By Francis X. Rocca, Wall Street Journal, February 12, 2020
Pope Francis has decided against relaxing rules on celibacy for Roman Catholic priests, declining a proposal from bishops that he allow married men to become priests in Latin America’s Amazon region to tackle a shortage of clergy there, the Vatican said Wednesday.
The pope, “after praying and reflecting, has decided to respond not by foreseeing changes or further possibilities of exceptions (to priestly celibacy) from those already provided for,” Andrea Tornielli, editorial director of the Vatican’s communications office, said.
The decision is a surprise and a setback for progressive bishops who have advocated for married priests to relieve a clergy shortage in various parts of the world. It is likely to cheer conservatives, including retired Pope Benedict XVI, who have warned that breaking the millennium-old tradition of clerical celibacy would undermine the church’s identity.
Pope Francis himself didn’t mention the question of priestly celibacy in his own response, also published Wednesday, to a set of recommendations from Catholic bishops on the church’s challenges in the Amazon region. The bishops’ most prominent and controversial recommendation was for the ordination of married men as priests.
The Celibacy Question
Pope Francis decided not to break with Roman Catholic tradition by allowingmarried priests.
The pope did address another contentious issue raised by the bishops: the ordination of women as deacons. The pope discouraged hopes that he would allow the practice.
The papal document, “Querida Amazon” (“Beloved Amazon”), is a response to a three-week long meeting of bishops at the Vatican last October to discuss the Amazon region. Like the meeting, the pope’s response, known as an apostolic exhortation, deals extensively with environmental problems and the plight of indigenous peoples, placing much of the blame for both on rapacious corporations and corrupt politicians.
The October meeting was nevertheless dominated by discussion of the possibility of ordaining local married men as priests, as a special measure to relieve a shortage of clergy in the region. The most remote communities in the sparsely populated Amazon Basin can go many months without a visit from a priest. Only priests can celebrate Mass and hear confessions, essential elements of Catholic life.
Had the pope taken up the bishops’ recommendation, it would have been the first time in almost a thousand years that the Roman Catholic Church routinely ordained married men as priests. The church has ordained as priests, on a case-by-case basis, a small number of married former Protestant ministers who have converted to Catholicism. The relatively small Eastern Catholic Churches, which follow the pope but observe Orthodox practices, have married priests.
Hopes for a change in the Amazon had heartened advocates for married priests in other parts of the world, including Germany, where the question is on the agenda for a two-year series of meetings of Catholic bishops and laity that began last month.
Pope Francis had previously said that “celibacy is a gift for the church,” but that exceptions might be possible in sparsely populated regions such as islands in the Pacific.
In Wednesday’s document, he mentions other ways to relieve the priest shortage in the Amazon, including praying for more vocations and encouraging more missionaries to serve in the region. “In some countries of the Amazon Basin, more missionaries go to Europe or the United States than remain to assist their own,” the pope writes.
Advocates for married priests could take some hope from the lack of an explicit rejection.
“This topic has been discussed for a long time and may continue to be discussed in the future,” the Vatican’s Mr. Tornielli said, because Catholic doctrine about the priesthood doesn’t hold the celibacy requirement as absolute.
The bishops’ meeting last fall also recommended further study of the question of ordaining women as deacons, or clergy who can celebrate baptisms, marriages and funerals. Pope Francis has said the “door is closed” to ordaining women as priests, but hasn’t ruled out women deacons. Last October, he said that a scholarly panel he had established to study the topic would continue its work.
But in Wednesday’s exhortation, the pope discouraged the idea of women’s ordination, dismissing the suggestion that it would give women a “greater status and participation in the church” and stating that women in the Amazon should be given roles that “do not entail Holy Orders” but allow them to serve “in a way that reflects their womanhood.”
Wednesday’s document therefore deals a double blow to the pope’s progressive supporters. The German bishops, the church’s liberal vanguard, are also considering a proposal for women deacons.
The pope appeared to allude to the most colorful controversy of last October’s Vatican meeting: the presence at several events of wood statues portraying a naked pregnant woman. Some critics denounced the objects as “pagan idols,” and protesters stole several of the statues and threw them into the Tiber river.
“Let us not be quick to describe as superstition or paganism certain religious practices that arise spontaneously from the life of the peoples,” Pope Francis writes in the new exhortation. “It is possible to take up an indigenous symbol in some way, without necessarily considering it as idolatry.”
This article first appeared HERE.