‘The next synod is already in the works – on married priests,” wrote the veteran Vatican commentator Sandro Magister last week. The article provoked a collective groan in the Catholic blogosphere. “We need to start lining up writers for the 58 cardinals book,” wrote Fr John Zuhlsdorf, referring to the 11 cardinals’ book opposing a change in Church teaching on Communion for the remarried at the family synod.
Yet Magister’s column was an interpretation, not a news flash. And it stretches belief. Could Francis, after all the tensions over Communion for the remarried, really want to open the door to more in-fighting?
Magister’s claim rested on a speech by the late Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, who outlined his “dream” of what a synodal Church might look like. At the top of the list of issues to tackle was the “shortage of ordained ministers” – in other words, the possibility of married priests.
Francis, known by Magister as the “Martini Pope”, seems to be following the cardinal’s roadmap so far. Other subjects on the list were “the discipline of marriage” and the “Catholic vision of sexuality” – both raised at the last synod. And there are plenty of other indications that Francis would favour a discussion of married priests. In February he apparently told a group of priests from Rome: “The issue is in my diary.” And Oscar Crespo, a childhood friend, claimed that Francis said one of his priorities was to “eliminate the law of celibacy”.
Yet none of this has been said publicly. The Pope’s most candid public comments on the subject were hardly a plea for change. In On Heaven and Earth, a record of conversations with his friend Rabbi Abraham Skorka, he said: “For the moment, I am in favour of maintaining celibacy, with all its pros and cons.”
A better assessment of the Pope’s thinking might be to say he is open to a discussion of the topic if bishops’ conferences press for it. Austen Ivereigh, author of The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope, pointed out that in the reformed synod: “Francis has created a mechanism of ecclesial discernment capable of deliberating on precisely such issues – that is to say, matters of pastoral practice rather than doctrine per se.
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