It’s easy to overreact to the news that the Pan-Amazonian Synod has asked the pope to consider allowing rural village elders who are married to be ordained to the priesthood.
As Catholics, it’s hard to imagine married priests. The celibate clergy seems to be as quintessentially Catholic as Lenten fish Fridays, statues of Mary, and the rosary.
Except it isn’t.
Priestly celibacy is a discipline, not an infallible dogmatic teaching of the Church. That means that—even though it is the dominant norm for most of the Catholic Church—it can be changed. (For more on this see the Catechism of the Catholic Church’s teaching on holy orders, in particular Paragraphs 1578 to 1580 and 1599)
That’s why we see already married priests in the Catholic Church today. The custom is one that has been long permitted in the Eastern rites. Married men are eligible for the priesthood in Melkite, Ruthenian, Maronite, Ukrainian Greek rites, and Coptic Catholic rites, to name just a few. There is a catch: in general, it seems priests must get married before they are ordained, not after. Still, that’s a world away from the priesthood as most of us experience it in the Latin rite.
Plus, those married priests aren’t just in the Ukraine, Middle East, or Egypt. Many of those rites have churches here in the United States. As of the mid-1990s, there were 32 Melkite parishes spread out over 18 states, according to one report. Today, there are an estimated 24,000 Melkite Catholics in the United States. The other rites are represented here in strong numbers as well: for example, there are 49,000 Ukrainian Greek Catholics and 250,000 Chaldean Catholics in the country.
One of those Eastern Rite priests is Father Sebastian Carnazzo, a Melkite priest and pastor of the St. Elias Melkite Parish in San Jose. But Father Carnazzo is a fairly well-known Catholic scholar outside of the Melkite rite as well—he’s listed as a speaker by the St. Paul Center and a writer for the Institute on Catholic Culture. In 2016, the National Catholic Register ran a piece on the “unique vocation” wives of priests have as “spiritual mothers,” profiling Carnazzo’s wife, Linda.
There was a time when married men could not be ordained to the priesthood in the Eastern rite if they were outside their traditional territories. But Pope Francis lifted that ban in 2014, allowing them to be married in the United States. No one, outside of Eastern rite Catholics, of course, seemed to really care.
And it’s not just Eastern rite Catholic priests who can be married.
In 2009, Pope Benedict XVI issued the apostolic constitution Anglicanorum Coetibus, which made it easier for Anglican priests and their congregations who were dismayed with the Anglican Communion’s embrace of homosexuality and women priests to enter the Catholic Church but retain their own liturgical traditions. The document essentially established an Anglican rite within the Catholic Church, allowing whole parishes to join ‘ordinates’ akin to dioceses.
At the time, some astute conservative observers warned that “his move could paradoxically liberalize the church,” as the New York Times put it at the time. But another narrative ended up winning out—that of a conservative pope shoring up the ‘base’ of traditionalists in the Church. Other popes before Benedict had already opened the doors to ‘high-church’ Protestants. In 1980, Pope John Paul II established the “Pastoral Provision,” allowing Episcopal priests to become Catholic priests.
Before Pope John Paul II, Pope Paul VI had suggested the idea in his 1967 encyclical Sacerdotalis Caelibatus, On the Celibacy of the Priest.
“In virtue of the fundamental norm of the government of the Catholic Church, to which We alluded above, while on the one hand, the law requiring a freely chosen and perpetual celibacy of those who are admitted to Holy Orders remains unchanged, on the other hand, a study may be allowed of the particular circumstances of married sacred ministers of Churches or other Christian communities separated from the Catholic communion,” Paul VI wrote.
And, before that, some married Lutheran priests were accepted into the Catholic priesthood after World War II under Pope Pius XII.
All this is to say: is ordaining a bunch of married elders in remote priest-starved areas of the Amazon such a big deal?
The Church did this for Lutherans in Germany. It did it for Eastern rite Catholics around the world. It did it for Anglicans in the United States and Europe. Why can’t it do the same for those faithful Catholics in the Amazon who do not have regular access to priests for the Eucharist, confession, and other pastoral needs? The underlying circumstances, especially when weighed against the Church’s history on this matter, strongly argue for the conclusion that the Church is being driving by an urgent pastoral need, not pursing some sinister plan to float a trial balloon for ending priestly celibacy.
Paul VI’s words still hold true today: “All this, however, does not signify a relaxation of the existing law, and must not be interpreted as a prelude to its abolition. There are better things to do than to promote this hypothesis, which tears down that vigor and love in which celibacy finds security and happiness, and which obscures the true doctrine that justifies its existence and exalts its splendor. It would be much better to promote serious studies in defense of the spiritual meaning and moral value of virginity and celibacy.”
The synod’s call for married men to be ordained fits a pattern of making exceptions to the rule that has been in place for more than half a century. Overly zealous reformers, irresponsible commentators, and perhaps a few anxious observers on the Right see this as a step towards ending the rule on priestly celibacy for the whole Church but there’s just no evidence for that.
But you wouldn’t know it from some of the over-the-top commentary spilling out from the Amazon Synod. (You can get a taste of it here, here, and here.) Today, we live in an outrage culture that is defined by political boundaries of Left and Right. Democrats and Republicans are more like warring factions in a divided society than political parties in a deliberative democracy. Politics is a winner-takes-all war. So something that comes from the ‘other side’ must be questioned, criticized, and opposed at all costs. Instant opinions, outrage, and rash reaction have taken the place of loving openness to difference, peace, understanding the other, and dialogue.
Unfortunately, this political us-vs.-them political mindset has taken over much of the Catholic Church in the United States. So Pope Benedict XVI got a pass for opening the doors wider to Anglican priests because he was viewed as a man of the Right. But Pope Francis talks a lot about like climate change and has said some not so nice things about capitalism, so he must be a Leftist. If it’s coming from him, it must be suspect.
The Catechism counsels against just such a mentality, instructing us to avoid “rash judgment” that assumes things to be true “without sufficient foundation, the moral fault of a neighbor.” “To avoid rash judgment, everyone should be careful to interpret insofar as possible his neighbor's thoughts, words, and deeds in a favorable way,” the Catechism says. Surely the same courtesy should be extended to our Holy Father and the bishops, our spiritual shepherds!
Moreover, U.S. political categories just don’t work for the Church. Pope Benedict XVI talked so much about the environment that he was dubbed the ‘Green Pope.’ And Pope Francis is the same pope who canonized ‘conservative’ icons St. John Henry Newman and Pope St. John Paul II.
1 John 3:18 commands us to speak the truth in love. Unfortunately, a lot of commentary on the Amazon Synod’s proposal for married priests is neither truthful nor loving.