The possibility of ordaining older married men of proven virtue (viri probati) in exceptional cases to celebrate the Eucharist is likely to be discussed at the synod for the Pan-Amazon region in 2019.
The idea of ordaining “viri probati” in remote areas in which there is a severe shortage of priests has been in the headlines for some years now.
Last year, Pope Francis in an interview invited the Church to reflect upon the matter.
Reflection on the topic might extend into many areas. Aspects which various figures have suggested so far include having viri probati for a trial period, enhanced roles in the Church for female elders in remote communities (women deaconesses maybe) and different training for viri probati — including their not having to go to a seminary.
In 2015, Pope Francis called for bold and daring proposals. Many will likely be forthcoming.
Bishops at previous synods in 1990 and 2005 suggested ordaining married men in remote areas where clergy are scarce. Under this papacy it is likely that such suggestions will not be left to gather dust, but will produce some sort of action.
But as the prefect of the Congregation for Clergy, Cardinal Beniamino Stella, said in a new book, “an attentive study and a widespread ecclesial discernment” is needed beforehand (NZ Catholic, page 12).
Such a widespread ecclesial discernment will likely spark further discussion around priestly celibacy in normal circumstances and whether this should be optional or not.
The different practices of Eastern and Latin rite churches, the canonical requirement for perpetual continence by clerics (from which married deacons are dispensed), the fact that celibacy is a disciplinary matter and not a doctrinal one, the fact that the Catholic Church already has married priests (e.g. former Anglican clerics) — these points and many more besides will doubtless be explored anew.
(In 2012, the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, after consultation with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, clarified that married permanent deacons are not bound to observe perfect and perpetual continence, as long as their marriages last.)
Cardinal Stella stated that the ordination of elders in remote locations would never mean changing the usual requirements for and ministry of priests in the Latin rite and “in no way would lead to optional celibacy”.
But it is hard to see how such a widespread ecclesial discernment would not see pressure for optional celibacy, despite the many testimonies to the value of celibate ministry.
That doesn’t mean that the discernment and study should not happen. It just means that it will be difficult to ring-fence the optional celibacy issue, which is not going away.
Late last year, the Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Sexual Abuse of Children recommended that the Australian bishops request that the Holy See consider introducing voluntary celibacy for diocesan clergy.
The royal commission’s final report drew a link between celibacy, the type of culture it can generate in some circumstances, dysfunction and abuse.
In response, strong defences of priestly celibacy have been produced by Australian Catholics. Critics have argued that most child sexual abuse actually happens in families and that the royal commission depended too much in this area on the input from an Irish sociologist who interviewed a very small number of dysfunctional clerical abusers.
It has also been argued that the royal commission went beyond its remit in its analysis of celibacy and in its call for voluntary celibacy.
But the royal commission’s recommendations about improved screening, selection and training for candidates for priesthood and religious life, as well as better “processes of ongoing formation, support and supervision” have been noted.
Ideally all future candidates for ministry — married or not — should be subject to and should benefit from such improvements. But just how to implement these in remote places would be another challenge.