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 Andrew Medichini

October 24, 2018 (LifeSiteNews) – There continue to be signs in the Catholic Church under Pope Francis' watch that the issue of married Catholic priests is gaining traction, Associated Press (AP) reported Tuesday.

Cast against the backdrop of “the growing clergy sex abuse scandal and declining number of priests worldwide,” the AP reported Oct. 23 that the Vatican is “laying the groundwork” for official debate on a married priesthood in areas of the world where the priest shortage is especially critical.

Reported AP: 

As the Vatican copes with the growing clergy sex abuse scandal and declining number of priests worldwide, it is laying the groundwork to open formal debate on an issue that has long been taboo: opening up the priesthood to married men in parts of the world where clergy are scarce.

Pope Francis has convened a meeting of South American bishops next year focusing on the plight of the church in the Amazon, a vast territory served by far too few priests. During that synod, the question of ordaining married men of proven virtue — so-called “viri probati” — is expected to figure on the agenda.

Vatican watchers have speculated for some time prior to the current Synod on Youth occurring in Rome that the next Synod battle would be over married priests.

Given the pro-LGBT developments in the currently running Youth Synod and problematic pastoral results of the last Vatican Synod under Pope Francis, fears persist as well that the 2019 Pan-Amazon Synod may also be the camel’s nose under the tent for female priests.

As the ongoing Youth Synod nears its close, a final document with some affirmative nod toward homosexual normalization in the Church is expected. And the last Synod, concerning the family, has been used by bishops to allow for Communion to be given to civilly divorced and so-called remarried Catholics living in adultery, even though this practice is contrary to Catholic teaching. 

Pope Francis announced a special Synod of Bishops last year for the Pan-Amazon region in Latin America for October 2019. It’s the first time for a Synod to be called for a particular region.

The main reason of the Amazon gathering, the Pope said at the time, would be to identify new means of evangelization in the area.

Latin America’s Pan-Amazon region includes meaning Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, French Guyana, Guyana, Peru, Venezuela, and Surinam.

The theme for the Synod, announced March 8 of this year, is “The Amazon: New paths for the Church and for an integral ecology.”

The preparatory document for the 2019 Pan-Amazon Synod was released at a June 8 Vatican press conference June 8.

Secretary General of the Synod of Bishops Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri would not confirm or deny the status of viri probati in the document at the press conference.

The cardinal did stress though, that “the reflections” of the synod go beyond the Amazon region, “because they regard the whole Church and also the future of the planet.”

In a March 2017 interview with German newspaper Die Zeit, Pope Francis used the term viri probati – in this context, religious married men of proven character – in saying he was open to the idea of a married priesthood, as is allowed for deacons, in remote areas where the priest shortage is particularly serious.

“We have to think about if the viri probati are a possibility,” he said. “Then we also have to discern which tasks they can take on, for example, in forlorn communities.”

At the same time, the Pope did, however, dismiss the idea of voluntary celibacy in the priesthood.

“There is much talk about voluntary celibacy, especially there where the clergy is lacking,” Francis said. “But a voluntary celibacy is not a solution.”

The discipline of priestly celibacy is based on the fact that Christ himself was celibate. Priests are called in a special way to be imitators of Christ, acting in the person of Christ, persona Christi. It is the priest who has been consecrated through the sacrament of Holy Orders to change the bread and wine into the body and blood of Jesus. Priestly celibacy is also based on the understanding derived from St. Paul that a married man cannot adequately give himself concurrently to both the Church and a family.  

Canon law states regarding celibacy that “Clerics are obliged to observe perfect and perpetual continence for the sake of the kingdom of heaven and therefore are bound to celibacy which is a special gift of God by which sacred ministers can adhere more easily to Christ with an undivided heart and are able to dedicate themselves more freely to the service of God and humanity.”

The Die Zeit interview centered on the priest shortage in Germany and Switzerland.

Asked at the time whether it was the right moment to loosen priestly celibacy or to abolish it, Pope Francis answered, “In the Church, it always counts to discern the right moment, to recognize when the Holy Spirit is asking for something. That is why I say that we are thinking about the viri probati.”

The Catholic Church has seen a decline in the number of priests for decades. Vocations to the priesthood worldwide declined between 2012 and 2015.

Overall the number of priests worldwide has waned for another consecutive year – down 687 to 414,969, the AP reported, citing the latest figures from the Vatican’s missionary news agency Agenzia Fides. At the same time, the global Catholic population has increased by 14.25 million. The priest shortage is exceptionally grave in the Amazon, the AP report said, “Where the mostly indigenous faithful can go months without seeing a priest, and where Protestant and evangelical churches are wooing away Catholic souls.”

Some Catholic observers have speculated that the plunge in vocations to the priesthood may correspond to a failure from leaders within the Catholic Church to keeping the Church true to her main mission of saving souls. They point out how the Church has been influenced by special interest groups keen on advancing “social justice” issues, economic issues, and environmentalism, as if directing such affairs were the main task of the Church. 

Others close to Pope Francis and the 2019 Synod have articulated openness to a married priesthood in some cases.

Retired Brazilian Bishop Erwin Kräutler expressed support last year as secretary of the Brazilian bishops’ conference to Kathpress for the Pan-Amazon Synod to permit married men to become ordained and women to become permanent deacons. 

This move by the Latin American Church was necessary, he said, due to a “horrendous” shortage of priests there.

Kräutler and others had submitted a document to the pope charting their strategy for introducing married priests and female “deacons.”

Prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy Cardinal Beniamino Stella suggested early this year in a book that the Church should consider ordaining married men in some cases.

In remote areas “there is acute suffering because of a real ‘sacramental emergency,’ which the few priests present are not able to accommodate,” Stella wrote.

The Church’s clerical celibacy edict of is not a doctrine, rather a discipline that came into effect in the 12th Century after the Second Lateran Council. The Catholic Church does include some Eastern Rite churches that allow married clergy. And certain married priests of other Christian faiths, for example with the Anglican Ordinariate, can continue to serve as married priests when they convert to Catholicism.

The AP report on the possibility of a married priesthood also comes amid continued speculation and advocating from some corners for abandoning Church teaching on the male-only priesthood.

Although the Pope has affirmed Church teaching that women cannot be ordained priests, the supposition he may be open to the idea has persisted since his agreeing in 2016 to establish a commission to study the possibility of women deacons in the Church.

Bishop Kräutler, one of the organizers of this forthcoming October 2019 Synod, has said that he does “not believe that Francis would say a strict ‘no’ to the ordination of women.”