Every so often, we get official confirmation of the obvious, and, surprisingly enough, it still makes waves. Such is the case again with the release of a preparatory document for an October summit of bishops on the Amazon, which confirms that the ordination of married “elderly people”, meaning men, will be on the agenda.
From the moment the Synod of Bishops on the Amazon was announced, it’s been clear that the issue of the viri probati, meaning tested married men who are pillars of their communities, would come up. Requests for consideration of the possibility have been voiced with increasing urgency by bishops and other Catholic personnel from the region for decades, and it was basically unthinkable a whole synod would go by without it being floated again.
Nonetheless, given all the lengths to which Rome has gone over the years to squash consideration of married priests, seeing the topic on an official Vatican agenda is still a bit arresting.
To understand the nature of the discussion we’re likely to see in October, here are three essential things to understand.
First, the debate is not over whether the Catholic Church can have married priests. It already does, and plenty of them. The 23 Eastern churches in communion with Rome have married priests, and in the US, there are hundreds of former Episcopalians, Methodists, Lutherans and others who were married in their original denominations and permitted to remain married as Catholic priests.
The question, therefore, is not whether to have married priests, but whether to have more of them. As a corollary, no one is talking about eliminating celibacy for the vast majority of priests in the Latin Rite.
Second, this discussion will be very different from debate over married priests in the US or Western Europe, because it’s basically not ideological.
In the West, more liberal Catholics sometimes press for a married clergy on grounds that celibacy is unnatural and breeds sexual dysfunction, often linking it to the clerical sexual abuse crisis. Such activists also sometimes make the argument that by creating a special caste of unmarried men, celibacy contributes to clericalism, elitism, a detachment from the struggles of ordinary families, and all manners of other ills.
The question, therefore, is not whether to have married priests, but whether to have more of them”
Whatever one makes of the merits of those arguments, they’re not what drives discussion of the viri probati in the Amazon, or for that matter in most other parts of the world.
Americans often complain of a priest shortage, but the statistical fact of the matter is that the US is priest-rich compared to everywhere other than Western Europe. In the US there’s one priest for every 1,300 baptised Catholics. Across Latin America it’s 1 to 7,000, in sub-Saharan Africa it’s 1 to 5,300, and in the Caribbean it’s 1 to 8,300.
In some Latin American nations, including several that share the Amazon, those ratios in some dioceses can soar as high as 1 to 16,000 or 17,000. Moreover, the isolation of many rural communities in the Amazon, which are accessible only by boat or by horseback up steep mountain climbs, sometimes means they see a priest only once every few weeks, perhaps once every six months or so.
Routine sacramental life under such circumstances is obviously impossible. Mass, Confession, and so on, which are the backbone of Catholic life most places, is exceedingly rare, and those communities feel the absence of it. It’s almost like being under a sort of geographical interdict, except for the fact these people have committed no sin to warrant it.
For bishops from these parts of the world, the issue of the viri probati isn’t a question of left vs right, and some of the prelates campaigning for it are otherwise among the deepest theological and political conservatives you’ll ever meet. It’s also not tied to any larger diagnosis of what’s ailing the Church – it’s instead a simple practical matter of wanting to be able to provide the Sacraments to their people on a regular basis.
As a further benefit, the viri probati would also be a way of empowering indigenous communities and ministering to them from within, since the candidates would come from those communities themselves.
Third, this fall’s debate will be just that – a debate. It’s not a foregone conclusion that the viri probati will enjoy majority support, and although a synod is merely advisory and Pope Francis can do whatever he wants, he will certainly be listening.
In the West, more liberal Catholics sometimes press for a married clergy on grounds that celibacy is unnatural”
I’ve been covering synods of bishops for more than 20 years, and I honestly can’t remember very many in which the viri probati didn’t come up – never on the formal agenda before, but always in the air.
At the 2005 Synod on the Eucharist, for example, several bishops from the global south mentioned areas in the developing world, including Latin America and the Pacific Islands, where isolated communities strung out over vast distances often go without priests for long periods of time. Bishop Roberto Camilleri Azzopardo of Comayaga, Honduras, reported having one priest for every 16,000 Catholics in his diocese. Several bishops suggested that the Church might consider the ordination of viri probati.
That effort was turned back by other bishops, mostly from the global north, determined to defend the spiritual and pastoral value of priestly celibacy. In the end, the synod issued a reaffirmation of celibacy. Granted, there won’t be many northern bishops at this synod, but those views still will be heard.
That’s especially likely to be the case given the global village dynamic of Catholicism these days. Even if permission for the viri probati were to be granted only for a highly circumscribed geographical location, it would set a precedent, and it wouldn’t take long for activists elsewhere to begin seeking the same latitude.
While it’s anyone’s guess what might happen during the October 6-27 synod, one thing is for sure: By putting married priests on the agenda, the Vatican has ensured that a much wider audience will be tuning in.
John L Allen Jr. is Editor of Cruxnow.com