Thu | Apr 2, 2020

Editorial | The pope muffed a grand opportunity

Published:Sunday | February 23, 2020 | 12:19 AM

Seven years ago, when Argentinian Jorge Bergoglio was elected pope, we, like millions around the world, looked forward to a significant transformation of the Roman Catholic Church. That is to say, we expected he would have nudged it into the 21st century.

By now, Pope Francis, the name Father Jorge adopted after his elevation, would have already removed celibacy rules for married priests, as well as the Church’s prohibition on the ordination of women. With regard to the latter, if it hadn’t yet been done, he would have aggressively been laying the groundwork for its accomplishment. On both fronts, Pope Francis has disappointed, as recently as a week ago when he badly muffed an opening to allow the mostly indigenous congregations of the Amazon region to enjoy a deeper and fulfilling engagement with their church.

Like the rest of Latin America, and the rest of world, the Amazon region is suffering from a shortage of priests. Except that in the remote villages of the Amazon, the home to an estimated two and half million indigenous people, across nine countries – Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela, Brazil, Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana – the situation is chronic. It is not uncommon for the people who live in these communities to go for weeks without seeing a priest, depriving them of the opportunity to celebrate mass.

As part of the solution to the crisis, Latin America’s bishops, at their synod last year, proposed the ordination of older, married, Catholic men of proven virtue to the priesthood. Last week, after months of discussion on the issue, Pope Francis waffled on the issue, but effectively said no. Instead he advised the bishops to pray for more people to embrace the “priestly vocation” and to encourage “those who would become missionaries to opt for the Amazon”.

His position, in retrospect, isn’t surprising. Last summer, the pope signalled his likely stance in echoing the position of a long line of predecessors on the matter of celibacy. “Personally, I think that celibacy is a gift to the Church,” he said. “I would say that I do not agree with allowing optional celibacy. No.”


Celibacy, or the ban on married priests, is not a matter of canon law. It is a tradition, enforced by popes, albeit over at least 1,100 years. But the rule is not absolute. For instance, married Anglican priests who convert to Catholicism may, after evaluation and with special dispensation from the pontiff, be allowed to become Catholic priests, but can’t remarry if their wives die. Indeed, there are around 125 married priests, mostly former Episcopalians, serving in the United States. Moreover, several Orthodox Catholic churches, although in full communion with the Latin Church, allow married priests, though not bishops.

The larger point here is that a central act of Catholicism is the mass, or the Holy Eucharist, giving thanks to God, which has to be led by priests, whose shortage deprives large swathes of people the opportunity of this celebration. Catholics in Latin America agree with an attempt to tackle the problem by widening the gender pool from which priests can come.

According to the Pew Research Center in the United States, Brazil, the South American country with the most Catholics and the largest chunk of the Amazon, 56 per cent of them support the ordination of married men. In Venezuela, 53 per cent do, while as many as two-thirds of Uruguayan Catholics say yes.

It is not only with its failure to provide some communities with the full opportunity to worship that the Catholic Church is not, from our perspective, in fulsome embrace of all members of the society. For, it discriminates against half of the society, on the basis of gender, by insisting that women can’t undertake its most significant roles. That might have been good enough for two thousand years ago, but not for the second decade of the second millennia.

A quarter century ago, Pope John Paul II claimed that “the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination of women”, insisting that it was a judgement to “be dutifully headed by the church’s faithful”. Pope Francis, though, knows of his capacity to speak ex cathedra, and of the infallibility of his declarations therefrom.

Perhaps if women were fully engaged in the church, able to be part of all its vocations, and celibacy were optional, the dynamics within the church might have been different and the scandals that have dogged it in recent decades, mostly to do with the sexual misbehaviour of priests, including paedophilia, might not have been as prevalent.