Pope Francis Signals Willingness to Discuss Ordaining Married Men to Priesthood

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Pope Francis has reportedly expressed openness to discussing the possibility of ordaining married men to the priesthood in order to offset a priest shortage in Brazil.

Reports in the Italian media said that Brazilian Cardinal Claudio Hummes asked the pontiff to put the discipline of ecclesiastical celibacy up to a vote for the region of Amazonia when a synod of bishops convenes in the Vatican to discuss the needs of the Church in that region next year.

Cardinal Hummes is president of the Episcopal Commission for Amazonia, the former head of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Clergy, and a personal friend of the Pope.

According to unnamed Vatican sources, the Pope acquiesced to the request, and expressed his willingness for a debate over the issue among the bishops in synod, to discuss the pros and cons of ordaining married men in Brazil’s Amazon region.

Last December, the controversial liberation theologian Leonardo Boff said that Pope Francis might soon accept the Brazilian bishops’ petition to allow married priests to resume their priestly ministry.

“The Brazilian bishops, especially the Pope’s close friend Cardinal Claudio Hummes, have expressly requested Pope Francis to enable married priests in Brazil to return to their pastoral ministry,” Boff said interview with the German daily Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger.

In Amazonia, the proportion of priests to laypersons is particularly low, with one priest for every 10,000 faithful. Evangelical Protestantism has made significant inroads in South America, with numerous conversions from Catholicism to evangelical and Pentecostal churches.

According to a 2014 report by the Pew Research Center, at least 90 percent of Latin America’s population was Catholic during most of the 20th century, whereas now the number has dropped to below 70 percent. “In nearly every country surveyed,” Pew found, “the Catholic Church has experienced net losses from religious switching, as many Latin Americans have joined evangelical Protestant churches or rejected organized religion altogether.”

As a result, one in five Brazilians is a former Catholic, making this a significant demographic group in its own right.

Last March, the Pope caused a minor stir by seeming to suggest that he could consider the possibility of modifying the discipline of ecclesiastical celibacy, at least in certain circumstances, by perhaps ordaining so-called viri probati, or tried-and-true married Catholic men.

The Catholic Church does not consider priestly celibacy to be a matter of dogma but rather a discipline, which was adopted for the universal Church in the 12th century. Nonetheless, recent popes have reaffirmed the value of a celibate clergy and showed little interest in revisiting the matter.

The Catholic Church already has a limited number of married priests, notably former Anglican pastors who came into full communion with the Catholic Church, as well as Coptic priests and those from certain Oriental rites.

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