MAINZ, Germany, March 4, 2020 (LifeSiteNews) – Monsignor Pirmin Spiegel, the head of the German bishops' relief agency Misereor, announced at a press conference of the German Bishops' Conference today that certain bishops of Latin America will soon ask Pope Francis for permission to ordain married priests.
This piece of news comes as a confirmation of several recent statements by close collaborators of the Pope who kept repeating that his post-synodal exhortation Querida Amazonia did not close the door to the married priesthood.
The German bishops are currently meeting in Mainz for their annual spring assembly. One of the topics on their agenda is the Pope’s new Amazon exhortation.
During today's press conference, Monsignor Spiegel announced that “next week, there will take place different meetings in Brazil” with the intention of discussing the implications of Querida Amazonia. Upon a question by a journalist concerning the possibility of ordaining viri probati – the priestly ordination of morally proven married men – Spiegel came back to these meetings with more information and said that “according to our knowledge [and he looked to his colleagues at the panel], the bishops will make formal requests in Rome,” since the Pope himself “encouraged” them to make “concrete proposals.” That is to say, these bishops intend to ask Pope Francis to give them permission to ordain married priests.
Spiegel also stated that “celibacy is a disciplinary form” that also “can be changed.”
The Brazilian bishops under the influence of Cardinal Claudío Hummes and Bishop Erwin Kräutler have already established in 2016 a commission that is studying the question of the ordination of married priests, and with these two prelates, they have been the leading force at the Amazon Synod. Kräutler had met with Pope Francis in April of 2014, and the Pope then asked him with regard to the lack of priests in the Amazon to make “courageous proposals.”
This episcopal move on the part of the Amazon bishops as announced today by Spiegel was to be expected in light of several statements of prelates who either played a key role at the October 2019 Amazon Synod in Rome or who are close collaborators of Pope Francis.
For example, Brazilian Cardinal Hummes, who is also the head of the Amazonian ecclesial network REPAM in Brazil and a member of the drafting committee of the synod's final document, shortly after the publication of the Pope's exhortation Querida Amazonia stated that the discussion of married priests has not been closed.
Some Catholic commentators on both dissident and faithful sides of the Church believed that, since Pope Francis did not explicitly endorse the married priesthood in Querida Amazonia, he had actually ruled it out. Others, however, pointed out that he announces to “formally present” the synod's final document. Therefore, Francis does not rescind anything from what was stated in the synod's final document which not only asked for the married priesthood, but also for a further exploration of ministries for women for the Amazon region..
Next to Hummes, there were several other voices – among them Cardinal Oswald Gracias, a member of the Pope's Council of Cardinals – who insisted that now it is up to the local bishops in the Amazon to request from the Pope a formal dispensation for married priests, pointing out that this step is possible by canon law since the Eastern Churches, too, have already an established married priesthood.
This is also what Bishop Schick of Bamberg said at today's press conference of the German Bishops' Conference in Mainz. The press conference was dedicated to the theme of Querida Amazonia and its consequences for the Church. Bishop Schick, who is the supervising bishop of the episcopal relief agency Misereor – and thus deeply involved in the discussions in the Amazon, since the German bishops are heavily funding the Churches there – said that the synod's final document “is valid” and is “to be implemented.”
“That applies also to the viri probati,” he added. “I can imagine,” Schick continued, “that this will be done by way of a dispensation,” that “bishops in the Amazon,” similar to the case of Protestant ministers who convert to the Catholic Faith and wish to become married Catholic priests, “receive a dispensation” to ordain well-prepared married men. For Schick it seems nearly a question of formality until such men are going to be ordained in the Amazon region.
It is therefore no surprise that the news of this new move on the part of the Latin American bishops is being revealed at a German bishops' press conference. Monsignor Pirmin Spiegel and Father Michael Heinz, the heads of the two relief agencies – Misereor and Adveniat – both have been heavily involved in the preparations of the Amazon Synod, personally, organizationally, as well as financially. They also participated at the synod itself and spoke at the official press conferences of the event in Rome.
The final word, of course, lies in the hands of Pope Francis here.
New path for women's access to Church ministries
But next to the married priesthood, the female diaconate was also very close to the hearts of the German bishops who hoped to advance the influence of women in the Church. Therefore, Monsignor Spiegel also stressed at today's press conference that Pope Francis, with his February 12 exhortation Querida Amazonia, now opens up a completely new path for women's access to Church ministries that needs now further to be worked out.
Spiegel stated that the viri probati debate is really subordinate to the more important role of women. It is about “institutionalizing other offices and ministries” which should not be “a copy of a clerical priesthood.” It is a completely new approach. Thus, it is about a laicization of the Church and of an enhancement of women's leadership in the local Church. This question, the clergyman explained, “is far more decisive than the question of the viri probati.”
“When this [larger, more comprehensive] question is being dealt with, the question of the viri probati will automatically be a consequence of it,” he concluded.
Víctor Manuel Fernández, a papal ghostwriter and Argentine Archbishop of La Plata, has stressed at the end of February that Querida Amazonia actually opens up a completely new field of influence for women by reducing the priesthood's duties to the exercise of two Sacraments – the Sacraments of the Eucharist and of Penance – and by reducing their own power, while there will be “authority” given to lay people – male and female. That is to say, the transformation proposed by Pope Francis is that women may lead parishes, administer certain sacraments and are thus the dominant presence in a parish, while a priest might travel from parish to parish and administer “his” two Sacraments (with an additional Sacrament of Extreme Unction which includes Confession).
This concept, however, is a revolutionary change of the priesthood and a reduction of the traditional three-fold offices of the priesthood that come along with priestly ordination: the teaching, sanctifying, and governing offices. Canon law still holds that a priest exercises the governing offices in the Church.
Cardinal Paul Josef Cordes, in a response to Querida Amazonia, has pointed to exactly this weakness of the text. He insisted that the priest's mission – which is to act in the person of Christ, representing Our Lord on earth and administering His Sacraments – contains all three offices, thus also the governing office. The proposal that is to be found in Querida Amazonia might very well lead to a largely laicized Church with a marginalized priesthood.
This would be in opposition to the intentions of the Church's Founder, Jesus Christ, who laid the responsibility of His Church into the hands of twelve men, who were both priests and bishops.
Let us also remember that we have already now quite some experience with the methods of Pope Francis. For example, when in April of 2016, he published his post-synodal exhortation Amoris Laetitia dealing with the topic of marriage and the family, many conservative Catholic commentators insisted that the Pope had not changed any teaching or practice with regard to Communion for “remarried” divorcees. However, the pastoral guidelines around the world that were subsequently published by national bishops' conferences – or by regional bishops' conferences, such as the bishops of the Buenos Aires region – all took advantage of certain footnotes and somewhat implicit statements in Amoris Laetitia in order to allow “remarried” divorcees to receive Holy Communion. And then Pope Francis even explicitly gave his approval to the guidelines of the Buenos Aires region, for everybody to see.
Thus, it is now to be expected that something similarly revolutionary might happen in the Amazon region (and later elsewhere). The scenario would be that the local bishops would ask Pope Francis for a dispensation with regard to married priests, and that the Pope then would grant it. Additionally, a new female ministry – without ordination, which is at this point a step too far – would also be established, “with authority” and many competences. This new female ministry would fundamentally reshape the Catholic Church in certain areas in the world, such as also in Germany, whose bishops would quickly follow the Amazonian bishops.
The next weeks should give us some more indications as to the next steps on the part of some of the Amazonian bishops as well as of Pope Francis himself.