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The ordination of married men as Catholic priests: Is this change now inevitable?

The ordination of married men as Catholic priests: Is this change now inevitable?

American Catholics may not know all the latest statistics, but they've been talking about the altar-level realities for decades.

Half a century ago, there were nearly 60,000 U.S. priests and about 90 percent of them were in active ministry -- serving about 54 million self-identified Catholics.

The number of priests was down to 36,580 by 2018 -- while the U.S. Catholic population rose to 76.3 million -- and only 66 percent of diocesan priests remained in active ministry. According to a study by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University, half of America's priests hoped to retire before 2020. Meanwhile, 3,363 parishes didn't have a resident priest in 2018.

It's understandable that concerned Catholics are doing the math. Thus, activists on both sides of the priestly celibacy issue jumped on an intriguing passage in the "Instrumentum Laboris" for next October's special Vatican assembly of the Synod of Bishops in the Pan-Amazonian region.

"Stating that celibacy is a gift for the Church, we ask that, for more remote areas in the region, study of the possibility of priestly ordination of elders, preferably indigenous," stated this preliminary document. These married men "can already have an established and stable family, in order to ensure the sacraments that they accompany and support the Christian life."

The text's key term is "viri probati" -- mature, married men.

"Celibacy is not dogma; it is a legal requirement that can be changed," noted Father Thomas Reese, a Jesuit journalist best known as editor of America magazine. He left that post in 2005 after years of conflict with the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

While Pope Francis has praised celibacy, "he is also a pragmatist who recognizes that indigenous communities are being denied the Eucharist and the sacraments because they don't have priests. After all, which is more important, a celibate priesthood or the Eucharist? At the Last Supper, Jesus said, 'Do this in memory of me' not 'have a celibate priesthood'," argued Reese, in a Religion News Service commentary.

Survey results have shown that many American Catholics are ready for married priests, noted Reese, reached by email.