By Florencio Fianza
November 9, 2017
It is possible that in the not too distant future, we will be seeing married priests administering to the Roman Catholic faithful in this country.
Brazilian Claudio Cardinal Hummes, who is a friend of Pope Francis, requested the Pope to lift the ban on the ordination of married men specifically for Brazil which is the largest Roman Catholic country in the world.
The request is for the church to consider “vin probati,” the ordination of married men with proven great faith. Brazil, just like many other countries around the world, is suffering from a shortage of priests having only one priest per 10,000 faithful. It is thought that the ordination of married men might alleviate this acute problem.
This however, is not the only problem facing the Catholic Church today. There is the matter of sexual misconduct by priests which has caused tremendous damage to the prestige and reputation of the church as the guardian of faith and morals in the last couple of decades. At the moment, Australian Cardinal George Pell, formerly the third most powerful official in the Vatican, is undergoing criminal trial for child sexual abuse in his native country.
In the so-called Eastern Catholic Church, where priests are allowed to marry, the problem of sexual misconduct is not often heard of. Allowing priests to marry or ordaining married men with proven great faith might therefore go a long way in lessening this problem of the Catholic Church. It is like solving two huge problems with a single shot.
The issue of married priests has always been a contentious problem of the Church right from the very beginning. Right from the start, priests were allowed to marry. Seven popes in antiquity were in fact married starting with St Peter. The apostles were also married. But there were Church leaders who questioned not only the practicality of married priests but also whether marriage was damaging the purity of the church. Matters like married priests not sleeping with their wives the night before celebrating the holy mass started being required. Other subjects such as material things being evil and that a person cannot be married and be perfect at the same time started to take root in early Church teachings.
But it was not until the first and second Lateran Councils that the Church affirmed the prohibition of priests getting married. First in 1123 and then in 1139. It was a pope by the name of Callistus II who first issued the prohibition and was affirmed by Pope Innocent II. But even with this prohibitions, about 50 percent of priests in the 15th century were still married and accepted by the people. Worse, there were six popes who fathered illegitimate children after 1139. A pope by the name of Benedict IX also did away with celibacy and then resigned in the year 1045 in order to marry.
It was the Council of Trent in 1563 which finally reaffirmed the prohibition of priests getting married. This time, the decree was a lot more successful. This of course did not end the illicit practice of priests and bishops from fathering illegitimate children as we know up to this present day including here in the Philippines. This is perhaps because priests do not actually make a vow of celibacy but only make a promise to their bishops to be celibate.
Pope Francis I and his predecessor Benedict XVI have also both stated that celibacy is not a matter of inflexible dogma but a matter of discipline and therefore could be debated openly. The problem is that there are powerful conservative figures in the Vatican who view the current pope to have already tinkered so much with Church doctrines that they view anything that he does with a lot of suspicion and might make it difficult for Pope Francis to bring the Church closer to the 21th century.
It will also be very interesting to see how our very conservative Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines which have been modifying a lot of the pope’s pronouncements recently will react. If, as the late Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini said that the church is 200 years behind the times, it might be necessary to add another 200 years in the case of the Philippine Catholic Church. Our church is so behind the times that a friend remarked when we were discussing about our church leadership that if the Spanish friars during the Spanish colonial times were to return today, they would feel right at home and simply pick up from where they left.
But seriously, how would our Church leaders view the issue of married priests? And the other more important question to ask is, how would the Filipino Catholic faithful react to openly married Catholic priests in our midst? Will the faithful welcome them with open hearts? Even if we Filipinos are very tolerant people, it is not easy to predict how married priests will impact the faithful’s religiosity. It is really about time as Pope Francis said that this issue be debated openly. After all, it is not only Brazil that is experiencing a shortage of priests. Even here, there are fewer and fewer men and women who are choosing to enter the religious orders which is a fact not being experienced by Protestant Christian denominations that allow their ministers to marry. Opening the door to allow the ordination of married men with proven great faith will therefore allow the Church to move closer to modernity. If this happens, the remaining great barrier to break, if ever, will be to allow the ordination of women.