Beyond Amazonia

The post-synodal apostolic exhortation Querida Amazonia [Dear Amazonia] did not accept or endorse the 2019 Amazonian synod’s proposal that viri probati — mature married men — be ordained priests in that region. So until the German Church’s “synodal path” comes up with a similar proposal (which seems more than likely), a period of pause has been created in which some non-hysterical reflection on the priesthood and celibacy can take place throughout the world Church. Several points might be usefully pondered in the course of that conversation.

The first involves celibacy and the Kingdom.

Christians live, or ought to live, in a different time-zone because the Kingdom of God is among us, by the Lord’s own declaration in the gospels. Different vocations in the Church bear radical witness to that truth and remind the rest of us of it. The vocations that live the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience in a consecrated way do that. So should the celibate priesthood.

It was said openly during the Amazonian synod, and it’s often muttered in other contexts, that celibacy makes no sense to many people. Which is quite true — if those people are living in pagan societies that haven’t heard the Gospel or post-Christian societies that have abandoned the Gospel and haven’t been re-evangelized. Celibacy, a total gift of self to God, only makes sense in a Kingdom context. So if celibacy doesn’t make sense in Amazonia or Dusseldorf or Hamburg, that likely has something to do with a failure to preach the Gospel of the inbreaking Kingdom of God in Amazonia, Dusseldorf, and Hamburg.

All of which is to say that the failures of Catholic Lite and Catholic Zero aren’t going to be addressed by lighter Catholic Lite or less-than-zero Catholic Zero.

The second point to ponder involves celibacy and the broader reform of the priesthood.

The brutal assault on Pope Emeritus Benedict and Cardinal Robert Sarah over their book From the Depths of Our Hearts obscured one of the crucial points these two eminent churchmen were trying to make: namely, that the priesthood is in crisis throughout the world because priesthood is too often reduced to a set of functions, rather than being understood and lived as a unique vocational configuration to Jesus Christ, the eternal high priest of the New Covenant.       There were hints of this function-think at the Amazonian synod, where some bishops seemed to imagine ordained viri probati as a kind of Catholic variant on the local shaman: an elder who does magical things in the spirit world. But the dumbing down of priesthood — the reduction of priestly ministry to what was sometimes called in the 1970s “priestcraft” — is a problem throughout the world Church.

It is a problem in seminaries that are boot camps for a clerical caste system. It is a problem where priesthood is thought to be a step up the social ladder in poorer countries. And it can be a problem in pastoral settings where the priest is so overwhelmed by the many things he must do that he can be tempted to forget just what he is: an icon of the priesthood of Jesus Christ.

So any serious discussion about the reform of the priesthood must begin with a deep dive into the Church’s theology of Holy Orders, rather than with debates about how to “make things work better.” Those debates are important. But they are secondary to the authentic Catholic reform of priestly ministry.

Then there is the question of celibacy and clerical sexual abuse. It’s been said many times but it evidently it needs saying again: a married clergy is not the silver-bullet answer to clerical sexual abuse because marriage is not a crime-prevention program. That is an obvious sociological truth, in that most sexual abuse takes place within family settings, and denominations with a married clergy have their own serious problems of clerical sexual misbehavior and abuse. In a Catholic context, it should also be an obvious theological truth, given the Catholic understanding of the sacramentality of marriage. Thus it would help facilitate a real conversation about the reform of the priesthood in the Catholic Church if the nonsensical notion that abandoning celibacy would solve the crisis of clerical sexual abuse were taken off the board, permanently.

The reform of the priesthood, including a deepening of the Church’s commitment to the value of celibacy as a radical witness to the Kingdom, begins, as does all authentic Catholic reform, with deeper conversion to Jesus Christ and the Gospel.

COMING UP: Care for Her Act: A common-sense approach to caring for women and their babies

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The pro-life community is often accused of only being pro-birth; however, a congressman from Nebraska is seeking to not only bring more visibility to the countless organizations which provide care for women experiencing crisis pregnancies through birth and beyond, but to also imitate that care at the federal level and enshrine it into law.

Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R), who serves the first congressional district in Nebraska, is expected to introduce the Care for Her Act to Congress soon, a bill that’s been in the works since last year. The overall goal of the bill is to “[commit] to care for that journey of life through a complementary set of services whereby the government makes a decided choice on behalf of the life of the unborn child and meeting the needs of the expectant mother,” Rep. Fortenberry told the Denver Catholic.

The Care For Act seeks to accomplish this through four basic provisions: A $3,600 tax credit for unborn children which would apply retroactively after the child is born, in addition to the existing tax credit for children; a comprehensive assessment and cataloguing of the programs and resources that are available to expectant mothers; providing federal grants to advance maternal housing, job training mentorships and other educational opportunities for expectant mothers; and lastly, offering financial incentives to communities that improve maternal and child health outcomes.

The Biden Administration recently indicated that they’ll be removing the Hyde Amendment in next year’s budget, which has historically been in place to prohibit pubic funds from going to abortions. The Care for Her Act would circumvent this to some degree, and it would also test whether Rep. Fortenberry’s dissenting colleagues who have in the past expressed that women should be cared for throughout their pregnancies and beyond are willing to stand by their words.

While the conversation around pregnancy and women’s health often centers around abortion, Rep. Fortenberry intentionally crafted the Care for Her Act to not be against abortion, per se, but rather for women and their babies.

“Abortion has caused such a deep wound in the soul of America,” Rep. Fortenberry said. “However, the flip side of this is not only what we are against, because it is so harmful, but what are we for? So many wonderful people throughout this country carry the burden of trying to be with women in that vulnerable moment where there is an unexpected pregnancy and show them the gift of what is possible for that child and for that woman. Let’s do that with government policy as well.”

Congressman Jeff Fortenberry (R) of Nebraska is expected to introduce the Care for Her Act to Congress soon, a bill which seeks to provide a community of care for women facing an unexpected pregnancy. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. House of Representatives)

Even The Washington Post has taken notice of the Care for Her Act. Earlier this year, Rep. Fortenberry introduced the idea to his constituents, and as to be expected, he received mixed feedback. Those who are pro-life were supportive of the idea, while those who support abortions were more apprehensive. Still others shared consternation about what the government ought to or ought not to do, expressing concern about what the Care for Her Act seeks to do.

“My response is, if we’re going to spend money, what is the most important thing? And in my mind, this is it,” Rep. Fortenberry said.

However, he was very encouraged by one response in particular, which for him really illustrates why this bill is so important and needed.

“One woman wrote me and said, ‘Jeff, I had an abortion when I was young. But if I had this complement of services and commitment of community around me, I would have made another decision,'” Rep. Fortenberry recalled. “And I said ‘yes.’ That’s why we are doing this. For her.”

So far, Rep. Fortenberry has been able to usher support from a number of women representatives on his side of the aisle. He is hopeful, though, that support could come from all sides of the political spectrum.

“Is it possible this could be bipartisan? I would certainly hope so, because it should transcend a political divide,” he explained. “We, of course, stand against abortion because it is so detrimental to women and obviously the unborn child. At the same time though, I think that others could join us who maybe don’t have the fullness of our perspective, who want to see the government actually make a choice on behalf of protecting that unborn life.”

Amidst the politically polarizing discussions about pregnancy and unborn life, the Care for Her act is a common-sense approach to caring for women and their babies. It offers women facing an unexpected pregnancy the chance to experience hope in a seemingly hopeless situation and make a life-giving decision for both herself and her child.

“I’m excited by this,” Rep. Fortenberry said. “I think it opens a whole new set of imaginative possibilities for America, a transformative ideal that again makes this moment of vulnerability when there is an unexpected pregnancy, our chance, our commitment as a community of care.”