ROME — In a potentially groundbreaking move, the Roman Catholic Church on Monday cracked open the door to ordaining married, elderly men into the priesthood, to meet the pastoral needs of Catholics and indigenous people in remote areas of the Amazon.
The Vatican proposal would respond to the dearth of priests in the region by ordaining “viri probati,” or men of proven character, as they are known in Latin. It is the kind of exception to the celibacy requirement that church experts say — and church traditionalists worry — could be a step toward the ordination of married men to other areas of the world.
While affirming that “celibacy is a gift for the Church,” the Vatican document notes that there have been requests to consider, for the most remote areas of the Amazon, “the possibility of conferring priestly ordination on elderly men, preferably indigenous, respected and accepted members of their community.” Such men, the document said, could be ordained “even if they already have an established and stable family.”
Pope Francis has said in the past that he would entertain the possibility of ordaining viri probati in remote and isolated areas that are deprived of the sacraments. But he has also made clear that the priesthood’s broader commitment to celibacy remains intact and it remained generally closed to married men.
Still, the much-anticipated proposal marks a potential pivot for the church, especially in the Southern Hemisphere, where it sees its future.
The change was included in a working document for the Vatican’s upcoming summit of bishops in October to discuss the pastoral needs of faithful and indigenous communities in Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, French Guiana, Guyana, Peru, Suriname and Venezuela — what it refers to as the Pan-Amazon Region.
The Vatican document also contains more-ambiguous proposals, including one for an undefined “official ministry” for women in the pan-Amazon area, as well as in church education, liturgy and schools.
Limited ordination of married men is consistent with Francis’ push to address different needs in different parts of the world, and to be more inclusive of people, even if they live outside the church’s usual dictates, said the Rev. Giuseppe Buffon, a professor of church history at the Pontifical Antonianum University in Rome.
“The revolution for Francis is to give importance to the local populations and their cultures,” he said. “He is thinking locally.”
In recent years, the Vatican has ordained some married Anglican priests as Catholic priests, and eastern Catholic churches that are in communion with Rome, like the Melkites and Maronites, allow married men to become priests. But an exception for remote areas of South America would be different, addressing an extreme version of the shortage of priests that plagues the church in many regions.
In the Amazon, “communities have difficulty in celebrating the Eucharist frequently due to the lack of priests,” said the working paper, released by the Synod of Bishops, the Vatican department overseeing the world’s bishops. “For this reason, instead of leaving the communities without the Eucharist, the criteria of selection and preparation of the ministers authorized to celebrate it should be changed.”
Catholics in the region often go months or longer without seeing a priest and receiving the sacraments like celebrating mass or confessing. The document urges the bishops meeting in October to address the pastoral needs of these faithful and convert the church from one “which visits” to a “Church which remains.”
“The sacraments must be a source of life and a remedy accessible to all especially to the poor” the document argues, adding that it was then “necessary to overcome the rigidity of a discipline that excludes and alienates” and find a “pastoral sensitivity that accompanies and integrates.”
The Vatican proposal also suggests that the church better incorporate indigenous “music and dance, in native languages and clothes, in communion with nature and with the community.”
Critics of the proposal for the bishops meeting, titled “Amazonia: New paths for the church and for an integral ecology,” worry that it will erode the importance of celibacy in the priesthood, and see it as indicative of the lack of doctrinal discipline that has marred Francis’ pontificate. They worry it could lead to all sorts of changes that will dilute the orthodoxy of the church.
The proposal addresses a practical problem of supply and demand, especially as Protestant faiths gain traction in Brazil and other parts of the region.
But the proposal also raises thorny theological questions, such as whether married men who are ordained would simply administer the sacraments, or would also have the administrative authority of other priests.
Pope Francis has cited a retired South African bishop, Fritz Lobinger, who has argued that priests could be ordained purely to deliver sacraments, rather than assume governing power within the church.
Cardinal Claudio Hummes of Brazil, who is the relator general of the synod, recently said in the Civilta Cattolica, a Jesuit magazine approved by the Vatican, that “the community is not there for its minister, but the minister is there for the community.”
As a result, he suggested, it was a mistake to obsess about the “profile of the ordained.”
At the conclusion of the October meeting, the bishops and participants will vote on the approval of a final document, which then goes to Francis. If he agrees with the recommendations, he could lend them his absolute authority in an Apostolic Exhortation.