francis-chrismFurther to my earlier article Is Marriage for Catholic Clergy the Answer?, it is tempting to see the glimmer of reform as another sign of the “Francis effect”, with the former Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio opening doors that had hitherto been locked in the area of married clergy. But a word of caution. Among those friends in Argentina who know him best, he is almost universally described as a conservative. “He loves his celibacy,” his former press spokesman Father Guillermo Marco told me.

Yet this is not an either/or choice.  There can still be a place for a celibate priesthood as well as married priests, as happens, for example, in the Orthodox branch of Christianity, where the upper echelons of bishops are reserved for those without wives. The problem that Catholicism is saddled with is that it lumps together two vocations – to the priesthood and to celibacy, and so forces many young men who feel called to serve God at the altar effectively to deny their sexuality. Yes, there are successful celibates, who channel that energy into the service of others, but they are few and far between.  And the dreadful result of a repressed sexuality is only plain to be seen in the recent paedophile and gay scandals among priests worldwide.  This solution (ordained by God from the beginning), seems to be staring at us in the face.

Pope Francis has indicated he is open to the possibility of allowing married priests, but as The Tablet reports this week, he says it is up to individual bishops’ conferences to reach a consensus on the issue first and then petition Rome.  Francis made these startling comments to Bishop Erwin Kräutler, a visiting Austrian bishop who works deep in the Amazonian rainforest and has 300 deacons and only 27 priests for Brazil’s largest diocese, Xingu, where many Catholics can only receive the Eucharist a couple of times a year.

A bishop who met with Pope Francis in a rare private audience on 4 April has said in an interview that the two men discussed the issue of the ordination of “proven” married men – viri probati – in a serious and positive way.  “To confront the issue of the shortage of priests, some … have put forward the request to ordain married faithful of proven faith and virtue, the so-called viri probati,” he said. Cardinal Scola, who read his speech in Latin in the presence of Pope Benedict, did not say which bishops from which countries had suggested discussing the ordination of older married men.

Bishop Erwin Kräutler, Bishop of Xingu in the Brazilian rainforest, spoke to the Pope about Francis’ forthcoming encyclical on the environment, and the treatment of indigenous peoples but the desperate shortage of priests in the bishop’s huge diocese came up in the conversation. According to an interview the Austrian-born bishop gave to the daily Salzburger Nachrichten on 5 April, the Pope was open-minded about finding solutions to the problem, saying that bishops’ conferences could have a decisive role. In sum, Pope Francis has said that married men could be ordained – if worlds bishops agree.

Permission to ordain married men should be widened, according to three bishops of England and Wales who have spoken out following reports that Pope Francis would like episcopal conferences to put forward suggestions for reform.

Last week The Tablet reported that the Pope had relayed to an Austrian bishop serving in Brazil that “regional and national” hierarchies should seek a consensus on the matter and then go to Rome.

The news was welcomed by the outgoing Bishop of Brentwood, Thomas McMahon, whose diocese contains 20 former Anglican priests, a large number of whom are married. Similarly, the Bishop of Hexham and Newcastle, Seamus Cunningham, said ordaining viri probati – married men of proven character – could relieve problems caused by a shortage of clergy while the Bishop of Menevia, Tom Burns, argued that a married priesthood would be a witness to marriage and family life.

The Church’s insistence on a celibate priesthood is starving the vast majority of Catholics today. Jesus’ imperative of “Feed my Lambs, feed my sheep” is being frustrated for the sake of the discipline of a celibate clergy.  There are priests like myself who when leaving the priesthood to marry went through the long and painful process of applying for dispensation from clerical celibacy. Others refused to put themselves through the ignominy of the process and simply married in a register office. The terms of the dispensation stipulate that we cannot even serve the Church by preaching, distribute Communion, teach in higher education or hold any kind of pastoral office, and we have to keep away from places where we were known as priests. Some priests would consider returning to active service if their rescript of dispensation from clerical celibacy were rescinded.

The Catholic Church in England and Wales, via the establishment of the Ordinariate, has proved that a married Catholic priesthood is not only possible and acceptable to the vast majority of Catholics but brings with it an additional dimension to the priesthood. Now that Pope Francis appears to be giving greater authority to bishops’ conferences they need to be brave in finding a solution, in consultation with their dioceses, to the shortage of priests and offering Pope Francis and the Church a way forward. It has been staring them in the face and requires courage and belief that a married priesthood working alongside celibate priests will not bring the Church to its knees but could enrich it.

The Archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin, has backed the Pope’s call for open and immediate discussion on married priests.  Dr Martin told an Easter service at Dublin’s Pro-Cathedral that he is open to dialogue on married men in the priesthood.  His comments, reported by the Irish Independent, come after Pope Francis signaled the need for the Catholic Church to discuss the issue.  Celebrating his tenth anniversary as Dublin’s archbishop, Dr Martin said ordaining women into the church to make up for the shortage of priests was ‘not on the table at the moment.’ The report says Dr Martin acknowledged the shortage of priests will spark fresh debate on allowing Catholic priests to be married.

After all, Fr. John Shuster (an ex-cleric), states in his interesting article titled “39 Popes were married” that in the early church priests and bishops were always married right through the first 1200 years of the Church’s existence. Celibacy existed in the first century among hermits and monks, but it was considered an optional, alternative lifestyle. Medieval politics brought about the discipline of mandatory celibacy for priests.  Pope John Paul II recognized this in 1993 when he said publicly that celibacy is not essential to the priesthood (Time Magazine, July 1993). This pronouncement offers great promise toward resolving the problem of the shortage of celibate priests.

If these much needed reforms come through, then only God is to be praised for shaking up this vital element within the Church.

[This article is shared by the author in all humility and prayer that what is good and needed may be worked out by the Holy Spirit in these days]

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