Catholic priest on altar praying during mass

The Vatican has announced it will soon be exploring the possibility of ordaining married, older men to the priesthood. In a document released Monday, the Holy See says it will address the issue during a synod this October.

The proposed change to the rule forbidding priests to marry, which was instituted in 1139, would be very specific and intended only to meet the pastoral needs of Catholics in remote parts of the Amazon basin. Pope Francis has said that he was willing to entertain the idea of ordaining “viri probati” or “men of proven character” in response to the dearth of priests in far-flung communities within the Pan-Amazon Region.

The Vatican document affirms the church’s position that “celibacy is a gift for the Church,” but notes it will consider “the possibility of conferring priestly ordination on elderly men, preferably indigenous, respected and accepted members of their community.” Catholics in the Amazon can go months — even years — without seeing a priest or receiving any of the sacraments. The document says: “For this reason, instead of leaving the communities without the Eucharist, the criteria of selection and preparation of the ministers authorized to celebrate it should be changed.”

Although the pontiff says the church will stand resolute on its broader commitment of celibacy for most priests, church experts and traditionalists are deeply concerned that the new policy would open the door for married priests throughout Christendom.

If the proposal is accepted, these married men would not be the first married Catholic priests. Since the Church of England approved women priests in 1992, a steady stream of married Anglican male priests have converted to Catholicism. And there are several Eastern Catholic churches in communion with Rome, such as the Maronites, that ordain married men.

While the situation in the Amazon might be dire because of remote locations, there also is a global shortage of priests. In the U.S., there is one priest for every 2,000 Catholics. In Mexico and Latin America, the ratio is closer to one priest for every 7,000 Catholics.

In recent years, sexual abuse scandals within the Catholic Church have sullied the reputations of the priesthood and the vast majority of good and holy men who serve the Lord. The job demands a lifelong commitment, long hours and celibacy; it asks a lot of young men. Fewer answer the call every year. Perhaps if they were able to marry, the vocation would have more appeal.

It’s a conversation that is long overdue for the church. And we tend to believe that should married priests be permitted in the Amazon, the practice would spread globally. We’ll be watching this fall to see what happens.

— Robin Beres

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