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  • John Thavis

As pope meets Curia, new secretary of state makes waves

As Pope Francis presided over a meeting of Roman Curia department heads today, his new pick for Secretary of State was making news on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.

Archbishop Pietro Parolin, in an interview with the Venezuelan newspaper El Universal, said among other things that the church’s tradition of priestly celibacy was not dogma and was therefore open to discussion. And he said that while the church was not a democracy, it needs to reflect the democratic spirit of the times and adopt a collegial way of governing.

Neither statement is exactly groundbreaking, but the fact that the new secretary of state feels free to make them says a lot about the current atmosphere in the Vatican.

Parolin said that priestly celibacy, which remains the norm in the Western church, is a tradition that goes back to early Christian times and that has been strengthened through the centuries.

“The effort made by the church to institute ecclesial celibacy must be taken into consideration. One cannot simply say that it belongs to the past,” he said.

The question, he said, represents “a great challenge for the pope,” because the pope’s ministry is one of unity, and any decision on celibacy would have to be made without damaging the communion of the church.

He added that “it is possible to discuss and reflect on these topics that are not defined faith, and consider some modifications, but always in the service of unity and according to God’s will.” One also needs to be attentive to the signs of the times, he said.

The question of priestly celibacy has long been a lightning rod at the Vatican. In 2006, Brazilian Cardinal Claudio Hummes made a similar statement, saying that although celibacy was “part of Catholic history and culture, the church could review this question, because celibacy is not a dogma but a disciplinary question.”

Cardinal Hummes made the comment in an interview in Brazil shortly before assuming his post as head of the Vatican’s Congregation for Clergy. Within a few hours of his arrival in Rome, he was pressed to issue a statement declaring that priestly celibacy was an ancient value in the church and was not up for discussion.

Archbishop Parolin, who is ending his term as papal nuncio in Venezuela before assuming his new post in mid-October, said it is a good thing for the church to implement a “more democratic spirit, in the sense of listening carefully, and I think the pope has indicated this as an aim of his pontificate, a collegial leadership of the church in which all requests can be expressed.”

In Rome, meanwhile, the Vatican had little to say about this morning’s three-hour-long meeting between Pope Francis and about 30 heads of Vatican departments. The pope opened the encounter with words of welcome but then sat back and did more listening than talking, sources said.

It was the first time Francis has presided over a Vatican department head meeting, but a statement issued by Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi took pains to underline that the pope has, over recent months, met personally with each of the top Roman Curia officials.

Father Lombardi also emphasized that suggestions or reflections from today’s meeting will naturally be part of discussions when the papally-appointed group of eight cardinals meets in early October to consider Curia reform and issues of church governance. The point seemed to be that the Roman Curia will be heard in this process of reform, and that the “Group of 8” will not be working on a completely separate track.

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