Pope Francis urged South American bishops gathered at the Vatican on Monday to “speak with courage” as they address a severe priest shortage in remote areas of the region that could result in the church dropping celibacy requirements for some priests.
The three-week Synod of Bishops for the Amazon will also address crucial regional topics ranging from protection of rain forests and local cultures to climate change, migration and clean water.
“We have not come here to invent programs of social development or custody of cultures,” the pope said. “We come to contemplate, to understand, to serve the peoples.”
Cardinal Claudio Hummes, the retired archbishop of Sao Paulo who organized the synod, said many rural Amazon communities have so little access to priests that Sunday Mass can’t be held. And while the Eucharist can distributed to worshippers by non-priests, the symbolic wafers must be blessed by a priest.
Last rites and other Catholic sacraments also are effected, Hummes said.
“Indigenous communities, faced with the urgent need experienced by most of the Catholic communities in Amazonia, requested that the path be opened for the ordination of married men resident in their communities,” Hummes said. “Albeit confirming the great importance of the charisma of celibacy in the Church.”
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Jim Bretzke, professor of Theology at John Carroll University, says the proposal would not have to alter fundamental church principals. But he says push-back will come from those already unhappy with changes demanded by the pope.
Francis has warned against clericalism, or an attitude of clerical superiority embraced by some priests and bishops who see themselves as special or superior to others.
“I believe the push-back (against the proposal) is mostly a part of a ‘culture war’ proxy battle in which divergent views on clericalism are being fought,” Bretzke told USA TODAY.
The Catholic Church has required celibacy from its priests for centuries. The vows have been broken so frequently, however, that the Vatican established secret guidelines for dealing with clerics who fathered children, Vatican spokesman Alessandro Gisotti acknowledged in February.
The proposal, however, involves men who are married and have children before ordination. Francis, who hails from Argentina, is fully aware of the struggles the church faces serving its flock in the region.
Francis has previously said he could consider ordaining married men to address the shortage of Catholic priests. In March 2017, he told German newspaper Der Zeit that mature, married men of proven faith could possibly serve in isolated areas. He dismissed, however, giving young priests the option of rejecting celibacy.