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Married Priests? “Viri probati” and other challenges.

Yesterday, Crux and others shared news that Pope Francis, in an interview with the German newspaper Die Zeit, had indicated openness to ordaining married men in the Latin Church. It is not the first time. Twenty, thirty years ago, one could safely bet that the world’s bishops supported the idea, but it was the pope who was opposed; now it seems to be the other way around.

However, as you read the comments available from today’s article (so far, only portions of the interview are available) it does not sound all that “open” after all. There are some serious red flags already flying. At first glance, fully anticipating more clarity from the full interview, I have three questions:

  • Who are these “viri probati”?
  • What would be the effect on the diaconate?
  • Why would “isolated communities” be better for married priests, or, why would it be difficult to “find what to do with them”?

Who are these “viri probati”?

Viri probati is a red herring. Not that I have anything against the ordination of “proven men”, of course. However, all the ordained, not just the married ordained, should be “proven” or “tested” before ordination. To raise this ambiguous phrase exclusively in the discussion of ordaining married men, either to the diaconate or the presbyterate in the Latin Church, is potentially distracting from more serious issues.

The standard should be the same for married and celibate men, in terms of formation and education, character and ability. It is unethical and unnecessary to set a higher bar for married clergy than for celibate clergy – or for that matter, to set a higher age limit.

Who is “proven”? This phrase floats around with virtually no formal definition or context. If the practice of the diaconate is any indication, many bishops seem to think that it means retired volunteers without formal ministry formation or experience. That the “proof” is in a life of being a happily married faithful Catholic in a secular vocation. This is good, but it is insufficient, and better “proof” of being an active lay person in the Church than an ordained minister.

If we are to turn to “proven men” we must think of the same people that the Council Fathers thought of as “already exercising diaconal ministry” (AG 16) as the first candidates for ordination to the diaconate. We ought to consider those men “already exercising presbyteral ministry” as candidates for the presbyterate.

Look first to the lay ecclesial ministers, catechists, chaplains, pastoral workers, lay theologians who have committed their lives in service to the Church, whose vocation is already clearly ecclesial, rather than secular. They have already given years to the education, formation, and experience we want in our priests and deacons. Most often, they have done so at considerable expense and sacrifice to themselves and their families – usually, tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth, compared to “traditional” seminarians, who have been sponsored by the diocese throughout formation. These are your “proven men”.

What of the effect on the diaconate?

Because of the accidents of history and the slow, and often piecemeal, approach to reform and development in the Church, there can be no doubt that several men called to be presbyters have been ordained deacons because, and often for no other reason than, they are married. Similarly, there are men in the presbyterate who really ought to be deacons, but as celibates, were pressured into the presbyterate.

I have long been convinced that we need more married presbyters and more celibate deacons. It is an error to believe that celibacy defines the presbyterate or marriage the diaconate. In their ancient roots, if anything, the reverse was more likely to be true. One’s vocation to ministry, and one’s vocation to relationship, are two distinct questions.

Whenever discussion turns to the topic of restoring the discipline of a married clergy in the Latin Church, I envision disaster for the diaconate, if it is handled badly. We are only part-way through the process of restoring the diaconate as a proper order of ministry, full and equal to the presbyterate, of a lower “rank” than the bishop.

As long as we still have transitional deacons, and the question of women in the diaconate is unsettled, we have not yet completed this process. As long as people still define the diaconate more sociologically – as a band-aid solution for a lack of priests, as a retiree’s volunteer ministry, as the holding place for married clergy – rather than a vocation and ecclesiologically essential order in and of itself, we are still a work in progress on the diaconate. Simply waking up tomorrow to a a married presbyterate would lead to an exodus from one order to the other without the balance going the other way.

Though, perhaps this should be encouraged – a discernment of orders without the distraction of the celibacy/marriage dichotomy. Say, a ten year open period where anyone previously ordained to one order could ‘relocate’ to the other, if it fit more their calling.

This would necessitate making clear what belongs to the deacon as the first assistants to the bishop: the diocesan curia, the deaneries, the diplomatic and ecumenical work, responsibility for personnel and finance, assisting in the governance of the church. The presbyterate is primarily an advisory group to the bishop, the local church’s ‘council of elders’. In short, deacons extend the bishop’s ministry (diakonia), as the presbyter extends the bishop’s priesthood, as cultic leader and presider at Eucharist.

Related to this is the age of ordination. Canon law currently suggests that celibate candidates can be ordained at 25 while married candidates at 35 (CIC §1031). Recent discussion on raising the minimum age of presbyteral ordination to 27 have been entirely too modest. This double standard should end – a single, common minimum age for both orders and both states of life. All candidates, whether married or celibate, for deacon or priest, should be at least 35 years of age.

As a seminary professor in Rome for the last few years, and from several years of working on lay ecclesial and diaconal formation, I have come to know a variety of candidates for ministry. In my experience, there is really no such thing as a “late” vocation, but I have witnessed many premature ordinations.

Many of these prematurely ordained presbyters end up leaving, and/or doing great damage to the local church, not having been “proven” in any real way. This older minimum age would allow a testing period as lay ecclesial ministers, and/or in a secular vocation. I do not think anyone should be ordained who has not put in at least five years of pastoral ministry in some context. It would also allow for discernment between vocation to each order in its own right and on its own merit, questions of marriage/celibacy aside.

Isolated communities? Really?

It is not clear if this is a response to a question, or part of a larger comment. But it raises the spectre of a kind of ‘clericalism within clericalism’. What possible reason is there for restricting the ministry of married clergy other than an elitism of the celibates?

I can think of two good ones:

1) that more stable positions (such as parish pastor) would be a better fit to married clergy than more itinerant positions (such as missionary or diplomat) which might better suit a celibate. Many of the former are more presbyteral, as well, while the later tend to be diaconal, which is worth considering.

2) In those areas where persecution is a real threat – and here I think danger of a martyr’s death – there is perhaps more freedom in a celibate clergy. But this is not the case in many parts of the world.

Perhaps in some communities or cultures a transition period will be necessary. I remember meeting a Filipino priest here in Rome who had never heard of the Eastern Catholic Churches, and had no idea there were married Catholic priests anywhere in the communion. He assumed all such were Anglican or Protestant. Or an American who was shocked at seeing her parish deacon, still vested, give his wife a chaste kiss after mass. These things have to be normalized, with charity and intentionality. That can take a little time, but not really that much.

There is no reason to suggest that married clergy would only be useful in “isolated communities” but it is not clear yet if that is entirely what the Holy Father said or meant. He could have meant that this is one obvious example of need – in many parts of the world the Eucharist is not a daily or weekly liturgy, but monthly or quarterly, for no other reason than a shortage of presbyters. In such ‘isolated communities’ more priests, married or celibate, would be a great service to the local church.

In most cases, there is no compelling reason to make such a distinction, between how and where a celibate or married priest might serve, and no burden or barrier should be placed without grave reason (cf. Acts 15:28).

In closing….

Finally, two other possible considerations, as long as we are rethinking the discipline of our ordained ministers.

First, the Latin Church does not share the Eastern tradition of restricting the episcopate to the monastic (and therefore celibate) clergy. While there is wisdom in this discipline, there is also wisdom in the Western tradition of married bishops, who are called from, and in service to, the diocesan churches. Perhaps that is for later consideration, but we must face these questions with a full awareness of our own tradition.

Second, since Nicaea, the Catholic/Orthodox Church has allowed ordination of married men but not marriage of ordained men. Yet there are apostolic churches that allowed marriage after ordination (e.g., The Assyrian Church of the East). This is also the almost universal practice of the other churches and ecclesial communities of the Western tradition.

At the time this disciplinary compromise was reached, the normal age for marriage was as early as 12-14. Ordination might come a decade later, and life expectancy for those who had lived long enough to get married was about 45. It was obvious that questions of marriage would be settled before questions of ministry.

Today, the reverse is true. In many contemporary cultures, one is expected to have completed education and established a career before entering into marriage. Following the logic that gave us the ancient discipline, it would almost make more sense today to forbid marriage before ordination! At least, we should reconsider this ancient discipline in light of the same sociological factors that inspired it.

All of these questions need to be considered for their ecumenical impact, too, and the wisdom of experience from both East and West should be part of our discernment in revisiting these ancient disciplinary questions.

If nothing else, we can be grateful for a bishop of Rome willing to entertain the question, no matter the result.

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