Catholic parishes all over the U.S. are shutting their doors, partly due to a lack of priests to staff them. Organizations such as the Association of U.S. Catholic Priests (AUSCP) believe ordaining married priests, or viri probati, a Latin phrase for “proven men,” is the answer.
Fr. Bernard “Bob” Bonnot, chair of the AUSCP, told NCR that “expanding the pool of those who can be ordained priests” can solve the problem of closing parishes.
“Married men serving as priests is not a total innovation in the church,” he said. “It has [only] been for the last thousand years that priests have been called and expected to the celibate life.”
In 2014, media reports, citing Bishop Erwin Kräutler of Xingu in the Brazilian rainforest, claimed that Pope Francis said he would consider the option of ordaining married men. According to the reports, Kräutler told an Austrian newspaper that “the pope explained that he could not take everything in hand personally from Rome. We local bishops, who are best acquainted with the needs of our faithful, should be corajudos, that is ‘courageous’ in Spanish, and make concrete suggestions.”
Bonnot said one of the resolutions of their 2014 national assembly was to address this issue and call for the ordination of married priests. The proposed resolution on behalf of a married priesthood listed the following reasons: declining numbers of priests, escalating number of lay people per priest, growing number of priestless parishes, and Pope Francis’ informal support of its consideration.
The priests that continue in service have more and more responsibility fall on their shoulders and the trend is getting worse, according to Bonnot.
“We are asking the bishops to talk about it because the pope has indicated if a conference of bishops makes the request to him he would entertain it,” he said.
AUSCP sent a follow-up letter to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops Committee on Clergy, Consecrated Life and Vocations asking them to establish a special structure to look at the question and see if it’s a step they should take.
When FutureChurch put up a petition to the pope to stop closing parishes, Bonnot said AUSCP “saw that as an opportunity to say this is being caused in part of priests and the ordination of married men could help resolve that.” The open letter from FutureChurch was released Sept. 10, ahead of the pope’s visit to the U.S. Sept. 22-27. The letter calls for the pope to find ways to avoid closing and merging parishes.
According to a FutureChurch press release, over 70 parishes in the New York archdiocese have closed or merged, including the parish associated with our Lady Queen of Apostles School, which the pope visited. More than 1,900 have signed the open letter.
Bonnot said this issue is hurting the faithful.
“My experience is and reading suggests that if you close a parish some people will go to the parish that is nearest or with which their former parish has merged,” said Bonnot. “Some people will be so angry they will withdraw and add to numbers of inactive Catholics. I would see it in a sense of inflicting wounds on the body of Christ.”
Bonnot said the AUSCP have not presented their proposal in full details, but thinks “the ordination of viri probati doesn’t need to mean that they become full-time priest employees of the diocese, but the model could be like the deacons who work to sustain their own families and minister.”
“I think some of these marginal situations in community could sustain themselves with that kind of ministerial service,” he added. “We think there’s a solution to that.”
[Elizabeth A. Elliott is an NCR Bertelsen intern. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.]