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Synod Places Priest Shortage at Top of Papal Agenda

Thanks in part to high profile petitioning by U.S. and Australian Catholics, the International Synod on the Eucharist broke a long-standing taboo and openly discussed the worldwide priest shortage and optional celibacy. Four of the synod’s twelve working groups wanted to study a married priesthood or the so-called “viri-probati” option. But the final proposition affirmed the current discipline of mandatory celibacy, essentially deciding to do nothing about this growing crisis in the Church. However, high ranking churchmen such as Pittsburgh’s Bishop Donald Wuerl, who is on the post synod document committee, and Rome’s Cardinal Walter Kasper, recently said the discussion about married priests is still on the table.

Bishops Must Lead

By publicly acknowledging that the priest shortage keeps millions of Catholics from the Eucharist, and then deciding to do nothing about it, our bishops are vulnerable to charges of failing to exercise leadership about another crisis in the Church. They could be seen as abdicating responsibility for providing Catholics with their Eucharistic birthright.

This birthright was recently confirmed by the highest legislative authority in the Church, Cardinal Julian Herranz. After Cardinal Angelo Scola of Venice opened the synod by saying the Eucharist was a gift, not a right, thus implying that a lack of priests was cause for prayer, not for changing church discipline on mandatory celibacy, Herranz confirmed that canon law says Catholics have a right to receive the Eucharist from Church leaders.

FutureChurch, and our Call To Action partners, can take some credit for helping get the priest shortage and mandatory celibacy on the synod agenda. 35,000 signatures on our petition asking for discussion of married priests and female deacons were delivered to U.S. Synod Delegates and the Pope’s administrative offices along with the results of our survey of over 15,000 priests in 55 U.S. dioceses showing 67% of respondents support discussing mandatory celibacy. The Australian Council of Priests also vigorously called for discussion of married priests and women’s roles in the Church.

Final Propositions Required Consensus

The international meeting of bishops was called to address issues in the worldwide Church. Their final propositions required a consensus, but time constraints and synod structures do not permit the expanded discussion required for disputed issues such as proposed “viri probati” (“tested men” aka married priests) solution to the priest shortage.

Perhaps the best a three-week synod of bishops can do is to affirm what seems to be working, and point to what isn’t working and requires more attention and study.
By these admittedly limited criteria, one could say that this synod didn’t do half badly. The liturgical changes of Vatican II were overwhelmingly affirmed. Mass in the vernacular is working. Bishop after Bishop noted it is a resounding source of vitality for the world’s Catholics. Likewise the synod approved proposition 48 which in liberation theology language not heard from the Vatican in a very long time, called for transformation of unjust structures and strongly denounced global economic injustice and depletion of the earth’s resources.

What doesn’t seem to be working are: recruitment efforts to the male celibate priesthood; Eucharistic hospitality for the divorced and remarried and Christians of other denominations who believe in the Real Presence; widespread use of the sacrament of penance by the Catholic faithful; and any real effort to help global corporate entities accept their social and ecologic responsibilities.

Appeal To Pope Possible

Over the next ten years, U.S. dioceses will face massive closing and clustering of parishes because of the priest shortage. Demographers predict that in the foreseeable future, more than half of our 19,000 parishes will have no priest. With a few notable exceptions, our bishops are failing to exercise leadership in deciding what is more important to the Church, the Eucharist or an exclusively male celibate priesthood.
Despite Australian Cardinal Pell’s efforts to portray the synod as an overwhelming endorsement of mandatory celibacy, this was not what actually happened. One third of the synod asking to study married priests cannot be considered an endorsement of mandatory celibacy.

The proposals now go to Pope Benedict XVI who will write a post synodal exhortation sometime in the next year.

There is nothing to stop national bishops conferences from petitioning the Pope to look at studying the married priest option for their regions, a fact confirmed by Archbishop Wilton Gregory in an October 19 interview with National Catholic Reporter’s John Allen.

Church must deal with Women Ministers

For the U.S. Church, a silver lining of the Bishops balking on married male priests is that we can’t really deal with solutions to the priest shortage without talking about women’s ministerial roles as well, especially since there are currently more female lay ministers in the Church than active diocesan priests.

While it would be easy to feel discouraged because the Synod on the Eucharist did not move as far as it should have in dealing with the shortage of priests, we can take some comfort that the worldwide priest shortage is now squarely at the top of Benedict’s papal agenda.

How he deals with it will dictate whether the Catholic Church flourishes or continues the decline, as so poignantly identified by many bishops from both the global south and north.

(For FutureChurch’s selection of best synod bishop quotes visit the futurechurch website. For all synod interventions visit the vatican website).

Fall 2005



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