by Fr. Anthony Aneke

In the Instrumentum Laboris (working document) for an October Synod of South American bishops on the Amazon, The Vatican formally opened debate on letting married men be ordained as priests in remote parts of the Amazon where priests are so few that Catholics can go weeks or months without attending a Mass. This idea of ordaining older married men of tested faith – Viri Probati as priests in the Amazon’s remote areas where there is a shortage of clergy could seemingly be described as a historical shift which has evoked a lot of reactions. The issue was raised in detail in Pope Francis’ landmark Encyclical on the Environment – Laudato Si – published in 2015. He wrote that the region was confronting such challenges that it “requires structural and personal changes by all human beings, by nations and by the Church”.

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 that a whole synod would go by without it being floated again. Affirming that celibacy is a gift for the Church, it is requested that, for the most remote areas of the region, the possibility of priestly ordination for elderly people is studied,” says the working document preparing the upcoming Synod of Bishops on the Amazon.

The document goes on to say that the elderly people ordained in remote areas should be “preferably  indigenous people, respected and accepted by their community, even if they already have a family that is established and stable, in order to ensure the Sacraments that accompany and sustain the Christian life.”

The shortage of priests in the Amazon region has long been at the center of debate, as has been the possibility of ordaining the viri probati. History’s first Latin American pope has been particularly attentive to the argument in favor of the viri probati in the Amazon or the Pacific Islands, where the mostly indigenous faithful can go months without seeing a priest. As the debate over the ordination of “proven men” in remote areas reignites, it is worth noting that many eastern rite Catholic Churches allow married men to be ordained. In addition, the Catholic Church allows some married Protestant clergy who convert to remain in priestly ministry.

The instrumentum laboris, will set the ground work for the Synod of Bishops on the Amazon, that will take place in Rome Oct. 6-27. Also in the same section where the ordination of married men of proven character is mentioned, “New ministries to respond more effectively to the needs of the Amazonian people.” The document also urges the promotion of indigenous vocations for men and women, in response to the pastoral and sacramental needs.

“Their decisive contribution is in the impulse to an authentic evangelization from the indigenous perspective, according to its uses and customs,” the document says, referring to both men and women. “These are indigenous people who preach to indigenous people from a deep knowledge of their culture and language, capable of communicating the message of the Gospel with the strength and effectiveness that their cultural baggage has.” This, the document says, will allow for a transition from a “Church that visits” to a “Church that remains,” that “accompanies and is present through ministers that arise from their very inhabitants.”

John L. Allen Jr., of CRUZ online, maintains that understanding the nature of the discussion we are likely to see in October, there 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 United States, there are hundreds of former Episcopalians, Methodists, Anglicans, Lutherans and others who were married in their original denominations and permitted to remain married as Catholic priests.

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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 U.S. or Western Europe, because it is 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. 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 U.S. is priest-rich compared to everywhere other than Western Europe. In the U.S. there’s one priest for every 1,300 baptized 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 v. 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. (CRUX online…taking the Catholic Pulse)

However, among the reactions evoked by this recent move of the Vatican is the question of the essence of celibacy which has been a mainstay in Catholic debates given that it is a discipline, not a doctrine, and therefore can change, though it is highly unlikely. With Amazon synod in perspective, some advocates are of the position that the ‘law of celibacy’ is on the verge of collapsing. Therefore, might be relaxed completely in no distant time. Proponents of a relaxation of the rule say more men would consider a vocation to the priesthood if they could marry, a surefire fix to the decline in priests globally.

Opponents say relaxing the celibacy rule for the Amazon will certainly fuel calls for it to be relaxed elsewhere. According to this position, if celibacy is suspended in the Amazon, why not in Germany, which ordained just 58 men last year? Or Africa, where countless priests simply ignore the prohibition on marriage? The Zambian ex-archbishop Emmanuel Milingo, who was defrocked in 2009 for getting hitched in a Moonie ceremony, claims to be the spokesman of numerous clerics who are involved in such unions. Why not reconcile them? The proponents of this position went further to assert that the Church could always use more priests. And so for them, if  “Amazon project”  is purely a question of expedience, there’s no reason to keep the celibacy laws at all. Therefore, “Once you’ve opened it for remote communities like Amazon, you’ve opened the possibility for everybody.”- this might lead to the end of clerical celibacy which would disrupt the fabric of the Church.

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Frankly, both sides fear that The Amazon synod could become the most controversial convocation of prelates since Vatican II. Rome is still dealing with the fallout from the family synods, which critics called a stalking horse for liberalizing Church teaching on marriage.

The Stand

It is very necessary to point out that Pope Francis has maintained in the light of this recent development that the Amazon Synod coming up on October is not about the visitation or possible relaxation of the discipline of celibacy as a core requirement of the Catholic Priesthood. Celibacy, he maintained, as the Church teaches, is a canonical abstinence from marriage, freely chosen, for the obligation of dedicating one’s life to God entirely. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states:

“All the ordained ministers of the Latin Church, with the exception of permanent deacons, are normally chosen from among men of faith who live a celibate life and who intend to remain celibate “for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.” Called to consecrate themselves with undivided heart to the Lord and to “the affairs of the Lord”, they give themselves entirely to God and to men. Celibacy is a sign of this new life to the service of which the Church’s minister is consecrated; accepted with joyous heart celibacy radiantly proclaims the Reign of God.

In the Eastern Churches a different discipline has been in force for many centuries: while bishops are chosen solely from among celibates, married men can be ordained as deacons and priests. This practice has long been considered legitimate; these priests exercise a fruitful ministry within their communities. Moreover, priestly celibacy is held in great honor in the Eastern Churches and many priests have freely chosen it for the sake of the Kingdom of God. In the East as in the West a man who has already received the sacrament of Holy Orders can no longer marry.” (CCC 1571-1580)

Celibacy is represented in the Catholic Church as having apostolic authority. Theologically, the Church desires to imitate the life of Jesus with regard to chastity and the sacrifice of married life for the “sake of the Kingdom” (Luke 18:28–30, Matthew 19:27–30; Mark 10:20–21), and to follow the example of Jesus Christ in being “married” to the Church, viewed by Catholicism and many Christian traditions as the “Bride of Christ”. Also of importance are the teachings of St. Paul that chastity is the superior state of life, and his desire expressed in I Corinthians 7:7–8, “I would that all men were even as myself [celibate]—but every one has his proper gift from God; one after this manner, and another after that.

There will always be a lacuna in discussions on Priestly celibacy when people continually have a mindset that celibacy is an imposition of the Church. They would clearly state that the Church imposed celibacy on her priests. Here, it is necessary to point out that every institution has its own values and principles. The Church as an institution does not impose any on these values and principles on anybody. In the discussion of what celibacy means for the Church, the phrase “freely chosen in order to dedicate one’s life to God” should be highlighted. That is to say, Priestly celibacy is a choice and not an imposition on candidate to the Catholic Priesthood. Hence, years of formation and training should be seen as a process of discernment and conviction in making a desired free choice with full knowledge and consent of the will. No one is coerced into the Catholic Priesthood.

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To buttress this further, the history of the Church is replete with people who have left the Catholic Priesthood to marital life. This phenomenon is not entirely new to us in recent times. Has the Church used a sledge hammer on them? Has the Church as a mother excommunicated them? No.

Priestly celibacy will be understood and appreciated much better when it is considered not just as a rule or discipline but as a gift from God but above all as a mystery. Scott Hahn described this much better. For Scott, celibacy is always a “sign of contradiction” to a world given to disordered sensuality, that world finds no satisfaction in indulging its sensuality, but short of divine revelation people tend to arrive at that realization only late in life after many mistakes and much pain. Many people indulge their sensuality to avoid loneliness, and they end up lonely anyway – a loneliness that is directly attributable to their self-indulgent lifestyle.

I share Scott’s conviction that celibacy is a mystery, but it is not as enigmatic or strange as its critics make it out to be. The Israelite priests observed it during their terms of service. Even today, secular society requires at least temporary celibacy of men who are doing the most important work. Soldiers go off to war, sometimes for years at a time, and we expect them to be faith to their wives. Doctors must sometimes be separated from their spouses during part of their training; again, we expect them to be faithful. Even utility workers in some states are bound by law to leave home and family in times of emergency.

It is good to point out that sexual abstinence is a normal part of life for normal people. Married couples must observe it for several weeks after childbirth. In cases of illness, many couples must abstain for longer stretches and even many years. There is, as the Preacher said, “a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing” (Eccl 3:5)

The Church is not unaware of the fact that the sex drive is certainly a powerful force in human life, but it is not the totality of human life. It can seem to overwhelm us at times, but those times pass. Hours are long but life is short; and what makes a life satisfying in the end is not sexual activity, but fidelity to God’s will. For men, what makes life satisfying is fatherhood; and that is not primarily biological but theological. Every generation must learn this lesson anew and teach it to an uncomprehending world. The Priest teaches as he fathers, by his joyful celibate life.

Therefore, with this in mind, whatever be the proceedings of the Amazon Synod in October this year, it should not evoke any fear or anxiety that it could open up a vista of deliberation and dialogue on the possibility of relaxing the age-long Catholic tradition of Priestly Celibacy rather it should be viewed from the perspective of deliberation of prospective new ways in dealing with an emerging and recent concerns of the Church to enhance effective evangelization.




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