Pope Francis has requested a debate over allowing married men in the Amazon region of Brazil to become priests, in a controversial move that is likely to outrage conservatives in the Church, Vatican sources say.
The pontiff took the decision to put a partial lifting of priestly celibacy up for discussion and a possible vote by Brazilian bishops following a request made by Cardinal Claudio Hummes, the president of the Episcopal Commission for the Amazon, Il Messaggero newspaper quoted the sources saying.
Cardinal Hummes reportedly asked Francis to consider ordaining so-called viri probati, married men of great faith, capable of ministering spiritually to the many remote communities in the Amazon where there is a shortage of priests, and evangelical Christians and pagan sects are displacing Catholicism.
The cardinal's request has been echoed by Monsignor Erwin Krautler, the secretary of the Episcopal Commission. He has also suggested that the bishops attending the synod in 2019 on the Amazon, now being prepared in Rome, should consider ordaining women deacons as priests.
In quotes | Pope Francis
Monsignor Krausler quoted the Pope as telling him “speak to the bishops and tell them to make valid proposals,” about such ordinations, the Austrian news agency KNA said.
Francis said earlier this year that the Church should consider allowing married men to become priests in specific circumstances, effectively reversing the centuries-old practice that Roman Catholic priests must be celibate.
In an interview with Germany's Die Zeit newspaper, the pontiff said "We must consider if viri probati is a possibility. Then we must determine what tasks they can perform, for example, in remote communities," he said.
In the Amazon region, for instance, there is just one priest for every 10,000 Catholics.
There are already a limited number of married priests within the Catholic Church, including married Anglican ministers who defected to Rome, some Coptic Catholics and members of some Eastern rite Catholic churches.
The Pope has said that while he remains in favour of celibacy for priests, the principle is part of the discipline of the Church, rather than dogma, meaning that it can be discussed.
Monsignor Giacomo Canobbio, a leading Italian theologian, added that “the fact of having a wife or children does not limit at all working in a parish.”
Such married priests would not have to take a vow of chastity, he added. “There is no ban. They would have a normal married life. “
“I believe that Francis could review this, though he would not decide alone but would start a collegial process. The question is urgent.”
Nevertheless such a breakthrough is likely to nourish criticism by conservatives who are up in arms over Francis' decision to allow divorced people who re-marry to receive communion if their priests or local bishop approve.
A Brazilian pilot project could be extended to regularize the position in Africa, where many Catholic priests already have mistresses and children, Monsignor Canobbio told Il Messaggero. "In Africa a good percentage of priests de facto have a family."
Other items on the agenda of the synod concern defence of the environment, the risk of de-forestation and the protection of indigenous people.