NATIONAL CATHOLIC REPORTER
Published on National Catholic Reporter Conversation Cafe (http://ncrcafe.org)
By John L Allen Jr Daily
Created Dec 4 2006 - 01:44
By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
Pope Benedict XVI's choice as the church's top official for priests has said that celibacy “is not a dogma,” and that the Catholic church can reflect on the subject.
The explosive character of the issue, however, was reflected in a "clarification" issued in the name of the cardinal by the Vatican Press Office on Dec. 4.
Cardinal Claudio Hummes, 72, of São Paulo, Brazil, was nominated Prefect of the Congregation for Clergy on Oct. 31. He made the comments as he left for Rome in an interview with the Brazilian publication Estado de São Paulo.
“Even if celibates are part of our history and of Catholic culture, the church can reflect on the question of celibacy, because it's not a dogma but a disciplinary norm,” Hummes said.
Hummes, a Franciscan, recalled that several apostles were married, and that the discipline of priestly celibacy in the Western church developed several centuries after the institution of the priesthood itself.
"The church is not stationary, but an institution that changes when it has to change,” Hummes said. "The church must first discuss if it's necessary to reconsider the norm of celibacy.”
Hummes acknowledged that the priest shortage in Europe and other parts of the world has created new pressure for a reexamination of the discipline of celibacy.
Ultimately, any decision to reevaluate the question of priestly celibacy would be made by Benedict XVI himself, not Hummes. Nevertheless, the fact that the pope's choice for the top job on the priesthood would raise the question reflects a growing openness to discussion at senior levels of the church.
Hummes also discussed the scandals of sexual abuse by priests which have rocked parts of the Catholic world in recent years.
“Even if we were talking about just one case, it would be a great source of concern, above all as regards the victims,” he said. “But it's unjust and hypocritical to generalize the scandals of pedophilia, because 99 percent of priests have nothing to do with it.”
"Pedophilia is not just a problem for priests, but of the entire society,” stating that “there are cases of sexual abuse of children even within families.”
Hummes said it's the responsibility of bishops to take ever greater care with the “rigorous selection and demanding formation” of candidates for the priesthood.
"Priests are a strategic group for the church,” he said. “They are the ones who give life to the church, and for that reason, they deserve the support and affection of Catholics.”
On Monday, the Vatican issued a declaration offering clarifications from Hummes on his comments in the interview.
"With regard to the echoes created by my words reported by the newspaper Estado de Sâo Paulo, I'd like to clarify the following," it said.
"In the church, it has always been clear that the obligation of celibacy for priests is not a dogma, but a disciplinary norm. It is also clear that this is true for the Latin church, but not for the Oriental rites, where it is normal that priests are married in the communities in union with the Catholic church.
"However, it is nevertheless clear that the norm of celibacy for the priests of the Latin church is very ancient, and is based on a consolidated tradition and on strong motivations, both of a theological-spiritual character and also practical-pastoral, confirmed by recent popes.
"Also in the recent Synod of Bishops, the most common opinion among the fathers was that a change in the rule of celibacy would not be a solution for the problem of the priest shortage, which results from other factors, beginning with the secularized modern culture, as the experience of other Christian confessions demonstrates, which have married priests or pastors.
"This question is therefore not actually under discussion by the ecclesiastical authorities, as was recently confirmed after the last meeting of the heads of dicasteries with the Holy Father."
Hummes' comments on celibacy come at a moment of growing tension on the question. On Nov. 16, Benedict XVI convened a meeting of top Vatican officials in the wake of Archbishop Emmanuel Milingo's illicit ordination of four bishops as part of his campaign to relax the celibacy requirement.
After that meeting, the Vatican issued a statement indicating that “the value of the choice of priestly celibacy according to Catholic tradition was reaffirmed,” but it did not address if the pope might be open to reconsidering mandatory celibacy.
Currently, priestly celibacy is mandatory in the Western church, with the exception of a handful of priests who converted to Catholicism from another Christian denomination where they were already married. In the 21 Eastern rite churches in communion with Rome, however, married priests are common.
During the Synod of Bishops on the Eucharist in October 2005, there was a vigorous debate on the celibacy question. In the end, the synod upheld existing discipline, adopting a proposition that read: "The Synod Fathers have affirmed the importance of the inestimable gift of ecclesiastical celibacy in the practice of the Latin Church. With reference to the magisterium, in particular Vatican II and the recent popes, the Fathers have asked that the reasons for the relationship between celibacy and priestly ordination be illustrated adequately to the faithful, in full respect for the traditions of the Eastern churches. Some made reference to the viri probati, but this hypothesis was evaluated as a path not to follow.
Milingo, meanwhile, plans to lead a "convocation in Parsippany, New Jersey, Dec. 8-10, where he intends to ordain three married priests, further deepening his rift with the Vatican.