Support For Married Priesthood Growing
In the final analysis, Pope Benedict’s March 13 post synod exhortation on the Eucharist accorded the highest value to an exclusively male celibate priesthood. Following the 2005 synod on the Eucharist, the document reaffirmed the discipline of mandatory celibacy for priests. Since four of the synod’s twelve small groups wanted to study the issue of married priests further, there was some slight hope that Benedict would at least authorize a study of the possibility. Unfortunately, there seems to be a tragic disconnect between Benedict’s exalted theology of Eucharist, (so deeply in evidence in the exhortation) and the reality of a worldwide priest shortage that is making the Mass increasingly unavailable to more and more Catholics.
But behind the scenes another story may be unfolding. According to the New York Times, some Brazilian bishops asked to place the issue of married priests on the agenda of the Fifth General Conference of the Bishops of Latin America and the Caribbean (CELAM) meeting held May 13- 31 in Aparecida, Brazil. The Catholic Church in Brazil, with more than 50,000 parishes but only 17,000 priests, has lost ground to the burgeoning Pentecostal sects. In 2006 just 68 percent of Brazilians were Catholic compared to 83.8 percent in 1991. In the same time period, Brazilian Pentecostals have risen from 9 percent to 24 percent according a recent study by the public universities of Sao Paulo and Juiz de Fora. Currently lay people lead 80 percent of all Catholic Sunday celebrations in Brazil because there aren’t enough priests to say Mass.
Couple these realities with recent “clarifications” by Brazilian Cardinal Claudio Hummes, the new head of the Vatican Congregation of the Clergy, and it appears that growing support for a married priesthood in Brazil and elsewhere may be heightening internal Church tensions over mandatory celibacy. On December 2, just before leaving for Rome, Hummes told a Brazilian newspaper that priestly celibacy was a disciplinary norm, not a dogma, and therefore could change. This created such a stir in the Italian media that two days later he was forced to issue a clarification saying that while not a dogma, priestly celibacy is an ancient value in the Latin Church and is not currently up for discussion by Church authorities.
Meanwhile Hummes, along with several other Latin American Cardinals, has frequently been listed as a possible successor to Benedict. Which all goes to say that the Vatican’s current hard line on mandatory celibacy is neither monolithic nor the last word on the subject.
We can only pray that when the hierarchical Church finally does welcome both married and celibate priests, we won’t have closed too many parishes or lost too many more loyal Catholics-in Brazil or anywhere else.