Synod Places Priest Shortage at Top of Papal Agenda
Thanks in part to high profile petitioning by U.S. and Australian
Catholics, the International Synod on the Eucharist broke a long-standing
taboo and openly discussed the worldwide priest shortage and optional
celibacy. Four of the synod’s twelve working groups wanted
to study a married priesthood or the so-called “viri-probati” option.
But the final proposition affirmed the current discipline of mandatory
celibacy, essentially deciding to do nothing about this growing
crisis in the Church. However, high ranking churchmen such as Pittsburgh’s
Bishop Donald Wuerl, who is on the post synod document committee,
and Rome’s Cardinal Walter Kasper, recently said the discussion
about married priests is still on the table.
Bishops Must Lead
By publicly acknowledging that the priest shortage keeps millions
of Catholics from the Eucharist, and then deciding to do nothing
about it, our bishops are
vulnerable to charges of failing to exercise leadership about another crisis
in the Church. They could be seen as abdicating responsibility for providing
Catholics with their Eucharistic birthright.
This birthright was recently confirmed by the highest legislative
authority in the Church, Cardinal Julian Herranz. After Cardinal
Angelo Scola of Venice opened
the synod by saying the Eucharist was a gift, not a right, thus implying that
a lack of priests was cause for prayer, not for changing church discipline on
mandatory celibacy, Herranz confirmed that canon law says Catholics have a right
to receive the Eucharist from Church leaders.
FutureChurch, and our Call To Action partners, can take some credit
for helping get the priest shortage and mandatory celibacy on
the synod agenda. 35,000 signatures
on our petition asking for discussion of married priests and female deacons were
delivered to U.S. Synod Delegates and the Pope’s administrative offices
along with the results of our survey of over 15,000 priests in 55 U.S. dioceses
showing 67% of respondents support discussing mandatory celibacy. The Australian
Council of Priests also vigorously called for discussion of married priests and
women’s roles in the Church.
Final Propositions Required Consensus
The international meeting of bishops was called to address issues
in the worldwide Church. Their final propositions required a consensus,
but time constraints and
synod structures do not permit the expanded discussion required for disputed
issues such as proposed “viri probati” (“tested men” aka
married priests) solution to the priest shortage.
Perhaps the best a three-week synod of bishops can do is to affirm
to be working, and point to what isn’t working and requires more attention
By these admittedly limited criteria, one could say that this synod didn’t
do half badly. The liturgical changes of Vatican II were overwhelmingly affirmed.
Mass in the vernacular is working. Bishop after Bishop noted it is a resounding
source of vitality for the world’s Catholics. Likewise the synod approved
proposition 48 which in liberation theology language not heard from the Vatican
in a very long time, called for transformation of unjust structures and strongly
denounced global economic injustice and depletion of the earth’s resources.
What doesn’t seem to be working are: recruitment efforts to the male celibate
priesthood; Eucharistic hospitality for the divorced and remarried and Christians
of other denominations who believe in the Real Presence; widespread use of the
sacrament of penance by the Catholic faithful; and any real effort to help global
corporate entities accept their social and ecologic responsibilities.
Appeal To Pope Possible
Over the next ten years, U.S. dioceses will face massive closing
and clustering of parishes because of the priest shortage. Demographers
predict that in the
foreseeable future, more than half of our 19,000 parishes will have no priest.
With a few notable exceptions, our bishops are failing to exercise leadership
in deciding what is more important to the Church, the Eucharist or an exclusively
male celibate priesthood.
Despite Australian Cardinal Pell’s efforts to portray the synod as an overwhelming
endorsement of mandatory celibacy, this was not what actually happened. One third
of the synod asking to study married priests cannot be considered an endorsement
of mandatory celibacy.
The proposals now go to Pope Benedict XVI who will write a
post synodal exhortation sometime in the next year.
There is nothing to stop national bishops conferences from petitioning
the Pope to look at studying the married priest option for their
regions, a fact confirmed
by Archbishop Wilton Gregory in an October 19 interview with National Catholic
Reporter’s John Allen.
Church must deal with Women Ministers
For the U.S. Church, a silver lining of the Bishops balking on
married male priests
is that we can’t really deal with solutions to the priest shortage without
talking about women’s ministerial roles as well, especially since there
are currently more female lay ministers in the Church than active diocesan priests.
While it would be easy to feel discouraged because the Synod on
the Eucharist did not move as far as it should have in dealing
with the shortage of priests,
we can take some comfort that the worldwide priest shortage is now squarely at
the top of Benedict’s papal agenda.
How he deals with it will dictate whether the Catholic Church flourishes
or continues the decline, as so poignantly identified by many
bishops from both the global
south and north.
(For FutureChurch’s selection of best
synod bishop quotes visit the futurechurch website.
For all synod interventions
visit the vatican