For the second time this year, Pope Francis has suggested it’s time to abandon the celibacy rule for priests – and allow married men to put on the holy frock in service of a growing global congregation.
This week, Francis raised the stakes by specifically requesting that married men be allowed to join the priesthood in Brazil, in order to tackle declining numbers of ordained clergymen in the world’s most Catholic country.
In order to tamp down resistance from church conservatives – already out of sorts with Francis who has allowed divorced believers to receive Holy Communion and otherwise be treated with compassion – the Pope says the move would be limited to priests working in the Amazon’s remotes communities, where the shortage is dire.
But will this be the thin edge of the wedge for the celibacy rule which has been a matter of contention in the church for two thousand years? Common sense says yes.
The Brazilian move was initiated by the President of the Episcopal Commission for the Amazon, Cardinal Cludio Hummes, who had asked the Pope to intervene.
Cardinal Hummes says that in the Amazon region, there’s often only one priest per ten thousand fervent parishioners. This makes it all but impossible for the priest to administer Holy Communion to all-comers during mass, let alone to the all the sick and housebound believers who are traditionally catered for in their homes.
The lack of priests has allowed an incursion by Evangelical or Pentecostal pastors, with their groovy back-up singers, theatrical casting-out of demons and obedient wives who tend to take a pastoral role, especially among women.
But the crisis in the Amazon region is merely a reflection of steady decline of Catholicism in Brazil – where there are simply too few priests to go around.
In the 1940s, Brazil was 99 per cent Catholic. That has dropped to as low as 68 per cent according to some reports. Evangelicals now claim about 20 per cent of the country’s believers. Brazil is still home to the world’s biggest Catholic population, but it’s emblematic of a global crisis.
Catholicism is reportedly on the rise, especially in Africa and Asia. But as the number of beliefs grow, the number of priests is dropping off. An under-serviced congregation is vulnerable to being stolen away by other churches.
This is why celibacy in the priesthood is potentially under threat.
Pope Francis holds to the party line that celibacy is the preferred option – but he stresses that it really should be seen more as an option than mandatory. Think of him as a well-meaning Malcolm Turnbull surrounded by several thousand Tony Abbotts – in a tight spot indeed.
And not all Catholic priests are celibate. Anglican clergymen who have converted to Catholicism are allowed to keep their wives. The entire Eastern Rite Catholic Church allows married priests, and has done so for a thousand years. Meanwhile, the growing number of African priests include many who keep de facto wives and a host of children.
One of the ironies facing the global church is that African missionaries are now travelling to the United States to take up the slack in a vocation that has suffered a dramatic decline. Presumably, some of those missionaries bring along their live-in girlfriends.
As they used to say in Latin: inconcinnus! Meaning: awkward!