Pope Francis may consider ending the celibacy of the parish clergy, at least if local bishops want him to. That much seems clear from the confused reports and counter-reports emerging in advance of a conference of Amazonian Catholic bishops in Brazil.
This is a special case of a more general problem affecting the church worldwide. There are far fewer men coming forward for ordination than it needs. In France the average age of the clergy is over 60; in Ireland Maynooth seminary, built to train 500 priests a year, this year had only six new entrants.
Ending the celibacy of the parish clergy is something any pope could do with a stroke of the pen. It wouldn’t require a change in doctrine. And in some limited cases, it has already been ended in the west. Former Anglican priests in Britain and the US have become married Catholic priests; members of the eastern rite Catholic churches serving Ukrainian immigrants in the US have married clergy, just as they do in their homeland. But bishops all around the world are keen for this disruptive pattern not to spread. The Anglican experiment was established in the teeth of resistance from the English Catholic hierarchy, and is clearly going to die out within a generation, since no new married men are to be ordained.
The bishops’ hostility is easy to understand. A married clergy would break the economic and cultural basis of the church in the west. Parishioners would have to pay for the priest’s family, who would need a house as well as an income; the priest would belong to his family as well his flock; there would be divorces, as there have already been in the US. Clergy who had already signed up for a celibate life would be full of resentment at others not having to make the same sacrifice. Yet the present situation looks increasingly unsustainable.
What makes the Brazilian case unique is that the pressure for a married clergy appears to be coming from the local bishops. In 1970 92% of Brazilians identified as Catholics; by 2010 that figure had dropped to 65%. Almost all the loss was accounted for by the rise of Pentecostal churches, which allow married leaders and offer far more public roles to women, along with a theatrical form of Christianity.
There are still 140 million Catholics in Brazil today, but only 18,000 priests to serve them. In the Amazon regions, the problem is most acute. Efforts to import priests from elsewhere in the country have largely failed, because of cultural differences. Elsewhere in the world, especially the US and western Europe, a shortage of home-grown priests has been patched over by importing them from the developing world. But that works only in countries with a language, such as English or Spanish, that is spoken globally. That’s not the case for Brazil’s Portuguese speakers.
One thing is absolutely clear. If this change is made, it will not be imposed by Rome, and it will not be global. Pope Francis is already facing furious resistance to his efforts to soften church attitudes to remarried divorcees. The Anglican example shows how bishops otherwise regarded as liberal can reject a married clergy when they feel it is imposed on them.
A suggestion that the next worldwide gathering of bishops in Rome discuss celibacy has been voted down by the preparatory group. But if the Brazilians decide they want it, and possibly even more radical measures – such as a greater formal role for women in the parishes – Pope Francis won’t stand in their way.
• Andrew Brown is a Guardian columnist
This article from the U.K. ‘Guardian’ website, published on 8th November 2017 by its columnist Andrew Brown, draws attention to the fact that the Roman Catholic Church in Brazil is currently understaffed by its celibate clergy. Consequently, some Brazilian Bishops may have requested Pope Francis to offer special dispensation to ordain married men in areas where the shortage of priests is hindering the local mission.
This does not mean that there will be any widespread dispensation for the ordination of married men in the Roman Catholic Church – despite the fact that certain ex-Anglican clergy have been ordained into the Catholic Church on their renunciation of Anglican Orders after the widespread ordination of women into Anglican Churches.
Nevertheless, in places where other Christian Churches have their own married clergy – such as in South America, where these Churches are growing numerically while the growth of the Catholic Church is being hindered by a lack of vocations to the celibate priesthood – the prospect of recruiting married men into their seminaries may be seen as one way to make up the shortfall where priests are thin on the ground.
Such a departure from tradition is never taken lightly in the Roman Catholic Church, but the present Pope – despite the enemies he has already made by his willingness to reform the traditions – has proven his determination to put pastoral exigency before tradition.
Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand