The largest Roman Catholic geographical district in Brazil, located deep in the Amazon along the Xingu River, has more than 800 Catholic congregations but only 27 priests.
Bishop Erwin Krautler, prelate of Xingu (pronounced Shin-goo), has argued that the situation calls for drastic measures. In April, he took his case to the Vatican, where he met with Pope Francis. Recently, Krautler and Cardinal Claudio Hummes, a friend of Pope Francis, presented the idea of ordaining married community elders to Brazil’s National Conference of Bishops, which is now in the process of forming a commission to delve deeper into the matter.
Krautler said he counted himself among a group of bishops, mostly in the developing world, who see the ordination of such elders as a potential solution for the countless rural congregations that cannot receive the sacraments, including Communion, marriage and baptism.
“The situation of Xingu is not an exceptional situation,” Krautler said. “All of the Amazon has the same problem of very few fathers for a large number of communities.”
Krautler said Pope Francis has encouraged open dialogue on the issue and urged bishops at the national level to come up with “courageous” proposals to address the priest shortage.
The Brazilian bishop is not the first to propose ordaining married men. Krautler said Fritz Lobinger — retired bishop of Aliwal, in South Africa — put forward the case for ordaining married men in underserved areas.
Lobinger visited Brazil five times while he was formulating his views, which he has espoused widely.
“Lay leaders preach, conduct services, conduct funerals, pray for the sick and in some areas they are even authorized to conduct baptisms and marriages,” Lobinger said. “There can be no doubt that they would also be accepted if they were ordained to the ministerial priesthood.”
Lobinger said the ordination of elders would work in vibrant, self-reliant Catholic communities.
But some priests view a new path to ordination without formal academic training or the celibacy requirement as a threat that could undermine the traditional priesthood.
Lobinger has argued that traditionally trained priests would fit into the new system.
“The local leaders become a leadership team and the priests become fomenters,” he said. “This happens because there is no other training facility. If it is to happen, it can only happen through the local priests.”
Married priests are not unheard of in the Catholic world; married men are ordained in the Eastern Rite Catholic churches and married former Anglican priests have been allowed into the church.
“The celibacy of priesthood in the Western church is a matter of ecclesiastical discipline and therefore changeable,” said James Conn, a Jesuit priest and professor of canon law at Boston College.
Since assuming office, Pope Francis has espoused flexibility, especially on nondoctrinal matters. In a July conversation with Italian newspaper La Repubblica, he called celibacy a “problem” for the church and promised to find solutions.
“[Ordaining married lay leaders] has nothing to do with extinguishing the type of priest we have now,” Krautler said. “But that besides this type we would have other experiences and other possibilities to attend to the need of 90 percent of the communities of the Amazon.”