“Do I think changing the laws on celibacy will lead to the downfall of the church? No I don’t. Celibacy is a doctrine, not an immutable truth ... it has always been open to change.”
A shortage of ordained priests in remote areas of South America has reignited a centuries old celibacy debate within the Catholic Church. In October, a majority of the 180 bishops from nine South American countries in the Amazon basin called for the ordination of married men to address a shortage of clergy in the region.
The proposals were contained in a final document approved on 26 October at the end of a three-week Amazon synod held at the Vatican. The document, approved by the bishops, noted that Catholics in the region had “enormous difficulties” in receiving communion and having the services of a priest.
Bishop Bill says he, like Pope Francis, favours obligatory celibacy, but that ideal had to be weighed against a Catholic’s right to partake in the Eucharist — a right many South Americans were being denied.
“I like what celibacy says about the priesthood and believe if it was to become optional, something positive would be lost,” Bishop Bill said.
“The priesthood was set up as the job being a calling, and there’s a value there about the ministry being a way of life, and not simply an occupation that may at times have to give way to a family.
“However, I’m not in the shoes of the South American bishops who can’t provide Eucharist to their people. If I were, I would have to think hard about whether the ideal (of celibacy) should be maintained in spite of what’s practical for the good of the people.”
The proposal has sparked a fierce debate between liberal and conservative factions in the church.
Bishop Bill said the opposition was coming from people already fearful of Pope Francis’s “liberalising tendencies”.
“Opponents see this proposal as the thin edge of the wedge type thing that could set a precedent,” he said.
In 2005, Australia's National Council of Priests declared that in order to adequately serve future Catholics, the number of Australian Catholic priests had to increase 20-fold. The council made a submission to the World Synod of Bishops, meeting at the time in Rome, in which they asked the bishops to consider reopening the priesthood to married men.
The bishops chose not to give their support or convey the council’s message to Pope Benedict and so nothing came of the request. In contrast, the current proposal, while limited only to remote areas in South America and to married men already ordained as deacons in the church, represents the first time a meeting of Catholic bishops has backed such a historic change to the tradition of celibacy among priests. The proposal was supported 128-41 by the bishops, an overwhelming majority.
Speaking at a press conference at the end of the synod, the Archbishop of Benevento, Cardinal Michael Czerny, said of the decision: "Things have to change. We cannot keep repeating old responses to urgent problems and expect to get better results than we've been getting so far."
As a trained church historian, Bishop Bill is pragmatic about potential changes to celibacy laws in the Catholic Church.
“People can’t say it’s impossible for priests to be married, because they have been in the past,” he said. “There was also opposition to married Anglican priests being allowed to convert to Catholicism 50 years ago. And the Indonesian bishops have been asking permission to ordain their married catechists in the villages since the 1970s.
“This particular proposal would be a moderate step because the men in South America are already deacons in Holy Orders. If the Pope supports this (proposal) it certainly won’t be the end of the church.”
It is not known when Pope Francis will make his final decision on the proposal.