Cardinal Marx: Francis Thinking About Abolishing Clerical Celibacy

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Are we near the end of compulsory clerical celibacy? The whispers have been in the wind for a month, at least since the Pope called the Pan-Amazonian Synod of Bishops for October of 2019, but only now are we closer to what really might be Francis’ thinking on the issue with words spoken last week by Cardinal Reinhard Marx, one of the Bishop of Rome’s right-hand men.

The archbishop of Munich and Freising spoke last Friday to an audience of the faithful of Bavaria and called for a “wide debate” in the Church on the question of the ordination of so-called viri probati, laymen of “proven” experience and Christian maturity.

Figures in the Amazonian Church such as the emeritus bishop of Xingu, Erwin Kräutler, have drawn attention to the fact that in the region some 90% of Catholics don’t have access to sacraments celebrated by duly consecrated men, a fact that makes thinking about different approaches to Church leadership, and particularly the priesthood, a truly pressing matter, and indeed something “legitimate” and “worthy of discussion”, according to Cardinal Marx.

True to form though, the abolition of clerical celibacy isn’t something Francis is pushing from the Vatican, said the influential German prelate, who is also the president of the national bishops’ conference and a member of the Council of Cardinals helping the Pope in the reform of the Roman Curia. Rather, Francis is content to let the proposal develop organically, and will eventually “talk about it with his advisors” so that the whole Church can consider it “in the full dimensions” of the context of the global shortage of priests and demand for different ways of being Church.

But bad news, though -at least according to Marx- on the other great change many of the faithful await to the sacrament of Orders, that of the ordination of women as deacons and priests. The cardinal told his audience last week that there hasn’t been “any movement”, at least that he’s heard of, from the commission of study on the diaconate of women set up by the Pope in May last year, though he is sure that the question of restoring this ancient form of ministry will continue to be discussed.

In the same vein, the pastoral theologian Paul Zulehner went even further than Marx in the meeting last week of the Bavarian faithful, and said in his keynote address on Friday evening that we in the Church now “will live to see the end” of clerical celibacy “if nobody shoots the Pope or poisons him before”. “It’s a mistake to subordinate the celebration of the Eucarist to the celibacy of priests”, continued the Viennese expert: the reason for which it’s important that the faithful “stamp their feet” in front of their bishops and demand a change to the discipline.

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