limited areas and in limited situations,” said Cafardi.

Mercy Sr. Sharon Euart, a former executive coordinator of the Canon Law Society of America, put it simply.

“Celibacy is not demanded of the priesthood by its nature,” said Euart, now executive director of the Resource Center for Religious Institutes. “The practice of a married clergy existed in the early church.”

The church law in question is Canon 277, which states that Catholic clerics are “obliged to observe perfect and perpetual continence for the sake of the kingdom of heaven and therefore are bound to celibacy.”

Cafardi and Euart both suggested that Francis could issue norms allowing bishops in the Amazon countries to deviate from that canon in choosing which candidates to ordain to the priesthood.

Oblate Fr. Francis Morrisey, a former president of the Canadian Canon Law Society who has advised numerous Vatican offices and local bishops’ conferences, thought it more likely that the pontiff would invite bishops to make special appeal to the Vatican when they find a married man they would like to ordain.

“I’m going to presume they wouldn’t touch the canons as such, but use an individual indult,” said Morrisey, using a canonical term for obtaining special permission to do something normally not permitted by canon law.

Fr. James Coriden, a canon lawyer who previously taught at the now closed Washington Theological Union, agreed with Morrisey. “I assume it would be treated (and controlled) like that,” he said.

“One case at a time. When a bishop in the Amazon petitions Rome for an exception, then it would be granted.” Continue reading

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