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Updated: Feb 18, 2020

Pope Francis has offered some clarity about how far he’ll go on the issue of married priests.

Speaking to reporters aboard his flight from Panama to Rome Jan. 27, the pope said he did not agree with those who want to make priestly celibacy “optional” throughout the Latin-rite church.

The pope was asked whether he could envision the Catholic Church adopting the practice of Orthodox Churches, in which priestly candidates can choose whether to marry or remain celibate – a choice made before they are ordained as deacons.

“My decision is: optional celibacy before the diaconate, no,” the pope said. “That is what I think. I will not do it and this remains clear. Am I closed minded? Perhaps, but I don’t feel that I can make this decision before God.”

But he left the door open to ordaining married men as an exception to the celibacy rule, in local areas of great pastoral need.

“I think the question should be open in places where there is a pastoral problem because of the lack of priests. I’m not saying that we have to do it, because I have not reflected and prayed about this sufficiently, but theologians have to study this,” he said.

He said that for local church communities, the essential question is access to Mass and the sacraments. “Where there is not the Eucharist … who will make the Eucharist?” he said.

The issue is expected to be raised during a regional Synod of Bishops from the Amazon region, to be held at the Vatican in October. The region faces a severe shortage of priests, and a preparatory document for the synod has called for “courageous, daring and fearless” proposals to deal with pastoral challenges.

If such an exception is granted in the Amazon region, many believe it will place the church on a path of change regarding the overall celibacy rule.

The Catholic Church already has married priests. Generally, Catholic Eastern churches allow married men to be ordained. Celibacy in the Latin-rite church – to which the vast majority of Catholics belong – has been a tradition for many centuries, and a topic of increasing theological debate for decades.

Updated: Feb 18, 2020

There are signs that Vatican officials preparing the February summit on sex abuse hope the event will launch a new role for Catholic laity.

That would be a significant development in a scandal that, as Pope Francis himself has said, has been perpetuated by clericalism.

At first glance, the Feb. 21-24 summit looks like another “bishops monitoring the bishops” event. But planners have quietly taken steps to involve lay experts, and are signaling a more open approach to lay authority and supervision when it comes to dealing with accusations of clerical sex abuse.

In a recent interview with America magazine, Maltese Archbishop Charles Scicluna, one of the meeting’s organizers, said the need for transparency and accountability on sex abuse requires bishops to “empower the lay people”:

“We bishops need to approach the issue of the sexual abuse of minors together as churches, and we also need to adopt what Pope Francis is calling ‘a synodal approach,’ that is we cannot do it alone in our community, we need also to empower the lay people, the laity, in order to help us be good stewards.”

Scicluna repeated the point for emphasis: “Synodality means that we appreciate the different charisms and gifts of the laity, their expertise, and that we empower them to join bishops in the role of stewardship.”

As if to anticipate the objections of conservatives, the archbishop added: “It’s not a question of (the laity) having control over the hierarchy, it is the hierarchy empowering and facilitating the sharing of charisms which the Spirit also gives to the laity, because there are gifts there that will help issues of prevention and safeguarding that we need to bring on board, and we need to facilitate as bishops.”

What that means in terms of practical responsibility and authority remains to be seen. Pope Francis did name two Vatican lay women to help prepare the summit: Dr. Gabriella Gambino and Dr. Linda Ghisoni, both undersecretaries in the Vatican’s office for Laity, Family and Life.

A key question is whether the pope’s “synodality” vision will trump the more legalistic approach of Vatican canon lawyers when it comes to lay responsibility regarding bishops’ decision-making and accountability.

It was Archbishop Scicluna who, in an address to canon lawyers in 2013, pointed out that under church law bishops can lose their office for abuse or negligence in ministry, and in this sense are seen as accountable to their faithful.

Over the last year, “more involvement by the laity” has been a popular phrase in the church’s discussion of sexual abuse, and it’s come from all quarters – the pope, U.S. bishops, victims’ advocacy groups and leading Catholics. Now it needs to be translated into meaningful measures.

  • John Thavis

Updated: Feb 18, 2020

Pope Francis’ love-hate relationship with social media was on display this month.

On Jan. 20, appearing before pilgrims at his weekly blessing, he tapped a tablet to launch a “Click to Pray” app that allows people to share prayer intentions and (virtually) pray with each other. The pope called social networks “a resource of our time” that gives people a way to “share values and projects.”

But a few days later, the 82-year-old pope sounded a different tune in his annual message for World Communications Day. He said social media too often tend to divide people and encourage a worrisome trend toward narcissism:

Moreover, in the social web identity is too often based on opposition to the other, the person outside the group: we define ourselves starting with what divides us rather than with what unites us, giving rise to suspicion and to the venting of every kind of prejudice (ethnic, sexual, religious and other). This tendency encourages groups that exclude diversity, that even in the digital environment nourish unbridled individualism which sometimes ends up fomenting spirals of hatred. In this way, what ought to be a window on the world becomes a showcase for exhibiting personal narcissism.

It's the Catch-22 that many people, the famous and not-so-famous, experience when using social media: they see the negative effects of social networking, but in this day and age they feel obliged to have a presence on digital platforms.

To understand why the pope can’t even consider withdrawing from social media, read this story by Catholic News Service. It outlines the incredible digital reach enjoyed by Pope Francis:

According to Twipu, a site that tracks Twitter statistics, each of Pope Francis' tweets generates an average of 935 replies, 7,998 retweets and 36,750 likes.

In an early December article, the Twiplomacy website listed Pope Francis as No. 4 on the list of the "most followed world leaders on Instagram." He came behind Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Indonesian President Joko Widodo and U.S. President Donald Trump.

More importantly from the point of view of his Communications Day focus on community, Pope Francis is also in fourth place on world leaders' Instagram interactions. Each photo or video posted by the Vatican, the site said, garners an average of 198,432 interactions.

Pope Francis is on Instagram here:

You'll find him on Twitter @Pontifex.

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