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Cdl. Burke: Relaxing priestly celibacy for Amazon region would affect universal Church

Diane Montagna Diane Montagna Follow Diane

ROME, June 20, 2019 (LifeSiteNews) — Cardinal Raymond Burke is challenging recent assertions made by Amazon Synod organizers, saying “it is not honest” to suggest that the October meeting is “treating the question of clerical celibacy for that region alone.”

“If [the synod] takes up the question, which I do not think it is right for it to do, it will be treating a discipline of the universal Church,” Cardinal Burke told LifeSiteNews on June 19.

“In fact,” the cardinal added, “already a certain Bishop in Germany has announced that, if the Holy Father grants a relaxation of the obligation of perfect continence for the clergy in the Amazon Region, the Bishops of Germany will ask for the same relaxation.” 

The Cardinal’s comments come in response to remarks made by synod organizers at Monday’s launch of the controversial working document [Instrumentem laboris], which will form the basis of discussions at the three-week assembly in October.

Questions at the launch

At the June 17 Vatican press conference, LifeSiteNews asked synod organizers, Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri and Bishop Fabio Fabene, about potential repercussions for the universal Church. 

This correspondent asked: 

In reading the working document, I got the impression that the idea is not only to help the Amazon but also to give the rest of the Church “an Amazonian face,” an expression Pope Francis has used various times. Will this Synod have implications and ramifications for the rest of the Church? 

And given that celibacy [in its wider sense of perfect continence] belongs to the apostolic tradition, as for example Cardinal Robert Sarah has said, would it not be better to send holy missionary priests to the Amazon, to strengthen the domestic church, i.e. the family, and to pray for vocations? 

Bishop Fabene, under-secretary of the Synod of Bishops, responded to the first question, insisting that “this synod is a special synod which concerns only the Pan-Amazonian region. Therefore, it will respond to the demands of those Christian communities.” 

“It’s not that we want to make the face of the whole universal Church Amazonian, but only the face of the Amazonian church,” Bishop Fabene said.  

He added: “It could be that it might have some implications from a pastoral point of view also for the Church, especially I believe in the field of ecology, because there are territories, as was already mentioned, like the Congo, that are similar to the Amazon.” 

“Therefore, there will be repercussions,” he said. “But the synod is a special synod for the Amazon. This is clear.” 

Responding to the second question concerning priestly celibacy, Bishop Fabene insisted that “no one here wants to challenge celibacy.” He continued: 

You heard when we spoke about number 129 [of the Instrumentum laboris], reading expressly what is written there: ‘Affirming that celibacy is a gift for the Church.’ Therefore, there is an affirmation of celibacy, first of all. Then, regarding the sending of priests from other continents and from other nations to the Amazon, missionaries have always done this, since the first evangelization. However, I believe that the time also comes, as the consultation itself requests, that native vocations rise up and grow. 

Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, general secretary of the synod of bishops, seconded Bishop Fabene’s response on celibacy, saying “the answer is correct in the sense that the one doesn’t exclude the other.”

The cardinal added that “valuing” indigenous peoples also “naturally implies promoting native vocations” that will “assume responsibility” in the region. 

Highlighting the working document’s recommendation to study the possibility of ordaining “elders” who “have already formed families” [the document does not use the word “married” to describe these men], Cardinal Baldisseri said this would be done “with very specific criteria” and “would be an exception.”

“We already have the presence of the Anglicanorum coetibus, or the Eastern Churches,” he said. “It’s not a dogmatic question but one of discipline, depending on circumstances.”

In a further exchange following the press conference, LifeSiteNews asked Cardinal Baldisseri about the issue of priestly celibacy belonging to apostolic tradition. 

We asked him: “The document says that celibacy is a gift for the Church, but it also belongs to the apostolic tradition, as Cardinal Sarah and others have said. And so, what I was saying was that, given that [celibacy] is not only a gift, but is also part of the apostolic tradition…”

“Do you know what apostolic tradition means?” the cardinal interjected. 

“Yes,” we responded. 

“Do you think it was only the apostles?” he asked. 

“No, also the successors of the apostles,” we replied. 

“Ok, the successors of the apostles. Don’t you remember St. Paul when he was going and founding a church?”

“Yes,” we said.

“He left the presbyters as the head of the church. He was a missionary, and that is how the presbyterate was born; and it is apostolic in this sense, because St. Paul constituted the Church and ordained priests, presbyters.”

“Yes, but were they celibate or not?” we asked the cardinal.

“They were men. It is not written anywhere that they were celibate. It’s not true,” he said.

“It’s not true?” we asked.

“It’s not true that they were celibate. No, no,” he insisted. “They were presbyters. Basta.”  

“I understand. You are saying that perhaps they were married,” we continued.

“Certainly,” he said.

Wishing to clarify the point, we interjected, saying: “Excuse me, married but not celibate, because there is a great difference between a man who is married and a man who is married but leaves behind everything for the Lord, like St Peter for example. He was celibate.”

Cardinal Baldisseri replied: 

[St. Peter] left everything and then he went he went with the Lord. But consider that the communities that were constituted were in the hands not only of the apostles. The apostles were twelve. Basta. Then what happened after isn’t specified anywhere, if those who came after were celibate or if they were married. So much so did the Eastern Churches maintained freedom, and they still continue with these two possibilities, either celibate or not. It is interesting because the Eastern churches are telling us this: that to be a bishop … there you see better the role of Paul, who passes from one community to another like this superintendent. In fact, this is what ‘episcopal’ means: the superintendent over the presbyterate of the place. And because celibacy was not considered at that time as indispensable, we don’t find it anywhere. In fact, you’ll find that St. Paul says that a bishop has to have only one wife. Read the epistles of St. Paul and you will find there what are the qualities of a priest.

Learn more about Cardinal Burke’s views and past actions by visiting FaithfulShepherds.com. Click here.

Cardinal Burke weighs in

In comments to LifeSiteNews on June 19, Cardinal Burke said he found “many elements” in the reported conversation with Bishop Fabene and Cardinal Baldisseri (regarding the discipline of perfect continence for the clergy) mentioned in “a confused way.” 

His Eminence said that perfect continence for the clergy “most certainly has Apostolic origin, as demonstrated by the classic study of Father Christian Cochini, S.J., Les origines apostoliques du célibat sacerdotal.”

The book in question was published in English under the title, Apostolic Origins of Priestly Celibacy (Ignatius Press). In this scholarly work, Fr. Cochini examines the question of when the tradition of priestly celibacy began in the Latin Church and traces it back to its origins with the apostles.

He shows “through patristic sources and conciliar documentation that from the beginning of the Church, although married men could be priests, they were required to vow celibacy before ordination, meaning they intended to live a life of continence. In fact, all of these elements were studied with the greatest possible depth at the time of the Second Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops in 1971, which treated two subjects: Ministerial Priesthood and Justice in the World.”

His Eminence explained that, during the time following the Second Vatican Council, there was a great turmoil regarding mandatory clerical celibacy and a strong movement to make clerical celibacy optional.

He said that “notwithstanding formidable pressure, the Bishops, in the Synod’s final document, Ultimis temporibus (30 November 1971), followed the perennial teaching and discipline which had been set forth in Pope Saint Paul VI’s Encyclical Letter Sacerdotalis Caelibatus (24 June 1967).”

In Sacerdotalis Caelibatus, Paul VI said the Church “is conscious of the critical shortage of priests when compared with the spiritual necessities of the world’s population.”

But the pontiff added that the Church is “confident in her expectation which is founded on the infinite and mysterious power of grace, that the high spiritual quality of her ministers will bring about an increase also in their numbers, for everything is possible to God.”

“Ultimately,” Cardinal Burke explained, “the Church has increasingly understood the will of Our Lord for those called to share in the Apostolic ministry, the will which He also exemplified by His own life of perfect continence.”

“Therefore,” he added, “the Church has understood that, when Our Lord calls someone to the priesthood, he also calls him to perfect continence as an essential expression of the priestly identity with Himself as Head and Shepherd of the flock and with His pastoral charity.”

“To those whom He calls He also gives the grace to respond to His call,” he said.

His Eminence also noted that the gift or grace of perfect continence is given “at every time and in every place, as the history of the Church wonderfully illustrates.” He continued:

In that regard, I recall a visit with a Brazilian Bishop, during my visit to Brazil in June of 2017, who had been a Bishop in the Amazon Region for more than a decade. During our conversation, I asked him about priestly vocations in the Amazon Region because I had heard from various sources that the young men in the Amazon Region do not accept celibacy. He responded immediately that, if the Bishop fosters vocations, there is a generous response to the priestly vocation and the embrace of perfect continence.

Cardinal Burke concluded his comments with three observations. 

First, he said: “it seems to me that the question of clerical celibacy among the clergy of the Amazon Region is mixed up with a false notion of evangelization, which would end up accepting indigenous practices which, in fact, need the purification and elevation which the grace of Christ always brings to a place through a true evangelization.” 

“Secondly,” he added, “it is not honest to say that the Pan Amazon Synod is treating the question of clerical celibacy for that region alone.”

“If it takes up the question, which I do not think it is right for it to do, it will be treating a discipline of the universal Church. In fact, already a certain Bishop in Germany has announced that, if the Holy Father, grants a relaxation of the obligation of perfect continence for the clergy in the Amazon Region, the Bishops of Germany will ask for the same relaxation.” 

“Lastly,” the former prefect of the Apostolic Signatura noted that “bringing up the case of married Anglican or other Protestant ministers who have been accepted into the full communion of the Roman Catholic Church and ordained to the priesthood fails to take account that such a practice, in what regards clerical celibacy, requires a greater study and clarification.”

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