Despite Bishops' Appeals, Pope Francis Does Not Change Celibacy Custom For Priests04:09

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Catholics hoping to see their church put aside the centuries old expectation of celibacy for priests will have to wait.

Pope Francis on Wednesday responded to calls for ordaining married men in an under-resourced part of the world.

In a papal letter, Francis side-stepped the appeal from bishops in the Amazon. Instead, he's asking for prayer and appealing for more missionaries in that region.

Richard Gaillardetz, chair of the theology department at Boston College and author of two books on Pope Francis, joined Morning Edition to discuss.

Interview Highlights

Previous actions by Pope Francis left many people believing he might be open to a celibacy exemption. So how big a surprise is this and how big a disappointment for many Catholics?

I think it is something of a surprise only because expectations, I think, were raised quite a bit when he convened this remarkable synod last fall regarding the church in the Amazon. And he made a point, as he often does, for the bishops and other participants to speak honestly about their needs, to not feel constrained by political pressures and so on and so forth. And what he heard from them was a ringing endorsement for the need: over two-thirds of the bishops asking for a pastoral accommodation that would allow the bishops in that region to ordain married men.

Where they are suffering from a shortage of priests.

Huge shortage. You know, here in the U.S., we think we have a priest shortage. We have about one priest for every 2,000 Catholics. There are parts of the Amazon where they have one priest for every 16,000 Catholics. That means that a lot of Catholics in the Amazon are fortunate if they can celebrate the Mass once or twice a year. So it's really a pressing problem.

So didn't the pope hear them? Or what do you think's going on?

Well, one can speculate on the reasons. First of all, the simplest is often the best. He is, himself, a celibate priest who values the tradition of priestly celibacy. In the end, he may have simply gotten cold feet. He might have been afraid that this pastoral accommodation for one part of the church might have been read as repudiating the priestly celibacy tradition in total.

I think the more likely scenario, however, is that he feels there's some very important things that need to be said about the church in the Amazon. And were he to have made these changes, that would have distracted from the other things that needed to be said.

[Celibacy as a tradition] is a very important distinction. It is not a doctrinal teaching of the church. It is simply a discipline or a custom. It's been binding in church law for Catholics in the Latin Rite for about a thousand years. But we have married priests right now — we have married priests that belong to Eastern Catholic churches... It's simply a tradition. It's not a matter of church doctrine.

Since you pointed out there is a shortage of Catholic priests here in the U.S. and around the world, can the church survive globally without married priests?

It can survive — the question is, can it flourish? It's already struggling in many parts of the world. And something that central to the Catholic identity is increasingly a rare commodity, the possibility of celebrating the Eucharist on a regular basis. So I think it's not a question of survival. It's a question of flourishing and meeting the needs of the local churches in this time.

This segment aired on February 13, 2020.

Bob Oakes Twitter Senior Correspondent
Bob Oakes has been WBUR's Morning Edition anchor since 1992.




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