An idea to fill empty pulpits in remote locations by allowing married men to become priests is bitterly dividing a Vatican assembly, with critics warning the emotive issue could fracture the Catholic Church.
The hot-button topic of whether an exception can be made to the centuries-old custom of celibacy in places where there is a shortage of priests has dominated the start of the three-week “synod” on the Pan-Amazonian region.
Austro-Brazilian bishop Erwin Krautler said Wednesday he estimated some two-thirds of the bishops in the region support the idea of “viri probati” (married “men of proven virtue”) as candidates for priesthood. “There is no other option, indigenous peoples are clearly asking for it,” the former bishop of Xingu in Brazil told journalists.
Pope Francis has suggested those at the assembly consider the possibility of ordaining married men for remote locations, such as the Amazon or the Pacific Islands, where communities seldom have Mass due to a lack of priests.
Only priests can consecrate the Eucharist, which is a key part of Catholic Mass. Krautler and other supporters of the idea say the Eucharist is more important than celibacy, which is not a Church law and only dates back to the 11th century.
“Just as the magnificent jaguar faces exile from its habitat, the ecclesiastical ecosystem no longer manages to arouse and support enough priestly and religious vocations,” a person who attended the synod debates cited an unnamed Spanish-language bishop as saying.
“We are witnessing a sort of deforestation of Catholic culture,” he added. The synod’s chair, Brazilian Cardinal Claudio Hummes, said Monday the Church needed to “define new paths for the future” in response to the calls not only for married priests but also for suitable ministries for women in the region.