Concluding an ad limina visit of Swiss Bishops on Nov. 9, 2006, Benedict XVI stressed: “I remember, when I used to go to Germany in the 1980s and ’90s, that I was asked to grant interviews and I always knew the questions in advance. They concerned the ordination of women, contraception, abortion, and other such constantly recurring problems.”
The Pope emeritus added: “If we let ourselves be drawn into these discussions, the Church is then identified with certain commandments or prohibitions; we give the impression that we are moralists with a few, somewhat antiquated, convictions and not even a hint of the true greatness of the faith appears.”
The issues raised by Benedict XVI in 2006 are still current. The last working document of the Synod of Bishops highlights the possibility of ordaining married men as priests, in certain cases, and for specific circumstances.
The proposal is part of the longterm discussion on the so-called viri probati (men proven virtue) though the working document on the Special Synod on the Pan-Amazonic region never uses those terms.
In the meantime, Sr. Joland Kafka, recently elected as the new president of the Union of General Sisters Superiors, said that she intends to publish the report of the commission on deaconesses. Pope Francis shared the final report with the sisters, as the commission was set up after they made a specific request to the Pope in their 2016 general assembly. Pope Francis said that the commission did not arrive at a unanimous conclusion. The Pope asked the commissioners to keep studying it on a personal basis. Would it not be the case that publishing the report is a means of influencing the discussion?
Last year, St. Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae was questioned, coinciding with its 50th anniversary. It was reported that a commission had been set up to re-interpret what was Paul VI’s last encyclical and to change the teaching on contraception and sexual morality. The commission was, in fact, a study group, which led to the publication of a book curated by Gilberto Marengo. This book underscored that Humanae Vitae was not the fruit of St. Paul VI’s sole judgment.
These three cases show how the discussion on these issues is vigorously carried forward. These issues were, however, already settled under St. John Paul II.
The Polish Pope addressed the issue of viri probati in two speeches delivered during his trip to Peru in 1985 and the final speech of the 1990 Synod of bishops on priestly ministry.
To sum things up: John Paul II echoed the Synod’s discussion, underscored that celibacy was a characteristic of the Latin rite and that the lack of priests must not be countered with the ordination of married priests, but rather with a renewed pastoral vocation, with an exchange of priests from dioceses wealthier in vocations to dioceses poorer in vocations, and developing the notion of family as a “domestic Church.”
For what concerns Humanae Vitae, a 1989 text by L’Osservatore Romano, published with no byline, reiterated the teaching of Paul VI’s encyclical. The article underscored that spouses in difficulties deserved “respect and love,” especially if “for various circumstances of life they cannot observe the moral norms on sexuality.” However, the article stated, mercy cannot be detached from truth.
The speeches on viri probati and the article of L’Osservatore Romano made reference to media campaigns, propaganda, and pressure on the Church coming from outside.
It is striking that these documents are not considered nor discussed, although only 30 years have passed by. It is as if John Paul II and Benedict XVI never existed.
The media campaigns of 30 years ago are still current and have regained headlines under Pope Francis. The real question now is, what does Pope Francis think?
There is no easy answer, as Pope Francis’ thoughts are hard to interpret. On the doctrinal side, Pope Francis is a conservative: Pope Francis himself described himself as such in the interview he granted to Televisa.
The Pope has been a conservative in many issues: during a conversation last year with priests from Lyon (France), Pope Francis underscored he did not favor abolishing priestly celibacy, and he reiterated this during his flight back from Panama. On abortion, he has always been adamant, to the point he compared abortion to hit jobs by hired hitmen.
Pope Francis is also pragmatic, in the way parish priests can be. Parish priests providing spiritual direction know that life is messy, that things can happen, and act accordingly. Certainly, a Pope that shows pragmatism can also put at risk some principles of doctrine. If the Pope opens up discussions, he is perceived as a Pope doubtful and eager to change the tradition. The issue is not whether the Pope wants or does not want to do that. The mere idea that he could, reignites the discussion and puts everything on a different track.
As Benedict XVI said, these discussions end up in identifying the Church with some commandments or prohibitions. The ongoing debate does not show the greatness of faith. The Church seems to be clinging to pragmatic and bureaucratic positions, while some call for more decision making power. It is as if the Church were a company.
Priestly celibacy is a choice, and no one is obliged to become a priest. When a man becomes a priest, he responds to a higher vocation and faith.
Living chastely as spouses, as requested by Humanae Vitae, is a faith choice to live a thoroughly Christian life.
The role of women in the Church can be critically important even without any formally recognized role, as the diaconate to women.
All of these issues are forgotten. The debate then presents a political Church that uses a secular vocabulary. These are old debates, originated after the Second Vatican Council, that seem hard to come to an end.