Indeed, bishops of all stripes — from reformers to traditionalists — in the remote and overwhelmed areas of the Church have long appealed to the Vatican to allow the ordination of married men to combat the perilous shortage of priests.
Last week, Pope Francis brought the issue to the forefront by indicating his openness to studying the idea in an interview with the German newspaper Die Zeit. He also made it clear that he was not advocating an end to celibacy for current priests or those aspiring to join the clergy.
“The problem is the lack of vocations, a problem the Church must solve,” Francis said. “We must think about whether viri probati are one possibility, but that also means discussing what tasks they could take on in remote communities. In many communities at the moment, committed women are preserving Sunday as a day of worship by holding services of the Word. But a Church without the Eucharist has no strength.”
Viri probati is Latin for “tested” or “proven” men.
To understand what Francis calls the “vocation crisis,” one need only look at a 2015 report issued by Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA).
Between 1980 and 2012, the world’s Catholic population increased 57 per cent, or 445 million souls to a total of 1.2 billion, but the number of priests remained about the same; and only because of extraordinary growth in the priesthood in Africa and Asia.
“A growing phenomenon within the Church is the use of African and Asian priests in the United States, Europe and elsewhere where there are too few native priests to staff parishes,” the report finds. “Globally, the ratio of Catholics per priest worsened, as the number of Catholics per priest increased from 1,895 in 1980 to 2,965 in 2012.”
But pulling priests from Africa and Asia to serve Canada and other Western countries cannot continue indefinitely. The world’s Catholic population is expected to grow to 1.64 billion by 2050 and thousands of new parishes will be needed in Africa, South America and Asia. Priests to pastor these new communities will be urgently required.
Previous popes, John Paul II and Benedict XVI, hoped the steep decline in European and North American priests was an anomaly, but clearly it’s not.
Some think ordaining married men does not go far enough towards solving the vocation crisis and have called for the end of mandatory celibacy for priests, too. Is upholding the celibacy rule — a code of canon law, not doctrine or fundamental belief — worth depriving the faithful of Mass and confession, they ask.
“This is now an open topic in the Church today, whereas under John Paul II or Benedict, you could not talk about this,” Fr. Thomas J. Reese, a Jesuit priest and senior analyst for The National Catholic Reporter, told The New York Times.
In his Die Zeit interview, Francis also discussed the issue of ordination of women deacons and the commission he set up last year to study whether women were indeed ordained deacons in the early Church and what work they performed.
Francis said he has received no formal word from the commission, which is currently meeting for the third time since its inception. But a Syrian professor has told him the commission has ascertained that women deacons in the early Church helped at baptisms, the anointment of the sick and examination of women who complained to their bishop of being beaten by their husbands.
Francis gave no indication when the commission would report to him or if there is a timetable on addressing the question of women deacons. He did reiterate that he sees “little possibility” for allowing women to become priests.
It’s pretty clear some action on vocations is needed and Francis’ comments about the crisis did not come out of the blue. The Catholic news website Crux estimates more than half of the Church’s communities worldwide have no resident priest.
Crux also predicts the next Synod of Bishops will likely focus on ministry — including the question of whether, in some special circumstances, married men can be ordained to celebrate the sacraments, in effect creating a parallel priesthood.
These are interesting times, indeed, as the Church realigns worldwide to serve the faithful.
“The parishes that served the Church for hundreds and hundreds of years are no longer closely aligned with the world’s Catholic population and certainly not its most frequently Mass-attending populations. However, there is no giant crane that can pick up a parish from Europe and relocate it to Africa,” the CARA report concludes and Francis seems to understand.
(Brehl is a writer in Port Credit, Ont., and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or @bbrehl on Twitter.)