Charles Kingsley, the author of The Water-Babies, was a notorious baiter of papists. He viewed celibacy in our clergy, and that of John Henry Newman in particular, as a mark of effeminacy. “Cunning is the weapon which heaven has given to the saints,” Kingsley sneered in an attack on the future cardinal, “to withstand the brute male force of the wicked world which marries and is given to marriage.”
Newman fired back with his Apologia Pro Vita Sua – the most powerful spiritual autobiography since the Confessions of Augustine. “Her zealous maintenance of the doctrine and the rule of celibacy, which I recognised as Apostolic,” he wrote, “was an argument as well as a plea in favour of the great Church of Rome.”
But is the Church of Rome now ready to abandon that apostolic doctrine? That’s the question Pope Francis will put to our prelates at the Amazon synod in 2019. This sprawling, isolated region of Brazil has been hit hard by the vocations crisis: there’s just one priest for every 10,000 laymen. Charismatic pastors are moving into the void, and the country’s Protestant population has more than trebled since 1960. Animism is also enjoying a renaissance of sorts in the world’s largest Catholic nation.
The Holy Father thinks young men are willing to become ministers and shamans, but not priests, largely because of the celibacy requirement. He has suggested that viri probati, or married men of extraordinary faith, be ordained to the priesthood. “We must consider if viri probati is a possibility,” he told Die Zeit in March. “Then we must determine what tasks they can perform, for example, in remote communities.” That’s what the synod will be asked to decide.
Married priests are, of course, a possibility. Celibacy is a matter of discipline, not faith or morals. It can be constituted or revoked according to the Church’s needs. And while there have been practitioners of celibacy since the days of the early Church – including Jesus, of course – it didn’t become mandatory for the clergy until the 11th century by order of Pope Gregory VII.
The question is whether priestly celibacy is a good idea, which is why the fast-approaching synod will have implications that reach far beyond the rainforest. If celibacy is suspended in the Amazon, why not in Germany, which ordained just 58 men last year? Or Africa, where countless priests simply ignore the prohibition on marriage and take a mistress? The Zambian ex-archbishop Emmanuel Milingo, who was defrocked in 2009 for getting hitched in a Moonie ceremony, claims to be the spokesman for 150,000 clerics who are involved in such illicit unions. Why not reconcile them?
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