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Promoting Unity in the Priest Celibacy Debate

The synod of bishops for the Pan-Amazon region will meet in the Vatican Oct. 6-27. For several months, the Pan-Amazonian synod has been at the center of many debates in the Catholic media and blogosphere.

At issue is the proposal to ordain married men to the priesthood so that they can serve in isolated communities. The Amazon region is huge, and so traveling from one town to the next is often a challenge. Plus, vocations and missionaries are scarce.

Some theologians, bishops and others in the church have proposed the ordination of married men as a solution, but many have slammed that idea. Usually, the critics say that priesthood celibacy is something the church should treasure and keep.

In defense of celibacy, they often cite the Apostle Paul’s advice in I Corinthians that those who are married are “divided,” while the unmarried are “solicitous for the things that belong to the Lord, how he may please God.”

Defenders of the proposal to have married priests mention Eastern Catholic churches that have married priests or Anglican priests who convert to the Catholic faith and continue their ministry as priests while remaining married.

Will the Pan-Amazonian synod change the celibacy norm in the Roman Catholic Church?

First, the word synod means assembly. The “synod of bishops,” as we understand the phrase today, was established by St. Paul VI in 1965 in his edict, “Apostolica Sollicitudo.”

The edict, or motu propio, states: “The Synod of Bishops has, of its very nature, the function of providing information and offering advice. It can also enjoy the power of making decisions when such power is conferred upon it by the Roman Pontiff; in this case, it belongs to him to ratify the decisions of the Synod.”

While a synod advises the Holy Father, it is the pope who ratifies the decisions of a synod. What has Pope Francis said about this issue? In a conversation with reporters on his flight from Panama to Rome on Jan. 27, he said:

“In the Eastern Catholic churches, they can do it. They make the choice between celibacy or marrying, before they’re ordained into the diaconate. When it comes to the Latin Rite, however, a phrase said by St. Paul VI comes to mind; he said, ‘I would rather give my life than to change the law on celibacy.’ He said this at an even tougher time [than today] in 1969-1970. … Personally, I believe that celibacy is a gift to the church. Secondly, I’m not in agreement with allowing optional celibacy. No!”

But then he added, “There could only be a possibility in these far, faraway places, I think about the islands in the Pacific; it’s something to think about when there’s a pastoral need, there the shepherd has to think about the faithful.”

We don’t know what the synod will propose or what the Holy Father will decide if the bishops ask him to change the stance of the Roman Catholic Church about priests’ celibacy. But when you read some of the opinions in the Catholic media and blogosphere, one thing is for sure: We need to tone down the rhetoric.

Educated people are supposed to argue without offending or disqualifying each other. There are many articles and comments on the issue where you can find more passion than civility or reasoning, to put it mildly. Christians aren’t relieved of the duties of charity when using Twitter. And Catholics are supposed to pray for the coming synod and the unity of the church. Being respectful of each other in our disagreements is a good starting point to promote the unity we should preserve.