In just three months, a relative handful of bishops meeting in Rome is expected to reach a decision with potentially momentous consequences for the entire Western Church. The bishops will be participants in a long-awaited regional synod of bishops for the Amazon region of South America. The decision they are expected to reach is to ask the pope for permission to ordain elderly married men to celebrate Mass, or at least for permission formally to study doing just that.
Pope Francis is expected to say yes. The permission will apply only to Amazonia. But bishops elsewhere — Germany is a case in point — will be watching closely and will consider doing the same.
And then — who knows what happens after that? Will the synod’s action prove to have been a reasonable step toward solving a serious pastoral problem in vast, priest-starved Amazonia? Will history see it as the opening step toward undermining priesthood in the Western Church at large? Or will it be a bit of both?
With seemingly providential good timing, as the Church waits to see what the synod does, a new book by an American priest has appeared that makes the case for celibacy with admirable clarity and conviction. The book is “Why Celibacy? Reclaiming the Fatherhood of the Priest” (Emmaus Road Publishing, $24.95) by Father Carter Griffin, a convert to Catholicism, graduate of Princeton University and former Navy line officer who is now vice-rector of St. John Paul II Seminary in Washington, D.C.
The book is not a polemic directed against the Amazon synod or the ordination of married men — at least, when it’s a matter of exceptional measures for exceptional circumstances as may be the case in Amazonia. His principal target instead is optional celibacy, whose generalized adoption by the Church would be, he believes, a “great mistake.” He writes: “The burden of proof … rests on those who would challenge the Church’s long-standing faithfulness to priestly celibacy. There is not only a historical continuity that would be broken by relinquishing the gift; there is also a profound theological and pastoral congruence with the priestly vocation that would be set aside, at least in part, with manifold repercussions for the salvific ministry of the Church.”
Proposals to diminish the commitment to celibacy, he says, have their origin largely in “a spirit of fear and a failure to see the radical claims of the priesthood, rather than from an evangelical spirit of confidence in God’s grace.”
Father Griffin sees no merit in the unsubstantiated assertion that celibacy causes clerical sex abuse. On the contrary, he argues, when priests become abusers it is a failure not of celibacy but of chastity and, beyond that, “a failure to live celibacy as priestly fathers. Good fathers simply do not abuse their children, and they tolerate no one who might.”
Be that as it may, it now seems possible that a limited experiment in married priesthood may soon be underway in the Amazon and perhaps some other places. Considering the implications for the entire Church, it seems more than a little strange that this should be left in the hands of “synodality” at work in an isolated corner of worldwide Catholicism.
And whatever happens in Amazonia — or, for that matter, in Rome — there plainly is a need to devote serious attention to understanding and promoting priestly celibacy as the vehicle of what Father Griffin calls priestly fatherhood — a chosen instrument of men who, in the words of St. Teresa of Calcutta whom he quotes, collaborate with Jesus “to fill heaven with God’s children.”
Russell Shaw is a contributing editor for Our Sunday Visitor.