Editor's Note: This story was updated at 3:55 p.m., central, with comments from Fr. Bob Bonnot, chair of the Association of U.S. Catholic Priests.
A group representing approximately 1,000 U.S. Catholic priests has asked their bishops "to start the dialogue" toward the ordination of married men to the priesthood.
In letters mailed Jan. 23 to all members of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Association of U.S. Catholic Priests said they made the request primarily with concern for "the pastoral care of souls," and that married priests are needed "to serve the pastoral needs of the people."
"The time has come. The door is open. The need for this is urgent," the priests said.
The letter is signed by 12 members of the priest association's leadership and staff, representing nine dioceses and one religious order; its executive secretary Franciscan Sr. Jackie Doepker also signed her name to the document.
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Fr. Bob Bonnot, a priest in the Youngstown, Ohio, diocese and chair of the priests' association, told NCR that to his knowledge there has not been a response so far from the bishops' conference or individual bishops. He said they are not asking the bishops to respond to them, but to take up the issue among themselves. He added that the association has encouraged its members, where appropriate, to discuss the issue of married priests with their individual bishops.
"This might be an issue that priests in some situations would say, ‘Bishop, we think you ought to be thinking about this.’ It’s up to them to make that decision," Bonnot said.
Among the reasons the priests cited in their letter for beginning the conversation:
- the Roman Catholic church's inclusion of ordained married clergy from other Christian denominations, such as the Anglican church;
- calls from the laity for a discussion of married priests;
- the continued declining number of active priests -- and resultant parish closures;
- and the spiritual, mental and physical health of current priests, particularly those experiencing "an increasing and sometimes overwhelming workload."
"The health and vitality of the priest's role within the faith community is critical to the life of the Roman Catholic tradition and its ministry. Given the signs of the times and the diversity and challenges facing the church at this time, the ministerial priesthood needs creative options. The witness that could come from married priests serving the church with celibate priests is a crucial option to be explored," the letter said.
"There are many voices in the church waiting to be heard on this -- including our own," said the priests.
The priests' association based its request of married priests on the belief that Pope Francis is open to the possibility, if brought to him by a national bishops' conference. They referenced an April 2014 interview in an Austrian newspaper in which the pope reportedly told a Brazilian bishop that it was up to regional bishops' conferences to seek and find consensus on church reforms, and then bring them to Rome.
According to a report on the interview by the U.K.-based Tablet, Bishop Erwin Kräutler told the Salzburger Nachrichten that in a conversation about a shortage of priests in his Xingu diocese, Francis expressed open-mindedness to finding solutions.
"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," the bishop said, according to the Tablet.
Kräutler confirmed that he and the pope discussed the ordination of viri probati ("proven married men") into the priesthood. "It was up to the bishops to make suggestions, the Pope said again," the bishop said.
In their letter, the U.S. priest association asked their bishops to "accept the offer of Pope Francis to consider the possibility of ordaining married viri probati as priests." They requested the bishops begin a broad consultation process that would seek input from diocesan staffs, parish priests, deacons and the laity.
Bonnot told NCR that at this point the association does not have additional actions planned, and that it will give the issue "time to brew."
The request to review the possibility of married priests was among eight resolutions the Association of U.S. Catholic Priests considered at its third annual assembly, held in St. Louis in June. The group, largely composed of Vatican II-era priests, formed in August 2011 as a support network for priests and to allow for them to speak in a unified voice.
"We’re trying to be a voice of joy and hope in our pilgrim church and that we think that expressing the views of priests with regard to issues such as this is something we hope is a positive contribution to the life of the church in this exciting time," Bonnot said.