News Focus

Are married priests top of the agenda?

Rumours claim that Pope Francis wants a synod on married priests (CNS)

Last year, the National Catholic Register reported that Pope Francis wanted a 2018 synod on married priests – only for the proposal to be voted out by the synod council.

But according to a bishop who knows Pope Francis better than most, it appears that a different meeting of bishops may now focus on the proposal: October 2019’s synod for the Pan-Amazon region, which the Pope announced earlier this month.

Bishop Erwin Kräutler, who led the Diocese of Xingu, in Brazil, from 1981 to 2015, is likely to have a good grasp of Francis’s intentions for the synod. In 2014, the bishop spoke to Francis about ordaining married men. In 2015, they revisited the subject, and the Pope invited “bold, daring proposals”.

In a new interview with kath.net, Bishop Kräutler said that he thinks the synod might look at “the proposal of the emeritus bishop Fritz Lobinger”. Bishop Lobinger has suggested that local “elders”, or viri probati – married men of good reputation – might be ordained to celebrate Mass and the sacraments. In this vision, there would be “two different forms of priesthood”: the viri probati would not receive seminary education, could marry, and would be “as distinct as possible” from priests. The Pope made reference to the notion of viri probati earlier this year, inviting the Church to “reflect” on the matter.

Bishop Lobinger goes further: he has written that “Because the majority of proven local leaders are women, it is unavoidable that the question of their inclusion among ordained elders will arise, though present Church law does not permit it.”

Bishop Kräutler is himself a supporter of women priests. He told Die Presse in 2014 that, while Pope Francis has said that the door to women’s ordination is closed, that means the door could be opened – and that he, Bishop Kräutler, believes it ought to be.

In 1994, Pope St John Paul II ruled that the Church’s teaching against women’s ordination was definitive, saying that it was “a matter of great importance … which pertains to the Church’s divine constitution itself”, He invoked his full authority as the successor of Peter to declare “that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women”. But ideas once unthinkable are now being freely thrown around.

Another heavyweight figure in the Pan-Amazon synod will be Brazilian Cardinal Claudio Hummes, one of the Pope’s closest associates in the College of Cardinals, who has often raised the topic of married priests.

Last December, theologian Leonardo Boff said that Cardinal Hummes had talked to Pope Francis about priests who had left their ministry to get married. Boff claimed that “The Brazilian bishops, especially the Pope’s close friend Cardinal Claudio Hummes, have expressly requested Pope Francis to enable married priests in Brazil to return to their pastoral ministry.”

Boff said that the Pope wanted to fulfil this request, as an experiment “for the moment confined to Brazil”.

Like Bishops Kräutler and Lobinger, Boff and Cardinal Hummes have spoken about further reforms beyond ordaining married men.

Cardinal Hummes said in a 2014 interview with Brazilian newspaper Zero Hora that Jesus had not ordained any women, but that “We do not know the reasons.” He added that the Church might revisit the matter if it found “reasons” to do so. (Cardinal Hummes said in the same interview that he “did not know” whether Jesus would have supported gay marriage.)

Boff, who has claimed that he helped the Pope to write his environmental encyclical Laudato Si’, was censured by Pope John Paul II and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger on the grounds that some of his writings “endanger the sound doctrine of the faith”.

He has argued that the Church “simply may not…maintain its traditional prohibitions” on women priests, and has quoted a fellow theologian as saying that the priesthood itself must be changed: “Only when it has been transformed from within, and reconstituted in relation to the community as a whole, might it become something transferable to women.”

Clerical celibacy is – at least to some extent – a matter of discipline rather than doctrine: there are already some married clergy in the Eastern Catholic Churches, the ordinariate and elsewhere. But many of those now pushing for it have an even more ambitious programme in mind.

So while the 2019 Pan-Amazon synod may be a local affair, its implications will make it far more than that.