In Reforming Catholic Priesthood, Pope Francis Insists On Middle Ground

VATICAN CITY (RNS) — With broad strokes and a balancing act, Pope Francis weighed in on the polarizing tensions in the Catholic Church concerning the future of the priesthood. While upholding priestly celibacy as “a gift,” the pope distanced himself from the “perversion” of rigidity while speaking at a Vatican conference on Thursday (Feb. 17).

As Catholic bishops and laypeople in Germany call for a reevaluation of official doctrine on priestly celibacy, female ordination and sexuality, conservatives look at the emerging discussions on the future of the priesthood with a mixture of practical and theological concern.

The sexual abuse crisis has crippled the church’s credibility worldwide and the number of men entering the priesthood continues to dwindle, contributing to what Cardinal Marc Ouellet, the head of the Vatican’s department overseeing bishops, called “today’s priestly crisis.”

Pope Francis insisted on the importance of viewing the facts “with the Lord’s own eyes” and not trying to avoid “the realities that our people are experiencing,” while at the same time not resorting to “a quick and quiet solution provided by the ideology of the moment or prefabricated answers.”

Speaking about “the fundamental theology of the priesthood”  at the conference, which was organized by the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops and the Center for the Research and Anthropology of Vocations, Pope Francis identified “mercenary” attitudes that emerge during crisis.

While one side favors “established ways of doing things,” grasping at the past as if “this determined order could quell the conflicts that history sets before us,” the other pushes to raise “the latest novelty as the ultimate reality” and casts aside “the wisdom of the years,” the pope said.

“Both are a kind of flight,” Francis said. “They are the response of the mercenary who sees the wolf coming and runs away: either toward the past or toward the future. Neither can lead to mature solutions.”

Pope Francis “is always looking for a balance — no extremism from the right wing or the left wing — he is very much a man of the middle,” Ouellet told Religion News Service. The pope’s speech is “conveying this wisdom of balance in his spirituality and teaching,” Ouellet added.

During Ouellet’s opening address, he said the conference aims to be honest about the challenges facing the priesthood today, “where sexual abuse is only the tip of the iceberg, visible and perverted, that emerges from deeper deviations that must be identified and unmasked.”

He suggested a renewed appreciation of lay ministry, which could lead to a reconsideration of the role of women in the church “in a more open and sensitive way to the charismatic dimension of the community.”

The pope upheld priestly celibacy as “a gift” in the lengthy speech at the Paul VI Hall but warned that “without friends and without prayer, celibacy can become an unbearable burden and a counter-witness to the very beauty of the priesthood.”

Francis’ comments follow those of German Cardinal Reinhard Marx, the archbishop of Munich, who told reporters Feb. 3 that he supported a renewed study of priestly celibacy and that for some priests “it would be better if they were married,” not only because of sexual desires but also to combat loneliness.

Marx is considered among the most outspoken supporters of the Synodal Path in Germany, where Catholic clergy, laypeople and employees are airing their hopes and expectations for the future of the local church and beyond.

Francis’ address highlighted his pastoral approach to the struggles facing the church and the priesthood today. Against the “perversion of clericalism and rigidity” the pope said he desired team “closeness,” seeking to live out the faith together in community, in acknowledgment of people’s real experiences and suffering.

“The people of God want shepherds” who offer compassion and concern, with Jesus as the model, Francis said. They do not want “clerical functionaries” or “professionals of the sacred,” he said. In offering practical tips to achieve this, the pope drew from his 50 years of experience as a priest and laid out a four-pillared approach.

Closeness to God is the first prerequisite, Francis said, and essential to “learning not to be scandalized by whatever befalls us” and to protecting ourselves from “stumbling blocks.” Second is closeness to the bishop, which while centered on obedience, includes “discussion, attentive listening and in some cases tension,” he said.

Pope Francis’ loosening of the Vatican’s hierarchical structures that bridled bishops has led to a vibrant uproar of opinionated bishops taking to the pulpit and social media to voice their views — sometimes in opposition to the pope. Priests should “feel free to express their opinions with respect and sincerity,” Francis said, but for their part bishops must “demonstrate humility, an ability to listen, to be self-critical and to let themselves be helped.”

The pope’s final tip was to seek fraternity with other priests, which he said requires patience and setting aside arrogance and envy. For those seeking a quick fix or fast results in the quest to reform the struggling Catholic priesthood, Pope Francis counseled caution.

“Sometimes it seems that the church is slow, and that is true,” Francis said, “yet I like to think of it as the slowness of those who have chosen to walk in fraternity.”

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