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Married priests and Synod of the Amazon

May 21, 2018

Although this post was not occasioned by Cdl Sarah’s reported remarks that ordaining ‘viri probati’ would be a definitive breach with apostolic tradition, his (in my view) serious overstatement of that claim underscores how important it is that, in this matter, we all strive to speak precisely, not to mention correctly, about what is and is not at issue in regard to ordaining married men. Now, on to this post as originally prepared.

There is no canonical or doctrinal objection to ordaining married men for priestly ministry.

Whether it makes practical sense, however, to ordain married men is quite another matter, and whether such ordinations would detract from the appreciation of celibacy itself as “a special gift of God” that has finally, Deo gratias, made its way into codified law (Canon 277), is also quite a different matter. Both of these concerns require searching consideration, this, especially in times not given to doing searching consideration of complex issues.

Here, though, I make two different points.

1. Simplex priests.

Unusual under Pio-Benedictine Law and virtually unheard of under the Johanno-Pauline Code so-called “simplex priests” are men ordained to priesthood but, notwithstanding their canonical good-standing, lack “faculties” for hearing sacramental confession (as required by Canon 966) and/or for preaching (generally presumed, but liable to restriction, under Canon 764). Simplex priests can celebrate the Eucharist, solemnly baptize, anoint the sick, catechize the faithful, and hold a variety of ecclesiastical offices including associate pastor (or, for that matter, pastor or chaplain though the practicality of such appointments would be highly questionable).

In brief, simplex priests are ‘fully priests’ and are bound by all clerical obligations, they simply lack some of the canonical authorizations that priests need for certain areas of ministry. But having this kind of restricted ministry, a ministry focused on offering Mass and, say, providing spiritual care to children and the elderly (i.e., those most impacted by the difficulties of life in remote regions) means that bishops could, I think, see their way to reducing the otherwise extensive education program demanded (see Canons 232 and foll.) of men destined for full-time, all-embracing priestly ministry. In short, simplex priests would require less training and less diocesan support. I just published a short article on simplex priests — see Edward Peters, “The ‘simplex priest’: ministry with a past, ministry with a future?”, Fellowship of Catholic Scholars Quarterly 41 (2018) 109-114 — and will link to it when it is available on-line.

Now, about those clerical obligations…

2. Clerical celibacy and continence.

Canon 277 demands perfect and perpetual continence, and therefore celibacy, of all Western clergy. While some mitigation of the obligation of celibacy has been introduced in our lifetime (but only some, see, e.g., Canon 1087), no mitigation in the obligation of continence, an ancient, nay apostolic, expectation in the West, has been introduced in modern canon law. The clerical continence issue and its implications have been extensively discussed by me (and others) and I won’t repeat that discussion now.

Suffice to say, though, that nothing I have seen in the wake of these discussions, including a 2011 letter from Cdl. Coccopalmerio (whose interpretation of Amoris laetitia as authorizing holy Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics I have also disputed) dissuades me from reading the law now as it has always and unanimously been read in the West, i.e., as demanding perfect and perpetual continence of all western clerics, married or single.

But precisely because the claim here is about what the law now is, as opposed to what (in the view of some) the law ought to be, the Synod of the Amazon must, I think, come to grips with the demonstrable obligation of clerical continence (again, an obligation distinguishable from celibacy) that has always marked Western ordained ministry and, as part of its wider consideration of married priests, simplex or otherwise, decide whether that ancient obligation is to be (1) repudiated (as is effectively the situation now); (2) refined (as is possible, though at some cost); or (3) recovered (as has been done at other crucial points in Church history).

That, or the bishops to be assembled could just kick the can down the road.



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