Good News: there will be married priests
On July 17, 2019, the Vatican released a document recommending that the Pan-Amazonic Synod to be celebrated in Rome in October, to consider the ordination as priests of elderly and respected married men, especially the indigenous, in remote regions of the Amazon. Pope Francis does not want a Church that visits, but a Church that stays. This is an old aspiration which was proposed by the National Conference of Bishops of Brazil (CNBB) to Pope John Paul II in the 1980s. John Paul II took the suggestion as a provocation, and therefore maintained something of a distance from the CNBB.
Reliable ecclesiastic sources offer the following data: from 1964 to 2004, 70,000 priests left the Church’s ministry. In Brazil 7,000 of 18,000 priests also left. The Ecclesial Base Communities, CEBs, and the lay ministries fill in for the lack of priests. Why not welcome priests who are already married and let them resume their ministry, or ordain married men?
This suggestion of Pope Francis will surely be accepted by the Pan-Amazonic Synod. It also mentions an “official ministry for women”, but we do not know yet what it will entail. In the end, we finally will have married priests, an old desideratum of many churches.
The celibacy question has been divisive from the start of Christianity. Two tendencies appeared: one that allowed married priests and another that opted for celibate priests. It was clear to everyone that celibacy is not a dogma of faith but an ecclesiastic discipline, a characteristic of the Western Church. All the other Catholic Churches (the Orthodox, Syriac, Melkite, Ethiopic, etc.), and other Christian Churches do not follow that discipline. As a discipline, it can be abolished. In the end, it depends on the decision of the Pope.
Jesus speaks of three types of celibates, that are called eunuchs or castrated (eunoûxoi in Greek). He says of them: “there are some eunuchs who make themselves so for the love of the Kingdom of heaven; he who may understand let him do it” (Matthew 19,12). He recognizes that “not everyone is capable of understanding this, but only those to whom it has been given” (Matthew 19,11). Curiously, in the First Epistle to Timothy it says that “the bishop be husband of only one woman… he must know how to govern well his house and educate the children in obedience and chastity” (1 Timothy 3, 2-4).
Summarizing the long and twisted history of celibacy, it can be seen that initially it did not exist as law, and if there was such a law, it was not well observed. Popes Adrian II (867-872) and Sergio III (904-911) were married. Between the X and XIII centuries, historians say that it was common for a priest to have a compañera. That was also common in colonial Brazil. In the past, rural priests begat children and educated them to be sub deacons, deacons and priests, because there were no institutions to prepare them.
The fact that some Popes did not observe celibacy deserves an aside. There was an epoch, between 900 and 1110, of great moral decadence, called “the pornocratic era”. Benedict IX (1033-1045) was consecrated Pope when he was 12 years old, already “full of vices”. Pope John XII (955-964), consecrated at 18 years old, indulged in orgies and adulteries. Renaissance Popes such as Paul III, Alexander VI, with several children, and Leo X who married his children with pomp in the Vatican, were infamous, (see Daniel Rops, History of the Church of Christ (La historia de la Iglesia de Cristo, II, Porto 1960, p.617ss). Finally, when the Council of Trent was celebrated, (1545 and 1563) it made obligatory the law of celibacy for all who ascended to the priestly order. And it has remained that way until the present. Seminaries were created where the candidates were prepared for the priesthood from a very early age, with an apologetic perspective to confront the Protestant Reformation and later on, to deal with the heresies and the”modern errors”.
As in all the other Churches, we favor having married as well as celibate priests, not as a mandatory law or as a precondition for the ministry, but as an option. Celibacy is a charisma, a gift of the Spirit to the one who can live it without much sacrifice. Jesus understood it well: celibacy is a “castration”, with a void replacing the sensitivity and intimacy between man and woman. But that renunciation is assumed with love for the Kingdom of God, to serve the others, especially the poorest. Consequently, that absence is compensated by a superabundance of love. To that end, an intimate encounter with Christ is needed, a cultivation of spirituality, prayer and self control. Realistically, as the Master observes: “not all are capable of understanding that” (Matthew 19,11). There are those who understand it. They joyfully live their option for celibacy, without hardening themselves, maintaining the essential joy and tenderness, so encouraged by Pope Francis. How good it would be if by their sides, there were also married priests.
Now we finally will be able to enjoy the fact of also having married men, well integrated with their families, who could be priests and share the religious life of the faithful. It will be a gift for them and for the Catholic communities.
Leonardo Boff Eco-Theologian-Philosopher.Earthcharter Commission
Free translation from the Spanish sent by
Melina Alfaro, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Done at REFUGIO DEL RIO GRANDE, Texas, EE.UU.
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