Many Catholics will find hope in the conversation between Brazilian Bishop Erwin Kräutler and Pope Francis in which they discussed the ordination of married men as a serious and positive possibility.
For the first time in a very long time, the idea of a Roman Catholic married priesthood is a topic that can be discussed and is being discussed inside the Francis administration. Pietro Parolin, recently made a cardinal, was clear about this in media interviews shortly after the pope named him secretary of state last summer. Celibacy "is not a church dogma and it can be discussed because it is a church tradition," Parolin said. Even as archbishop in Argentina, then-Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio was open to the idea, saying celibacy for priests "is a matter of discipline, not of faith. It can change."
(Bergoglio's comments came in the book-length conversation he had with his friend Rabbi Abraham Skorka, published in 2010 as Sobre el Cielo y la Tierra ("On Heaven and Earth"), and could be seen to be based on very pragmatic thinking, namely that broken vows harm all concerned, the people involved and the church. "The double life is no good for us," he said. "I don't like it because it means building on falsehood.")
These are good signs. We would hope that this possibility would be extended not just to married deacons and other viri probati, so-called "proven men," but to the thousands of Latin rite priests who have been forced from ministry solely because of the vow of celibacy. We should welcome these good priests back, too.
Perhaps more important than Francis' and Kräutler's talk of a married priesthood, however, is how Kräutler says Francis described the process of bringing about change: A bishop who knows the needs of his people should not act alone, Kräutler said the pope told him. Rather, "regional and national bishops' conferences should seek and find consensus on reform, and we should then bring up our suggestions for reform in Rome."
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Once again, we find Francis encouraging collegiality as a central plank of his reform efforts. In "The Joy of the Gospel," his apostolic exhortation released last year, Francis wrote, "Excessive centralization, rather than proving helpful, complicates the Church's life and her missionary outreach." That is a plank that could have been pulled from the NCR platform.
Francis wants to reverse the disempowerment of national bishops' conferences begun by Pope John Paul II and then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger 30 years ago. In talking to Kräutler, Francis is no doubt looking for allies out in the fields, because within the Roman Curia he is meeting resistance.
We join Francis in challenging bishops who embrace the pope's reform ideas: Ser corajudos, be courageous, brother bishops. Listen to the needs of your people and take them to Rome.