The National Council of Priests believes Pope Francis would approve a request from Australia’s bishops to allow married priests in remote parts of the country where the lack of priests is a critical and long-standing issue, council chairman Father James Clarke said after a conference last week which considered the royal commission findings.
The council’s strong support for reform came in the week Pope Francis called 130 bishops from around the world to a summit in February to discuss the church’s child sexual abuse crisis, after Germany became just the latest country to document decades of abuse by 1600 priests.
The National Council of Priests of Australia backs a full debate of all aspects of the church’s current rules on mandatory celibacy at the 2020 plenary council, after the child abuse royal commission concluded it was an “unattainable ideal” for many priests that led them to lead double lives, and contributed to “a culture of secrecy and hypocrisy” in the church.
A majority of priests were “in favour of optional celibacy from the point of view of opening the priesthood to married men”, Father Clarke said.
“It’s a request not only coming from priests but from the people,” he said.
The many priests who left their vocations because they found the celibacy requirements “too burdensome” were a great loss to the church, he said.
“There are a lot of our former priests who are married and would love to return to the church, and would return to the church if they were able. How can we re-admit those former priests who left? It will be part of our submission.”
The priests’ position is at odds with the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference response to the royal commission’s recommendation that celibacy be made voluntary. The bishops agreed to raise it with the Vatican but defended mandatory celibacy as a “long-established and positive practice of the church”.
“We want the issue of celibacy to be discussed at the plenary council. I don’t think it’s ever been discussed fully,” Father Clarke said. The discussion would have to include Catholic lay support for priests to be able to remain priests if they marry after they are ordained, he said.
Father Clarke was “not particularly” satisfied with the bishops’ response to the celibacy recommendation, but the issue “can’t be ignored again, it really needs to be thoroughly investigated”.
While Australia’s priests do not believe Pope Francis will unilaterally make celibacy voluntary for priests, they believe he wants national bishops conferences to make the case for optional celibacy to suit local needs.
“If the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference went to Pope Francis and said ‘We have a lot of remote communities being denied the Eucharist (because of the lack of priests) and we would like the opportunity to ordain suitable married men’, we believe he’d say yes,” Father Clarke said.
The precedent was already set after a Vatican decision in 2009 allowing married Anglican priests to be re-ordained as Catholic priests.
Father Clarke said there was a mixed response from priests to the Australian Catholic Bishops’ Conference response to the royal commission.
“We’re very pleased they’ve accepted the bulk of the recommendations and have begun to implement some of them, but priests see the royal commission as a very cathartic experience,” Father Clarke said.
“We have the opportunity to become a new church, a more humble church, a more forgiving church. It’s an opportunity we don’t want to miss. We’re urging the bishops to be open to the lessons of the royal commission.”
There was a sense of hope among priests because of the leadership of Pope Francis, he said.
“We hope our bishops take the lead from Pope Francis and emulate the style he is showing, of being a servant leader. He’s encouraging our bishops to be servants of the people.”
Father Clarke said lay groups within the Australian church fighting for real change were strong, credible and weren’t going away.
“We’re hopeful the bishops will listen to priests and the people because the genie’s out of the bottle now. That’s been one of the great benefits of the royal commission. People are no longer afraid to speak up and the bishops and priests have to listen,” he said.
“We’ve been told everything will be on the table at the plenary council so we’re hoping the bishops stick to what they’ve told us. We live in joyful hope.”