Reading the Tea Leaves: Will Pope Francis End Priestly Celibacy?

tea leavesPope Francis’ preferred title “Bishop of Rome” indicates a theological understanding of his Office that is fraught with practical implications.

This essay will attempt to read the tea leaves for the ministry of Francis, Bishop of Rome, by pointing out some of those things which Francis cannot change; some of those things that probably will change; and finally some of those things that can change.

First, those things that cannot change.

As far back as the first century bishops recognized the Roman Church as the Primatial See of Christendom.  This was due to its double apostolic foundation.  It was where both Peter and Paul preached and were martyred.  As early as the first century other bishops turned to the Bishop of Rome as a touchstone of unity and a source of orthodoxy.  When questions arose in matters of doctrine and discipline Rome’s word was recognized as a court of last resort.

This doctrinal faith is divided, according to Cardinal Josef Ratzinger (Pope-Emeritus Benedict XVI) then Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in his Doctrinal Commentary on Ad Tuendam Fidem, (For the Defense of the Doctrine of the Faith) (1998), into two main areas; infallible and non-fallible.

Recognized as being infallible are, for example, the truths professed by the Nicene Creed (381) which defines the nature of Christ and the marks of the Church.  Another example is the solemn definition by the Council of Trent (1545-63) that Jesus instituted seven sacraments.

Non-fallible teachings are those beliefs that have always been held by the Church.  They cannot be changed and must be adhered to.  For example, it has been the constant tradition of the Church that artificial contraception is morally evil.  Pope Paul VI reiterated this in his encyclical “Humanae Vitae” (1968).   Another example is the lack of church authority for ordaining women to the priesthood. John Paul II reaffirmed this in his Apostolic Letter, “Ordinatio Sacerdotalis” (1994). These teaching will also be assiduously guarded by Francis.

Now, as to things that probably will change.

The Second Vatican Council (1962-65) sought to highlight the theological concept of “collegiality”.  It reemphasized that the church is taught and governed by the College of Bishops (bishops throughout the world) in union with the pope who acts as the head of this body.  Francis’ recent appointment of a panel composed of eight Cardinals from around the world to advise him in governing the church and to help reform the troubled Vatican bureaucracy is indicative of this Vatican II model for collegial management.

Collegiality also demands devolution of this power.  This would permit for a greater amount of decision making on the level of the local church and will certainly affect pastoral practices.  Francis’ washing of women’s feet on Holy Thursday, a departure from the rubric which limits the ceremony to men, is an example of where a bishop may take liberties based on local need.

This break with the rubric by the Pope is problematic insofar as it gives license for the makeshift liturgies that have plagued the Church with the introduction of the Novus Ordo.

This recognition of the authority of the bishops and the dignity of the local churches will be endearing to the Orthodox Churches which have a strong sense of the autonomy of their individual churches.  This may indeed facilitate a reunion with the sister churches of the East.  The presence of Bartholomew, Patriarch of Constantinople, at Francis’ Installation Ceremony makes this a foreseeable outcome.

And, finally some of those things that can change.

Church discipline is the rules the church enforces for the good of her members.  These often have a long history and must not be tampered with lightly.  However, they can be changed for the good of the community.  The ancient demand that priests in the Western church be bound by celibacy is just such an example.   As Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Francis, then Cardinal Bergoglio, in a book ON HEAVEN AND EARTH, which recorded his conversations with a rabbi said, celibacy “is a matter of discipline, not of faith.  It can change.”  He further noted that this discussion is often brought about by “pragmatism”, based on the loss of manpower and perhaps cultural reasons.

With a return to respect for the needs of local churches the celibacy issue may once again be in play.  A bishop may believe that providing the Eucharist is more important than the discipline of celibacy. This is known as epikeia. It is a theological principle whereby a higher law is recognized as taking precedence over a positive law for the sake of the common good. It is summed up in the words of Pope Gregory IX who said, “Necessity makes licit what is illicit.”

The non-viability of the ordination of women found in the Code of Cannon Law n.1024 may also be deemed a matter of discipline in the case of the diaconate. Because the church teaches that deacons do not share in the Order of Priesthood, which is irrevocably closed to women, deaconesses may be a possibility, especially since they existed in the early church.

The problem, however, is that the role deaconesses played in the early Church is spurious.  And, unlike the celibacy requirement which only came about in the West in fits and starts for the first millennium and has been always optional in the Eastern Church, deaconesses disappeared during the ante-Nicene period (325 AD).

So, how will women deacons come about? Very similar to the way altar-girls did. After a long period of illicit ordinations and a barrage of appeals from bishops around the world, a Pope will submit the question to The Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Texts which found no prohibition to altar-girls in The 1983 Code of Canon Law.  The Council’s nihil obstat was used by Pope John Paul II to permit girls to serve Mass in 1994. This was a break with an ancient tradition almost 2000 years old which reserved the role of acolyte to men only.  It set a dangerous precedent since it presumes that if an immemorial custom is not specifically prohibited it can be permitted. It is doubtful that any canonist or for that matter the Pope realized that the Code permitted altar-girls. The recognition of women as eligible for the deaconate will follow a similar path.

This break with unwritten customary law is analogous to the current efforts to legitimize same-sex marriage. Many will contend that because it is not specifically outlawed in The Constitution or in state law, it is therefore permissible. The fact is that same-sex marriage is neither permitted nor prohibited because it was unimaginable to past generations. So too the case with female deacons.

In both of these areas change will begin at the grassroots and only gradually.

The role of the Church of Rome, according to St. Ignatius of Antioch (50-117 AD) “is that which presides in charity over all the Churches.”  Francis took up this theme in his first official address from the balcony of St. Peter on the day of his election.  He invited all people to join in the journey with the Bishop of Rome.

The tea leaves couldn’t be clearer as to how, Francis, The Bishop of Rome, wants to lead us.


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Chaplain and Research Fellow at Ave Maria Law. Father Michael P. Orsi was ordained for the Diocese of Camden in 1976 and has a broad background in teaching and educational administration. Fr. Orsi has authored or co-authored four books and over 300 articles in more than 45 journals, magazines and newspapers. He has served as Assistant Chancellor, Assistant Vicar for Pastoral Services, Director of Family Life Bureau, and Coordinator of Pope John Paul II’s visit to New Jersey for the Diocese of Camden. He has also served as a member of The Institute for Genomic Research at the University of Pennsylvania and as a member of New Jersey’s Advisory Council on AIDS. Fr. Orsi holds a Doctorate in Education from Fordham University, two Master degrees in Theology from Saint Charles Seminary, and a Bachelor of Arts from Cathedral College. He is presently serving as Chaplain and Research Fellow in Law and Religion at Ave Maria School of Law, Naples, Florida. He is a member of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars. In 2005 Fr. Orsi was appointed as a Senior Research Associate to the Linacre Center for Bioethics, London, England. Fr. Orsi co-hosts a weekly radio program The Advocate which discusses law and culture on WDEO-AM 990, WMAX-AM 1440 in metro Detroit and WDEO-FM 98.5 in southwest Florida [also linked at].

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