Four Kinds of Problems with the Pan-Amazon Proposal on Married Priests

Eamonn Clark

The suggestion has been floated around in some quarters that at the newly announced Pan-Amazon Synod, to happen in 2019, bishops will discuss the possibility of ordaining married men in their region to the order of Priest. These “viri probati,” “proven men,” would make up for the absolute dearth of priests deep in the jungles of South America, where people are often deprived of the sacraments for long periods of time. There have been some missionary efforts there, but the terrain is vast and unfriendly, and the culture is extremely difficult to adapt to, so there has been limited success. It seems to some that simply ordaining certain men in isolated communities would help to make up for the absence of celibate priests in the area.

I note at least 4 categories of problems with the proposed solution. They are as follows:

  1. Canonical. The Code of Canon law, which binds the Latin Church (including, presumably, the men who might be ordained in the Amazon,) does allow for the possibility of married priests under certain circumstances (see c. 1047, §2, n. 3), but nowhere is the obligation to perfect and perpetual continence lifted for any cleric in the Code (though entering Orders – even the diaconate – without understanding or making the promise of continence means one cannot be obliged to its fulfillment). There has been much misunderstanding of the obligation to continence as distinct from the obligation of celibacy, and the widespread priestly ordination of married men in the Latin Church would make this worse. (On the other hand, it might finally get the mess canonically resolved.) For more on this confusing topic, see Dr. Ed Peter’s fine treatment here.
  2. Standard objections. There are many intrinsic problems with the idea of a married presbyterate. There are the economic problems, such as the time and energy a father and husband would have to spend between his family and the service of the community – or several communities, sometimes perhaps separated by miles of thick jungle, in this case. The resources needed to educate and train these priests adequately is an additional economic strain (and would likely never rise to the level of a normal priestly education), as is the payment of the priest who has to make enough income to provide for his family. There is the loss of the power of the witness of celibacy, which is a sign of contradiction to the spirit of the world, reminding people that there is a Heaven and a Hell, a death and a judgment, and that we had better start thinking about these things now if we are to be prepared for them later. There is also the impoverishment of the spirituality of the Latin priesthood as normally understood, which is spousal in nature and urges the priest toward greater charity for those in his care. In general, it seems that all the normal problems of a married priesthood obtain.
  3. Internal prudential. Not only will there likely be no comparison between the education and training of the Amazonian viri probati and a regular Latin priest, to the possibly very grave positive harm of the community (due to serious deficiencies in the confessional, in the pulpit, and so on), but the deeper problem causing the shortage is ignored. It is like a man who drinks to cure his depression – the feeling will go away for a while, but the underlying cause is never addressed. In the meantime, an addiction is developed which harms him positively and perpetuates the deeper problem, perhaps even worsening it. If there are no normal vocations to the priesthood, it is due to a lack of faith, a lack of zeal, a lack of something important in the local church. This ought to be the real object of discussion.
  4. External prudential. Once the Amazon has viri probati priests, who else will feel entitled? What other areas or countries will claim that they need this compromise? Meanwhile, as more concessions are made due to mounting pressure, the three foregoing sets of problems will perpetuate themselves.

The idea of a “simplex priest” may be what the bishops have in mind, a priest who does not do all of the public actions a priest with full faculties to preach and hear confessions would… But that comes with other problems, which will be addressed in a future post.

In summary, the bishops meeting at the Pan-Amazon Synod ought to think these things through quite carefully. I, for one, am unconvinced that it is a wise idea. But then again, I’ve only ever been to Amazon.com…

16 thoughts on “Four Kinds of Problems with the Pan-Amazon Proposal on Married Priests

    1. The Eastern Catholic Churches, as well as the Orthodox Churches, have had married priests for centuries. I’m a member of an Eastern Catholic parish. The pastor is married, and is the best confessor I’ve ever had.

      It’s not a question of one or the other. The Church needs BOTH unmarried and married priests. Each kind has different gifts and experiences to bring to their ministry for the sanctification (theosis) of the faithful.

      I’m not suggesting ordination of married men to the priesthood as a panacea for the Latin Church. Orthodox have a problem with having enough priests, too.

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      1. As the Scriptures say, “Do not move an ancient boundary stone set up by your fathers.” The East has become very used to it, within its own liturgical, canonical, and spiritual traditions… For the Latins, it seems it would be quite a Pandora’s Box to start making the “Amazonian Exception.”

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  1. I also wonder about formation in this case. We forget that living the life of prayer, fraternal charity in community are an essential part of forming a priest

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  2. We have a married priest at our church. Greatly loved by all. Wonderful in confession. Understands the feminine view as well as the masculine. And as he has children and grandchildren, understands situations concerning family matters. Doesn’t need to read a book or be church instructed in these matters, he has lived them and knows what is necessary in handling problems. Never had a better priest.

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    1. When I was a seminarian, I once lived next door to a priest of the Ordinariate – some dozen kids or so. Fantastic individual, also a good confessor, preacher, etc. With that, please don’t take my objection to the Amazonian Exception as a smear of such men! Rather, the concerns are principle-based, and some would even extend to good married priests as well, given that they are a priori realities – especially obvious are the economic factors, finances in particular (as the priest I refer to would agree with!). In a wealthy suburban parish, Father might be able to afford to send his kids to college due to the generosity of parishioners and still be able to feed himself and the Mrs., but I must wonder about the prudence of a man giving up normal gainful employment in the depths of the South American rainforest… And I really must wonder, as I lack the knowledge to explore particulars. But certainly, it is “different.”

      On the other hand, I also lived with a widower-priest who was adamant he could never do what he does if he were still married. And it is not as if he was unfamiliar with the work earlier in life so as to lack perspective, as he was a permanent deacon for decades, and his son was a priest before him!

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  3. Two points:
    I know 3 married Catholic priests, every one of them outstanding. Happy wife, good kids, managing the balance between church and home, etc. BUT they’re not serving in the Amazon jungle. I also know a protestant missionary who felt called to serve in the extreme outposts of South America, along with his wife and 3 kids. One daughter hated every minute of it and couldn’t wait to get back to the United States and her friends. On one trip home, she got pregnant so she wouldn’t have to go back. Another child was killed by a swarm of bees during a family outing. The 3rd child left the church as soon as he hit 18. Yes, yes, I know all sorts of bad things happen to families everywhere. But there’s a lesson here–the married priest is asking his whole family to sign on to his personal sacrifice. I have to wonder how many wives are itching to live in the jungle with the kids and little to no emergency medical services while their sweeties are gone for days at a time.

    Second, if there’s a dearth of unmarried priests, you figure out how to get more unmarried priests.

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  4. How do men become viri probati in the Church except by having lived a number of years as a faithful Catholic? It would seem to me that this rules out men who are still raising their families and thus solves the problem of divided loyalties. There are plenty of well-educated, married men in the Church in their fifties and sixties who have largely discharged their familial obligations. Given the increase in life expectancy these men may well have thirty years of ministry left in them if ordained. I don’t know the situation in Latin America, but I would venture that there are many married men in the States who have degrees, even higher degrees in theology. There is very likely a large pool of men who left the priesthood to marry in the post-Vatican II turmoil and who would welcome the opportunity to exercise their priesthood for the years remaining to them.

    Then there are the viri probati who do not have the required education, but who know enough to be simplex priests, “Mass priests” who could offer Mass in the many areas of the world where people do not have the opportunity to get to Mass very often due to the shortage of priests.

    I grant that the loss of witness to celibacy and witness to the very possibility of chastity would be a real loss, if all our priests were married, but that is unlikely to be the case. And as significant a loss as that is, it pales in comparison to the loss of Mass and the Sacraments for many people in the Church. Insisting on to the witness to celibacy in all priests and in effect thereby denying the sacraments to many people is a classic case of making the best the enemy of the good. Is it not far more important that people receive the sacraments than that they receive them from the hands of a priest vowed to celibacy.

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    1. This is part of the question too – how “probati” is probati enough? I don’t know.

      As for “older men,” the Amazonian Tsimane tribe, for example, has a life expectancy of 43… My guess is the thought that other Amazonian people are living healthy lives into their 80’s and 90’s, let alone healthy enough to do active ministry in rugged terrain, is not realistic at all. We must be careful about “projection.”

      Men who left very often have problems which would preclude them from returning even if they wanted to, and it seems that sorting out the good from the bad would be a nightmare. (Though, I have thought about the question of being “on call” for hospitals… Even laicized priests can administer the last sacraments when one is very close to death. But what confusion might this cause?)

      Simplex priests I will speak about in another post. It would certainly provide sacraments, but… there are some spiritual and ecclesiological issues. Priests are not normally “Mass machines,” and venturing into this use of Orders might be quite unwise. There is also the question of perpetuating the problems…

      Yes, we should be careful to avoid a rigid kind of ritual purity. But, there is again the question of perpetuating the problem… If nobody is willing to be celibate, why? What is the problem with the life of the local church? Also, would the thought that “I can just wait until I’m older to get ordained” snuff out potential “normal” vocations? Etc.

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    2. Although the Church ordained married men to the priesthood up until the eleventh century, those men were not permitted to have conjugal relations after ordination. In other words, they were required to practice perfect continence. This rule was codified by councils as early as 325 AD and arguably was the practice since apostolic times. This rule, of course, was hard to enforce and was often disobeyed, which is one of the primary reasons the Church adopted strict celibacy in the 11th century. Since Canon Law (277) still requires all clerics to observe perfect continence, few married men would likely be willing to answer this “call” to serve as priests in the Amazon.
      Second, the Church never permitted men to marry after ordination, not even before it adopted strict celibacy. Therefore, the idea that men who left the priesthood to get married should be invited back to serve in South America would be a radical departure from the Church’s constant practice since its founding.

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  5. Although this whole discussion is premised on what is likely to come out of a synod on the Amazon, my assumption is that once viri probati are ordained there it will be a matter of months or at most a few years before the practice is permitted universally. What would stand in its way? So I was totally taken aback at the mention of “Amazonian Tsimane” tribemen as serious counter-argument.

    Mary, you write, “Since Canon Law (277) still requires all clerics to observe perfect continence, few married men would likely be willing to answer this “call” to serve as priests in the Amazon.” Not only is this canon law, but it is canon law out of pastoral necessity.

    Nevertheless, taking the argument out of the Amazon and Latin America, again there are plenty of viri probati in their fifties in the States who are already under the obligation of continence ( though they may not have heard of the obligation) many of whom not only have a bachelors degree, but substantial theological education and pastoral experience. They would require probably little more than a year of seminary education in moral theology, sacramental theology etc to be ready for priestly ordination. I am speaking of the very large pool of deacons which we have, on the order of 15,000. Of these, how many would be interested in pursuing the priesthood if it were open to them? How many of these couples would be willing to give up conjugal relations in order for the husband to serve in the priesthood? Well, these are already generous people and I would be surprised if a fairly large group of them would not be willing to make that sacrifice, especially given the age profile for the diaconate.

    “A Portrait of the Permanent Diaconate: a Study for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops 2013-2014” shows that fewer than 1% are under age 39. Another dispositive factor is the demand already made on their marriage and their relations by the diaconal ministry. In other words, my supposition is that many of them are already making that sacrifice. Yet, for the sake of argument, let us suppose that only 20% had vocations to the priesthood or the willingness of their wives to let them pursue it. That would give us the possibility of something like 3,000 priests. Moreover, my guess is that many of them would be willing to serve well past conventional retirement age for priests, since for all of them it would be an utterly new career.

    What a refreshing thing this would be for the Church! How many more Catholics would be able to receive the sacraments, how many more sermons given in clear English, how much more wisdom brought into the life of the Church by men who are not strangers to the way of the world, who are familiar with its idiom and can speak more credibly in many areas than men who have not had to contend with the demands of secular life so fiercely. For the Church, for the priesthood, it would be an immense boon.

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    1. The first point – a few months is a bit out there , though a few years is perhaps not. This should be an alarming reality – do you really think it wise for a country like Germany, for example (and a candidate for picking up on this) which has about 40 diocesan seminarians (for the WHOLE COUNTRY), to use a crutch of ordaining men who did not have the desire early in life to go “all in” for priestly ministry? That seems to ignore the deeper problem… Just how invested would these viri probati be? Not invested enough, by and large, I would guess. Other things would come first, just as they did earlier in life.

      You are saying gaps in education could be made up for in a year… Well, that might be true for simplex priests (a topic I’m reserving for another post), but if the suggestion is regarding fully functioning priests, that is totally reckless and would find no support in any relevant document (PPF, PDV, etc.)… One man I know, who became a priest after being a permanent deacon for some time, complained to me about his lack of education (which was 2 or 3 years of additional seminary education prior to priesthood), and I too could tell it was inadequate from what I saw. Permanent deacons are better formed than the average pew-sitting Catholic, but in my experience, not by a whole lot. 6 years of seminary for priesthood is what we typically have now, and this is a strain, which Rome is figuring out, as the CCE has been discussing adding a 3rd year of philosophy.

      As for the canonical issues – I can recommend Dr. Peters’ treatment. You seem to be saying there are men under an obligation they do not know about, which is canonically impossible.

      The whole idea of seeing priesthood as a “second career” (especially as something to start doing in retirement) is exactly the problem: that priesthood is being seen as a career – or even an intense hobby – rather than its own way of life and defining characteristic of one’s entire being. Father is not a man who happens to be a priest, Father is a priest who happens not to be Jesus Christ. The can of worms here is very large… “Do not move an ancient boundary stone set up by your fathers…” There are all the problems mentioned (how will the diocese pay them, for example, and then pay for their health expenses – which they might begin incurring almost immediately!), and the world would see a victory – “We finally got the Church to live like us.” It also would create a caste system in presbyterates… Not good at ALL.

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      1. And more than likely, what is being setup for the long run is tied into the push for Deaconettes. It may fail in the end but female ordination is bound to get another push . . . as the powers that are pushing these novelties want the priesthood to include everyone. Inclusive, egalitarianism is sweeping the Church as it is in, what was once considered, civilized society. Grab your rosaries and say your St. Michael prayers; the war is on.

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  6. This is so similar to our Lord’s parable about the complaint of those who have borne the heat of the day ( or who are thinking about bearing the heat of the day, or for that matter think that they can bear the heat of the day) concerning those who late in life are given or may be given the same “wage,” but is not God free to issue the call to the priesthood when he sees fit, and to whom he sees fit? ( Of course, a call to the priesthood is not earned, is not therefore a ‘wage,’ but the psychodynamics of resentment are very similar in the two cases)

    “Other things would come first, just as they did earlier in life.” Well with this slur you betray your age, for the “eldest went away first.” If the thought of the priesthood never even crossed a man’s mind in his youth, because then he was irreligious, or an Anglican or a Presbyterian, marries and later converts, pursues a life of holiness in his marriage and with his wife, feels drawn to the priesthood and having the opportunity to do so pursues ordination, how is he liable to any suspicion that he would not be fully invested in his priesthood?

    I will grant you that bringing a deacon up to speed may well take two or three years. But, again, there are many men in this country who already have higher degrees in theology, or who have quite a lot of seminary formation, but were thrown out of the seminary for reason of being too devout. See “Good-bye Good Men” Fr. Zuhlsdorf is a case in point, but he did not consider his dismissal the final word and had connections who shepherded him into the the seminary and the priesthood. Not everyone so dismissed had those connections and they are still around, probably married, but many of them walking wounded over the mystery of what they knew to be a real vocation that could not be brought to fruition. If the priesthood opens to them now, the mystery is solved and they can take up where they left off, and many of them were quite far along

    You write, “As for the canonical issues – I can recommend Dr. Peters’ treatment. You seem to be saying there are men under an obligation they do not know about, which is canonically impossible.”

    I believe I have seen Dr .Peter’s treatment in which he says that everyone in sacred orders is bound to celibacy. Yet, if you think that men in diaconal formation and their wives are routinely informed of this, you are naive. So they have an obligation of which they are ignorant. Of course, for a law to be binding, it has to be promulgated, so subjectively they are not guilty of contravening any canon, but nevertheless it is a real obligation of which they remain ignorant.

    Yes, I knew that I was leading with my chin in carelessly using the word career. Neverthless, I can think of several priests who are still quite healthy, but who reached retirement age and to my amazement and disappointment really retired. Yet, nevertheless, I understand, for there is such a thing as the burden of holiness. I had a taste of it in being an extra-ordinary minister of Holy Communion for a disabled lady who lived downstairs, and feeling the obligation to be extremely circumspect in every move, in every word and gesture. And that was only for a few hours every week. But to be under that weight as an “alter Christus” in every confession, in every Mass, in every consultation, in every sermon would be insupportable. Of course, the grace of ordination would enable one to bear the burden in the strength and the power of Christ, and of course once ordained one cannot resign from the priestthood. Nevertheless, I can well understand the desire to lay aside many of its responsibilities and to retire from the “career” aspect, i.e. pastoral responsibility.

    By the same token, a man who has had a career as a physician, a mail man, a salesman may well be tired of the “same old, same old,” and very grateful for the opportunity to use his talents, insights and experienceand graces in the priestly service of the Lord forthe rest of his life, and all the more eagerly throw himself into this second life. This is bad, or reprehensible on any account? I cannot for the life of me see how. Nor is there any contradiction whatever here with the priesthood becoming the defining characteristic of one’s life, even in the latter years of one’s life.

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    1. I’m not complaining about older men entering – one of my best friends from seminary was the oldest ordinand in the USA a few years ago – I am rather concerned about the prudence of this novel venture of allowing older married men “en masse” to enter presbyterates.

      Perhaps there are a few men such as you describe who would really work out, but the devil is in the details. It’s hard enough for many diocesan infrastructures to sift through the small trickle of applicants and handle their few seminarians. Just as well, it provides a baited hook for young men who otherwise would be willing to go the normal route – they would just think, “I’ll get ordained later, for now I’ll get married and XYZ.” There’s nothing wrong with getting married and doing XYZ (“other things coming first”), but it would be wrong to snuff out those vocations to celibacy. Unless the proposal has some kind of window for application… That might be a different matter.

      But all of it confuses much of the laity. I’ve seen it. That on its own isn’t a deal-breaker, but it is an item to consider. It can call into question many people’s already poor understanding of priesthood.

      As for the law – remember that there is a difference between celibacy and continence. The obligation is dispensed with if one does not accept it when it is supposed to be accepted (which would include ignorance of the requirement to accept it), so there really is not an obligation except categorically – for this individual man, there isn’t one. (Just like how all cardinals are bishops – except the ones who aren’t.) It makes no sense to say someone is under an obligation of which they are unaware, in law or in morals. I’ve put in the time to study the issue and am well aware of the problem of looking the other way (not to mention the confusion caused by the infamous Coccopalmerio letters which are always cited in support of the dispensation of continence).

      Older priests retiring is not a bad thing at all. Many “retired” priests I know are only nominally such… It removes the strain of administrative responsibility and allows a less stressful ministry to be accomplished. They can live at a parish and help out as they are able, but they don’t have the duties and worries of a pastor.

      Some “second career men” who are married might very well be “all in” as far as they can be – that is not the primary question. What I’m concerned with more is everything preceding it, surrounding it, and following it.

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