German Catholic bishops and lay leaders on Friday called on
to loosen the church’s rules on priestly celibacy and to permit the ordination of women as deacons, two years after he decided not to do either.
The moves are the latest in the Germans’ progressive drive, which has prompted calls for caution from the pope and warnings from conservatives that it could split the world-wide church.
Meeting in Frankfurt, the German synod voted 159 to 26, with seven abstentions, to adopt a draft statement calling on the pope to allow Catholic bishops around the world to ordain married men and to give already ordained priests permission to marry without having to leave the priesthood. It later voted 163 to 42, with six abstentions, to ask for permission for bishops to ordain women as deacons, a lower rank of clergy who are able to preach and officiate at baptisms, weddings and funerals, as an intermediate step toward making women bishops and priests.
The Vatican didn’t reply to requests for comment on Friday.
The statements are subject to revision at future meetings of the German synod, which is expected to conclude next year, and approval of the versions will require a supermajority of two thirds of the bishops voting. There are 69 bishops eligible to vote, 59 of whom are taking part in this week’s meeting. Friday’s counts didn’t break down the vote between bishops and other members.
The statement on celibacy praised the discipline as “a real symbol of the orientation of life towards the Lord, embedded within a long spiritual experience,” but said, “sacramental marriage also points to God’s love and unbreakable faithfulness towards his people.”
Married men can already be ordained as priests in some of the Eastern Catholic Churches, which follow the pope but observe some Orthodox practices including married clergy. The Vatican has also allowed the ordination as priests of married men who formerly served as Protestant ministers before converting to Catholicism. But the vast majority of the world’s more than 400,000 Catholic priests are celibate.
In October 2019, bishops meeting at the Vatican to discuss challenges to the church in South America’s Amazon region called for the ordination of married men as a way to relieve a shortage of priests there. But Pope Francis, who had said he was open to the possibility, ultimately decided against it, not mentioning the topic in his official response to the bishops in February 2020.
Conservatives including retired Pope
have warned that loosening the rules on clerical celibacy could undermine the church’s tradition and identity.
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Friday’s draft statement on celibacy said that a shortage of priests in Germany was one reason for opening the priesthood to married men. It also suggested a link to the clerical sexual-abuse crisis, arguing that “obligatory celibacy may attract a disproportionately large number of men who are unsure of their sexuality, of their sexual identity and orientation, and wish to avoid confronting it.”
Speaker after speaker at Friday’s meeting called for gender equity in the church. “Women are called in equal measure to exercise the diaconal ministry and there can be no exclusion here on the basis of gender,” the statement on deacons read.
Women served as deacons in the first millennium of the church’s history, but there is debate over whether they were ordained clergy. Confirming the fears of many conservatives, the synod voted to amend the draft statement to specify that it called for the women’s diaconate as merely an intermediate step toward opening all sacramental offices “to all genders.”
The Catholic Church teaches that priests must be men because Jesus was a man and chose only men as his apostles. Pope Francis has said that the “door is closed” to women priests because of a “definitive formulation” to that effect by
St. John Paul II.
Pope Francis appointed a commission to study the question of women deacons in 2016 but three years later said it had been unable to agree on a conclusion. He appointed a new panel in 2020 but the Vatican hasn’t released any of its findings.
A majority of bishops at the 2019 synod on the Amazon supported ordaining women deacons, but the pope responded that women there should be given roles that “do not entail holy orders” but allow them to serve “in a way that reflects their womanhood.”
The German synod, which opened in January 2020, was called in response to a 2018 report on the clerical sexual-abuse crisis in Germany. Leaders of the synod say that dealing with the crisis requires considering major changes to Catholic life. Last October, the assembly called for blessings of same-sex relationships, despite a Vatican statement earlier in the year, approved by Pope Francis, prohibiting such blessings on the grounds that God “cannot bless sin.”
The synod was scheduled to vote Saturday on another draft statement calling for the institution of formal blessings for unmarried couples, both straight and gay, in the liturgy of the German church.
The synod has heightened tensions in the world-wide church and drawn criticism from conservative Catholics around the world, including in the U.S., where bishops have been at odds with Pope Francis over other issues, including how much to emphasize opposition to abortion. Last November, under pressure from the Vatican, U.S. bishops abandoned a proposed collective call to refuse Communion to Catholic politicians, such as President Biden, who support abortion rights.
Write to Francis X. Rocca at firstname.lastname@example.org
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