This has been on my mind since the first minor flurry of stories about Pope Francis’ openness to discussion on the topic, based on the recounting of a single remark shared by Bishop Erwin Krautler of the Territorial Prelature of Xingu, Brazil. So, it is a lot of musing, but enough to get some conversations started, I hope.
First, an aside about numbers. Most accounts, like the RNS article linked above, cite 27 priests serving 700,000 Catholics, meaning a ratio of 1:25,925, a staggering reality if accurate.
However, I am not sure where these numbers come from. According to the Annuario Pontificio 2012, there are only 250,000 Catholics there, being served by 27 priests (about half diocesan and half religious), and according to Catholic-hierarchy.org, there are 320,000 Catholics (but only as of 2004). This means a ration of either 1:8620 (AP) or 1:13,333 (CH).
Still a staggering reality when you consider as frame of reference the following: The Archdiocese of Seattle, my home diocese, currently lists 122 active diocesan priests, 87 religious priests, and 31 externs borrowed from other dioceses serving a Catholic population of 974,000. This makes a priest to Catholic ratio of 1:4058 (the US average is just under 1:2000).
The Vicariate of Rome, my current diocese, has nearly 11,000 priests and bishops present, counting religious, externs, and curial staff. They are at least sacramentally available to the 2.5 million Catholics here. This makes a ratio of 1:234.
(Since priests were the subject of the article, I have left out deacons, catechists, and lay ecclesial ministers, as well as non-clerical religious, though not to discount their great service to the Church, to be sure!)
Even with the most conservative estimate of Xingu, the priests there are stretched more than twice as thin as their Seattle counterparts and 36x the scope of their Roman brethren.
What has really been on my mind, though, and again in the light of Pope Francis’ comments yesterday that the ‘door is always open’ to this change in discipline, is the effect that a sudden shift in allowing for a married presbyterate would have on the diaconate.
Some refreshers on basic points of the general discussion:
- We are only talking about diocesan (sometimes called secular) clergy, not religious. The latter would remain celibate under their vow of chastity, but diocesan clergy do not take such vows.
- We already have some married Catholic priests. Almost all of the Eastern Catholic Churches allow for both married and monastic clergy, and even in the Latin Church (i.e., Roman Catholic Church) we have married priests who were ordained as Anglicans or Lutherans, later came into full communion, and have been incorporated into Catholic holy orders.
- We do have celibate deacons, though not many. I have long held we need more celibate deacons and more married priests in the west, for various reasons.
- Most likely we would be talking about admitting married men to orders, rather than allowing priests to marry after ordination. This is the ancient tradition of the Church, east and west, since the Council of Nicaea when it was offered as a compromise between some who wanted celibacy as the norm, and others who thought it should not matter whether marriage or orders come first. We still have both extreme practices present in the Church today, however, so it is not impossible that we should choose a different practice. Unlikely, but possible.
- The Latin Church has maintained celibacy as a norm for its diocesan clergy since about the 12th century, though historians argue whether it was universally enforced until as late as the 16th. There are rituals as late as the 13th allowing for a place in procession for the bishop’s wife.
- Technically, it is currently the norm for all diocesan clergy, and any exceptions, including married deacons, are exceptions. Which begs the question, if it is so easy to make these exceptions for deacons, why not for priests?
- The Byzantine tradition has long held that bishops come from the monastic (celibate) clergy, whereas the Latin tradition has long held that bishops come from the diocesan clergy – which means we had married bishops when we had married priests and deacons. Given the situation with the Anglican Ordinariate, there seems to be a reluctance to return to this tradition, but as it was part of our Roman patrimony for a millennium, it seems it should be at least considered.
- Finally, it is not actually clerical, or priestly, celibacy per se that is at issue, but the idea of requiring celibacy of those to be ordained. There will always be room in the church for celibate deacons, presbyters, and bishops, and these charisms will always be honored. As it should be.
With all that in mind, I finally get to my point.
Let us imagine, unlikely though it may be, that tomorrow Pope Francis announces we will no longer require celibacy of our candidates for orders – whether deacon, presbyter, or bishop. The most immediate effect and response of the faithful, and the press, will be about the change in the discipline of priestly celibacy.
If it is done that directly, it would be disastrous for the diaconate. Many men, I have no doubt, have been ordained to the diaconate simply because they or their bishops saw no alternative for someone called to both marriage and ordained ministry. Many may in fact be called to the presbyterate instead, and given the opportunity, ‘jump ship’ from one order to the other.
One can likewise imagine there are many currently in the presbyterate who are actually called to the diaconate, but they or their bishop saw no reason for not ordaining them to the presbyterate because they were called to celibacy as well. I have heard many a bishop say something along the lines of, ‘why be ordained a celibate deacon? If you can be a priest, we need that more!’
Without completing the restoration of the diaconate as a full and equal order, and a better understanding of both orders separated out from the question of marriage/celibacy, what will happen is a return to the ‘omnivorous priesthood’ and an ecclesiology of only one super-ministry. Rather than a plethora of gifts and ministries as envisioned in the Scriptures, lived in the early church, and tantalizingly promised at Vatican II, everyone would flock to the presbyterate and we would have set back some aspects of ecclesiological reform half a century.
Rather than simply a change to the discipline of clerical celibacy, what is needed is a comprehensive reform of ministry in the Church. Tomorrow Pope Francis could say, instead, ‘Let’s open the conversation. Over the next three years, we will look at the diaconate and the presbyterate, lay ecclesial ministry and the episcopate, and we will consider the question of celibacy in this context. At the end of this study period, a synod on ministry.’
What I would hope to come out of this would be first a separation of two distinct vocational questions that have for too long been intertwined: ecclesial ministry on one hand and relationships on the other. We have been mixing apples and oranges for too long, but priesthood or diaconate is an apple questions, and marriage or celibacy is an orange question.
The deacons, traditionally, are the strong right arm of the bishop. Make it clear that deanery, diocesan, and diplomatic tasks (and the Roman curia for that matter) are diaconal offices. In need, a qualified lay person could step in, or rarely a presbyter, but these are normatively for deacons. This also makes it obvious why we need more celibate deacons, such as in the case of the papal diplomatic corps. They tend to be younger and more itinerant, needed wherever the bishop sends them.
Presbyters are traditionally parish pastors and advisors of, rather than assistants to, the bishop. As the deacon is sent by the bishop, the pastor ought to be chosen from and by the people he serves.. He should be a shepherd who smells like his sheep, right? How exactly this looks can take various forms, to be sure the bishop cannot be excluded, but the balance of ministerial relationships should show clearly that the presbyter is more advisor to the bishop and minister among the people he is called to serve, and the deacon is the agent of the bishop. At least one should not be ordained until there is an office to which he is called which requires his ordination This also makes it obvious why presbyters can, and often are in other churches, married. They tend to be more stable and older.
The minimum age for ordination should be the same for both orders, regardless of marriage or celibacy, and in general one can imagine that deacons would be younger than presbyters. Let the elders be older, indeed!
Some deacons may even find, later in life, reason or office to transition to the presbyterate, but otherwise there should be no such thing as a transitional diaconate. Candidates for both orders should spend at least five years, perhaps more, in lay ecclesial ministry, before being ordained, as long as this does not reduce lay ministry to a transitional step only, as a similar move did to the diaconate all those centuries ago!
Bishops could be chosen from either order, and be either married or celibate. Indeed, celibacy should be rejoined with the rest of the monastic ideal, and there should be no such thing as a celibate without a community. It need not be a community of other permanent celibates or of other clergy – there are some great examples, such as the Emmanuel Community in France, who have found ways for celibate priests to live in an intentional Christian community that includes young single people, deacons, lay ecclesial ministers, etc.
Bottom line, if it is just a conversation about priesthood, as much as mandatory celibacy needs to be discussed openly and without taboo, it is not enough. It must be a holistic discussion about ministry, and the diaconate has a special place in this conversation given its recent history and current experience. We have such a deep and broad Tradition from which to draw, why would we not dive in to find ancient practices to suggest modern solutions?
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