As we have reported before, the topic of married priests seems to be on the agenda of Pope Francis. Not only did Sandro Magister report on this matter right after the second Synod on the Family last year, but also Bishop Erwin Kräutler of Brazil declared, after his private audience with Pope Francis in 2014, that the pope had encouraged him to further explore this matter and to be “courageous” in doing so. This month of September has seen again two more articles announcing that Pope Francis intends to foster the idea and practice of married priests: one having been written by Marco Tosatti; the other by Sandro Magister.
Tosatti, the Italian Vatican specialist, reported on 7 September on some initiatives recently taken by the 82-year-old Cardinal Claudio Hummes, the Prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy. Tosatti reports that there is in the air an upcoming local Synod of the dioceses of the Amazon which might discuss the matter of “transforming permanent deacons into ‘viri probati‘” — which Tosatti defines as “a kind of lay administrator of the Sacraments as a substitute for priests.” However, says the Italian journalist, this topic of the viri probati could easily also be turned into a discussion about the slackening of the requirement of priestly celibacy in the Latin Rite.
As Tosatti shows, Hummes likes to say that he speaks in the name of the pope. At one recent conference in Brazil, organized by Bishop João Bosco of Osasco, Hummes gave a speech and responded, as follows, to the proposed idea of inviting more priests from other countries to help the Amazon region, given its currently reported shortage of priests, according to Marco Tosatti:
Hummes said: no, no, the pope does not want this; since the [Second Vatican] Council, there should not be any missionaries any more, each people has to evangelize itself alone. There should be only indigenous clergy, priests and bishops – also without academic formation.
Hummes then continued to say that, in former times, it was “a taboo to speak about married priests,” but now the pope invites the bishops to “speak among themselves,” and he counsels them “to ordain a great number of permanent deacons.” According to Tosatti’s sources, the objective of the pope is to “take the road to the ordination of married laymen in order to supply the shortage of priests.” With the encouragement of the pope, Hummes has visited many of the Amazon dioceses in order to prepare such a local Amazon regional synod which would deal with these matters in greater detail. The synod might very soon take place.
In this context, another Italian article – this time by Sandro Magister – is of great importance. On 21 September, he reports about Cardinal Hummes’ recent private audience with Pope Francis. As Magister says, Hummes is today the president both of the Brazilian bishops’ conference’s commission for the Amazon; and of the Pan-Amazonian Network that joins together 25 cardinals and bishops of the surrounding countryside, in addition to indigenous representatives of different local ethnicities.
Magister confirms that this above-mentioned Amazon synod is “effectively in an advanced phase of preparation.” He continues:
Not only that. There is renewed vigor behind the rumor that Jorge Mario Bergoglio wants to assign to the next worldwide synod of bishops, scheduled for 2018, precisely the question of ordained ministers, bishops, priests, deacons, including the ordination of married men.
Magister points out that, interestingly, not long before Hummes visit with the pope, a well-informed source had already published in detail in Italy the three sub-themes of the next Synod of Bishops on “the ordained ministry in the Church,” to include “the possibility of a female diaconate.”
It seems now that “remarried” divorcees are indeed more likely to be admitted to the Sacraments, especially Holy Communion, the next field of purported reform will be the priesthood. Thus we all should fittingly prepare ourselves for the next doctrinal and disciplinary battle.
Cardinal Walter Brandmüller, one of the most outspoken defenders of the indissolubility of marriage, has already taken up this next challenge. He has just published an article which largely stems from a foreword that he had written a few years ago for a book in defense of priestly celibacy. Since he is a Church historian – and the former President of the Pontifical Committee for Historical Sciences – he therefore probably has the best reputation and qualification to do so.
In a recent article, I myself have translated and presented the main arguments of his foreword to that 2011 book on celibacy, entitled Reizthema Zölibat: Pressestimmen (The Provocative Topic of Celibacy: Press Commentaries), which was published by the German publishing house fe-medienverlag. Therein the German cardinal makes it clear that celibacy stems right from Holy Scripture and the Apostolic Tradition, and that it has been always upheld by the Catholic Church, even if there were at times grave violations of this priestly celibacy. In the conclusion of his introductory essay, Cardinal Brandmüller also makes it clear that priestly celibacy is part of the apostolic patrimony that cannot be given up for any reason. He shows that one needs to remind Catholics “of the binding character of the apostolic traditions” and continues, as follows: “It might be helpful in this context to raise the question as to whether it would be possible to abolish – with the help of a Council – the celebration of Sunday which, by the way, has much less of a Biblical foundation than celibacy.”
Cardinal Brandmüller concludes his well-researched defense of priestly celibacy with some beautiful words:
Furthermore, celibacy – as well as virginity – chosen for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven will always be a stumbling block for those with only a secular understanding of life. Jesus Himself had already spoken on this matter, when he said: ‘He who is able to receive it, let him receive it.’
The 87-year-old cardinal is now even more to be praised for his courage and his purposive stamina. One wonders: who else will come to the aid of one of the essential parts of the Church’s Faith, Life and Practice? What will be left if the priesthood – the pillar of the Catholic Church – comes to be further attenuated and even hollowed out?