Catholics face deepening divisions as bishops call for married priests

Catholic bishops called for allowing married priests and the possibility of female deacons over the weekend, sharpening a rift among theologians and church leaders on the two controversial subjects.

The possibility of married priests emerged as Catholic leaders gathered over the past few weeks in a synod, or meeting, on issues related to the Pan-Amazonian region that covers much of South America, including a priest shortage. The bishops at the synod proposed permitting married men to become priests to address the shortage, which was preventing Catholics from frequently receiving the Eucharist, the body and blood of Christ consecrated during Mass.

The proposal lacks binding authority on the church, but it has been presented to Pope Francis, who will soon issue an apostolic exhortation, a document bearing greater authority, based on the suggestions of the synod. Its nonbinding character notwithstanding, the synod’s consideration of married priests and female deacons prompted consternation before, during, and after the synod.

The synodal document containing the proposal calls for establishing criteria for ordaining as priests “suitable and esteemed men of the community” who have served as deacons and have stable families. The proposal, along with every paragraph of the document, was approved by a two-thirds vote of all voting participants.

Villanova University theology professor Massimo Faggioli noted there have always been some exceptions to the discipline of celibacy in the Catholic Church.

“The church has decided at the synod that maintaining a purely historical discipline of celibacy is not more important than respecting Jesus Christ’s mandate to celebrate the Eucharist,” Faggioli told the Washington Examiner.

Bishop Erwin Kräutler, the retired head of a Brazilian diocese, said earlier this month there is “no other option” for the Amazon but married clergy and claimed the indigenous people could not understand celibacy.

But George Weigel, a biographer of St. John Paul II, warned in the journal First Things that allowing married priests in the Amazon would have “global consequences.”

If an exemption is granted in the Amazon, Weigel argued, “there is little doubt that, however constrained the language of the exemption, bishops from European countries where the ordination of married men has long been a progressive cause would request similar exemptions, citing similar pastoral reasons.”

Rev. Gerald Murray, a canon lawyer and pastor of Holy Family Church in New York City, echoed the concern that allowing married priests in the Amazon would lead to bishops in other parts of the world requesting exemptions from celibacy.

“I think this is sort of a Trojan horse,” Murray told the Washington Examiner. “It looks like it’s going to help the Amazon, but what it’s going to do is cause upheaval in the rest of the world where you’ll have some bishops saying we want the same thing and others saying we don’t. The unity of the priesthood is going to be severely strained by this.”

And earlier this month, Cardinal Robert Sarah, head of the Vatican body that oversees liturgical practices, expressed concern about efforts to permit married priests in the Amazon.

The synod also proposed considering female deacons, especially given that women often lead Catholic communities in the Amazon. Pope Francis established a commission in 2016 that considered the possibility of female deacons, but he said it did not come to a definitive conclusion. After the conference, the pope said he would consider renewing the commission in order to reach a clear answer.

Faggioli said there is a significant “doctrinal” obstacle to the ordination of female priests but argued “there is no obstacle in Catholic teaching, catechism, or papal teaching to the ordination of female deacons.”

“Women deacons is something that can be done with a change in the law and with, of course, a substantial elaboration of what it means to be a deacon in the Catholic church,” said Faggioli.

Murray disagreed, pointing to a 2002 study by the International Theological Commission, a body of Catholic theologians that advises the church on theological matters, that found no evidence of a female diaconate in the history of the church that functioned in the same way as male deacons.

“The sacrament of holy orders has three levels, but it’s only one sacrament. The church has never understood it to be intended for women under any level: deacon, priest, or bishop,” said Murray.

“Basically, it’s doctrinally impossible and historically unknown,” he added.

Faggioli emphasized the importance of the church coming to a clear determination on the question of female deacons.

“The issue in the faith of the Catholic Church is the issue of women, and this is not something that we can ignore and pretend that it doesn’t exist,” said Faggioli.

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Author: Washington Examiner