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Posted November 20, 2006

Benedict XVI, top aides to discuss Milingo and celibacy

Posted on Nov 14, 2006 04:51am CST.
By John L. Allen, Jr.
New York

Last night, the Vatican Press Office released the following communiqué:

The Holy Father has convened for Thursday, November 16, a meeting of the heads of offices of the Roman Curia to examine the situation created following the disobedience of Archbishop Emmanuel Milingo, and to undertake a reflection on requests for dispensation from celibacy as well as requests for readmission to priestly ministry presented by married priests in the course of the most recent years. Other topics are not anticipated on the schedule.”

Italian reports suggested that the meeting would also discuss recent rumors that Pope Benedict XVI is considering issuing a motu proprio, or a document under his personal authority, authorizing wider use of the pre-Vatican II Latin Mass. One report indicated that a paper on the subject would be presented by Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos, President of the Ecclesia Dei Commission, created by Pope John Paul II to work with Catholics attached to the old Mass, especially the followers of the late French Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre.

The Vatican statement, however, appears to contradict those reports, suggesting that the discussion will be confined to Milingo and celibacy.

On Sept. 24, Milingo ordained four bishops without authorization from Pope Benedict XVI, and on Sept. 26 the Vatican responded by declaring Milingo and the four new bishops excommunicated. Milingo has nevertheless vowed to press on in his struggle to persuade Pope Benedict XVI to accept a married priesthood.

Milingo has resumed living with his own wife, Maria Sung, whom he wed in a 2001 mass ceremony presided over by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon of the Unification Movement.

Each year roughly 300 requests for dispensation from the priestly state arrive in the Vatican, though the majority of priests who leave to become married never go through this formal process. There are an estimated 150,000 priests who left to become married worldwide, and many have indicated their willingness to return to priestly service should permission be granted.

The subject of priestly celibacy came up repeatedly during the Synod of Bishops on the Eucharist in October 2005. Pope Benedict XVI is now preparing the concluding apostolic exhortation from the synod.

The synod’s final proposition on celibacy was the following:

“The Synod Fathers have affirmed the importance of the inestimable gift of ecclesiastical celibacy in the practice of the Latin Church. With reference to the magisterium, in particular Vatican II and the recent popes, the Fathers have asked that the reasons for the relationship between celibacy and priestly ordination be illustrated adequately to the faithful, in full respect for the traditions of the Eastern churches. Some made reference to the viri probati, but this hypothesis was evaluated as a path not to follow.”

The phrase viri probati refers to “tested married men,” meaning men who are pillars of their communities, well-known for their personal morality and their knowledge of church doctrine and practice, who might be called into priestly service.

Pope Benedict XVI followed the synod debates closely, however, and is well aware that the language of the final proposition in some ways did not do justice to the complexities of the discussion on the floor.

There was general agreement among participants that mandatory celibacy in the Western church is not the cause of the priest shortages that affect many parts of the Catholic world. Secularization and the general reluctance of modern men and women to make lifelong commitments, participants believe, are the deeper forces at work, noting that many Christian denominations with married clergy or female clergy are also experiencing shortages. Moreover, numerous interventions from bishops from Eastern rite churches, which already have married priests, offered powerful witness to the practical difficulties created by such a system. Many of these bishops warned that married priests sometimes experience hardship in balancing their commitments to their families and their parishes, that bishops often find it difficult to economically support priests with families, and that it is much more difficult to move married priests to new assignments when their wives have jobs and their children are in schools in a given location.

Further, at least in many parts of the developed world, the priesthood is not just a spiritual vocation but also in some ways a profession requiring specialized training and competence. It’s not clear, some bishops have warned, that the viri probati would necessarily bring the skills and background that Catholics have come to expect of their priests.

None of this is to suggest, however, that participants believed there are no situations in which the viri probati might merit further consideration. Several synod fathers have mentioned areas in the developing world, such as rural areas of Latin America or the Pacific Islands, where isolated communities strung out over vast distances often go without priests for long periods of times, perhaps months. Participants were struck by the repeated appeals of bishops facing such situations, and regard them as requiring creative pastoral solutions. In those cases, some participants felt, there may be good reasons for considering the viri probati as a potential solution.

In such cases, however, participants appeared to agree that the ball is in the court of individual bishops and bishops’ conferences, rather than the synod, to approach the pope with a recommendation. The consensus seemed to be that as a matter of the general discipline of the Western church, celibacy should be upheld, but that in individual cases exceptions are imaginable.

Cardinal Thomas Williams of New Zealand, for example, said this to me in a February 2006 interview:

“In the end, it was clear that the ordination of the viri probati was not going to get majority support in the form of a proposition, in part because of the views of some of the bishops from the Curia,” Williams said. “The decision was to live to battle in another arena on another day. Some felt, ‘How bad do things have to get before we can get people to listen?’ Some bishops are very concerned. They have to send consecrated hosts in quantity in biscuit tins with pilots on island-hopping planes, or with the skippers of fishing boats, to be handed over to catechists, in order to be sure that people have the Eucharist. This is happening in Papua New Guinea, in the Solomon Islands, in other Pacific Islands. These places would be isolated without their airstrips. In New Guinea, some missionaries have to trek for three days to reach their communities.”

Benedict XVI has long been aware of the debate.

In the 1997 interview that became Salt of the Earth, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger discussed the issue of celibacy at length. At that time, he said he did not anticipate married priests in the Catholic Church, “at least not in the foreseeable future,” as anything other than exceptional cases (such as converts from Anglicanism or Lutheranism).

“One ought not to declare that any custom of the Church’s life, no matter how deeply anchored and well founded, is wholly absolute,” Ratzinger said then.

“To be sure, the church will have to ask herself the question again and again … But I think that given the whole history of Western Christianity and the inner vision that lies at the basis of this whole, the church should not believe that she will easily gain much by resorting to this uncoupling [of priesthood and celibacy]; rather in any case she will lose if she does so.”

Privately, some Vatican sources expressed irritation to NCR that Milingo has apparently succeeded in “goading” a response from Benedict XVI. These officials voiced doubt that the Zambian prelate actually has the capacity to muster a schism on the order of that triggered by the late French Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre after the Second Vatican Council, and hence wondered why the pope appears to be taking his defection seriously.

Others, however, argued that Milingo at best provides a catalyst for a discussion over celibacy – which, as the Synod of Bishops suggests, poses much deeper issues than Milingo’s personal fate.

Submitted by Chris Sullivan on November 14, 2006 - 1:45pm.

Of the dozen or so rites in the Catholic Church, only the Latin Rite requires mandatory priestly celibacy.

There are no doctrinal reasons in the Tradition which require mandatory priestly celibacy.

This is only a man-made law of the Church which can be changed by the Church and will be changed by the Church.

Allowing married priests won't solve the vocations crisis but if a good number of the 150,000 priests who left the priesthood to marry would return if allowed, then this would go a very long way towards allowing the faithful what is their right - access to the sacraments.

God has given us what we need to "feed my lambs" we just need to wake up, change the man-made rules, and allow God to work through the married priests he has so generously provided for us.

God Bless