Considering the upcoming 2018 Youth Synod, as well as the 2019 Pan-Amazonian Synod, we may now learn more from two Vatican specialists who predict that the real theme of these synods will be priestly celibacy, and its step-by-step process of attenuation. The two journalists – Edward Pentin and Julius Müller-Meiningen – have quite different backgrounds, but they come to the same well-reasoned conclusion.
Let us start with the German journalist first. Müller-Meiningen, writing for the German newspaper Die Zeit in its 8 March religion section Christ&Welt, speaks about the fifth anniversary of Francis’ papacy and about how he tries to change the Church. As the German journalist says, Francis chooses to change the Church, not with the help of a shock-and-awe method, but, rather, in a slow process, by “starting processes” and letting the Church herself make the steps, thereby supposedly “holding the Church together.” Pope Francis has introduced into the Church “an element with revolutionary potential,” whereby the pope seemingly does not make decisions “top down,” but, rather, lets the Church herself decide. This, says Müller-Meiningen, becomes clear when looking at the moral teaching of the pope. First, there is the new approach to the “remarried” divorcee question, then, says the journalist, there is “the attack on celibacy.” Describing the pope as a “shrewd tactician” who abolishes “absolute moral norms,” and allowing now for a laxening of doctrine, Müller-Meiningen says that the pope also employed in the case of marriage, “the trick” to have the bishops on the family synods present to him on a “silver plate” the result of allowing Holy Communion for the “remarried.”
Here, Müller-Meiningen says some important words: “Thus, the course for the future was set.” This new principle, that a norm does not need to be applied any more to each individual case, can now be applied to the homosexual couples, to contraception, as well as to female priests,as the journalist explains. He describes “the attack on celibacy” as the “dominant theme of the second part of this papacy.” Here, the journalist refers first to the Die Zeit interview in which Pope Francis, in 2017, had already opened up to the possibility of ordaining married, but “proven,” men (“viri probati”).
But more than that; according to the well-informed Müller-Meiningen, “the preparations for it are not at all vague, but, rather, follow a concrete timetable. As he says, there are already questionnaires being sent out throughout the world in preparation of the upcoming Youth Synod which will also discuss the matter of vocations. “Among these questions is also the question whether one has to be married or celibate for the priestly service.” The journalist continues, saying that the “main debate could then take place at the Pan-Amazonian Synod to be conducted in the Vatican.” The remote Amazon region “could turn into an experimental region for the whole Church, explains Müller-Meiningen, since that region currently has very few priests.
In addition to this description of the upcoming agenda, the German journalist also gives other hints why one can expect this topic to come up. First, he refers to the recent comments by Cardinal Beniamino Stella, Prefect of the Congregtion for the Clergy, indicating a possible opening toward the broader recruitment and admittance of married priests. Second, he mentions the important role of Cardinal Cláudio Hummes who made, already in 2016, some critical remarks on priestly celibacy. As Müller-Meiningen points out, it is that same cardinal who helped Francis find his papal name (“Francis”) and stood next to him on the loggia of St. Peter’s at the day of Bergoglio’s election; he is also now the President of Repam, the Amazon network of the Brazilian Bishops’ Conference, and himself the main inspiration of the upcoming Pan-Amazonian Synod.
Our second source, Edward Pentin, argues in a way similar to Müller-Meiningen. In an 8 March article for the National Catholic Register, he asks: “Will Pan-Amazonian Synod Result in End to Clerical Celibacy?” He reports that the Vatican has now announced the members of the upcoming pre-synodal council which is to prepare the Pan-Amazonian Synod itself. He says:
Also announced was the theme of the October 2019 synod: Amazonia: new pathways for the Church and for an integral ecology.
Of particular, though not unexpected, interest are the appointments of Cardinal Claudio Hummes and retired Bishop Erwin Kräutler to the council. Both have advocated a change in discipline to allow married clergy in the Latin rite, and the Pan Amazonian synod is expected to provide a forum to at least discuss the matter.
Bishop Kräutler, as we have ourselves repeatedly reported, is a strong promoter of married priests. According to an October 2017 report, this bishop is said to have already prepared a document for the pope to sign. Kräutler himself has also said that the pope has encouraged him to make “bold proposals” with regard to the question of the shortage of priests. Important to note, in this context, is that, according to Pentin, Pope Francis has wanted to introduce a synod on this issue, but it was voted down by the “the majority of members on the ordinary council of the Synod of Bishops, the body charged with drawing up the theme.”
One of the ways to approach a laxening of clerical celibacy might be, according to Pentin, the allowance to be given to widowed deacons to remarry. So far, married deacons can not remarry, once their wives had died. The “status of unmarried and widowed deacons” was a topic at one of the C9 (Council of Nine Cardinals) meeting in June of 2016.
Earlier in his papacy, in 2014, Pope Francis also made the move to allow Eastern-Catholic bishops in the U.S. and in Canada to ordain married men, something that had been forbidden for the last 85 years. This decision might also be seen in light of the upcoming discussions about celibacy. As a National Catholic Register report says:
According to the decree, Eastern-Catholic bishops all over the world may “ordain the Eastern-married candidates who come from their jurisdiction.” It adds they have the “obligation to inform beforehand” the local Latin-rite bishop in writing “in order to have his opinion regarding any useful information.”
The article explicitly says that, formerly, these ordinations in the West – outside of the Eastern Catholic patriarchs – were suppressed, because the Latin bishops in North American “believed Eastern married clergy posed a ‘grave scandal’ to their faithful” and would thus confuse them. According to a 2014 Los Angeles Times report, entitled: “Number of Married Priests May Grow,” the original 1929 decree forbade married priests in North America: “In 1929 the Vatican promulgated a decree saying that Greek Catholic priests ‘who wish to go to the United States of North America and stay there, must be celibates.’” The article also adds the following words: “As Francis recently acknowledged, celibacy for Latin Rite priests is ‘not a dogma of faith.’ Therefore, he said, ‘the door is always open’ to change.”
As an additional important piece of news, there now comes to us a report about some words recently spoken by the pope himself to rectors of German-speaking seminaries – which of course are known for their lack of seminarians. He stressed on 8 March that “the vocations, we cannot create” and added:
As human persons and as priests we trust in the heritage of our experiences. At the same time, however, we must recognize that [there] are springing up new and different cultural forms that do not fit in the models known to us. We must strip ourselves of some habits we are attached to, and work with what is still unknown.
In the following weeks, we shall present some additional articles dealing with this matter of priestly celibacy in a more fundamental way in order to prepare ourselves better for the upcoming discussions.