The Problems with “Proven Men”

The 2019 Special Assembly of the Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazon Region could become the occasion for a momentous change in the life of the Church. The preparatory document, issued this month, seems to indicate that the synod will discuss the question of ordaining married men, viri probati (“proven men”), to the priesthood to serve in the Amazon region. Reuters reports that “[p]ressed by reporters at a news conference about ‘viri probati,’ Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri said: ‘The Church is not static . . . there is possibility of movement.’”

Movement, in this case, means ending the requirement of celibacy for priests of the Latin Rite due to a desire to provide priestly ministrations in an area where there are relatively few priests. The desire to provide priests for God’s people is laudable. But is it laudable to end the celibacy requirement?

Robert Cardinal Sarah vehemently objected to this proposal in a sermon he delivered at Chartres Cathedral in May:

Dear Brothers in the Priesthood, preserve always this certainty: to be united to Christ at the Cross, because priestly celibacy gives witness to this in the world! The project, as it has been again picked up by some people, to separate celibacy from the priesthood by administering the Sacrament of Priestly Ordination to married men (“viri probati“) – for “pastoral reasons or out of certain necessities,” as they say – leads to serious consequences and to a definitive breach with the Apostolic Tradition. Then we would establish a priesthood according to human criteria, but we would not continue the priesthood of Christ – obedient, poor, and chaste. Indeed, the priest is not only an “alter Christus” [another Christ], but he is truly “ipse Christus,” Christ Himself! Therefore, the priest who in the Church follows Christ will always be a sign of contradiction!

If the need for more priests is the justification for ending the requirement of celibacy in Amazonia, the same argument will certainly be used for ordaining married men everywhere else in the world. It’s unlikely that the Holy See would confine this “remedy” to one geographical region when there is a priest shortage in Europe, America, and elsewhere.

Ordaining viri probati in South America would open the door to ordaining married men in any diocese where the bishop is so inclined. Should we expect that a bishop in a European diocese who has ordained no new priests in decades would be stopped by Rome if he announced plans to ordained married men?


We should also consider the question of the qualifications required for ordaining married “proven men.” Will they be required to undergo seminary training as legislated in canon law? Will they be expected to complete requirements for studying philosophy and theology and all the other subjects required for seminarians, such as Sacred Scripture, canon law, Church history, patristics, liturgy, pastoral counseling, etc.?

This will be practically impossible for men living in isolated communities who also have to work to provide for their wives and children. They will necessarily be given a drastically reduced course of studies.

What this means is that the Church would ordain men who lack adequate knowledge to carry out the serious mission of preaching, teaching and hearing confessions. They would be the modern equivalent of what was called the simplex priest, who only had permission to celebrate Mass but could not preach or hear confessions. The viri probati, however, would preach and hear confessions without the complete philosophical and theological formation that the Church wisely requires of all candidates for the priesthood.

This deficiency will not be a problem for many of the (likely married) candidates for the priesthood in Europe or North America who were either seminarians at one time or who have the time and qualifications to attend seminary.

What about the priests who left the priesthood to marry? There will be pressure on the Holy See to re-admit these men who are still priests but have been forbidden to exercise priestly ministry. We can expect that some bishops will welcome them back with open arms. If this happens, what about celibate priests who declare that they would like to marry and continue functioning as priests? Is it fair to deny them what is now being given to others, that is, the chance to be a married man and a priest?

What will be the effect of this on Catholics and others? Priestly celibacy is one of the strongest signs to the world that the Catholic Church considers the great sacrifice of giving up marriage and family for the sake of Christ to be possible and reasonable. It is a blessed way to worship God and remind people of Jesus Christ. Jesus acts through his priests, and they are called to live in imitation of his way of life. Jesus was not married.  The priest is a living icon of Christ the High Priest.

To abandon celibacy as being too difficult and thus an obstacle to the spread of the Gospel is to sell Christianity short. People will see this as a capitulation to the unreligious spirit of our times.

The celibate priesthood is one of the glories of the Catholic Church. It is a gift that inspires people to say: “If the leaders of the Catholic Church are willing to live without wife and family for the sake of imitating Jesus Christ, they must be totally convinced that this is the true religion, and that God will reward them for their sacrifice.” If all of this is cast aside, then we will appear to the world as self-doubting and unsure of the value of what the Church has always taught as a great good and benefit for the priest and for the entire Church.

The movement to abandon celibacy needs to be countered by a vigorous defense of the Church’s discipline of asking her priests to imitate Christ in his self-gift to the Father in a life dedicated to celibate service of God’s people.


*Image: A Catholic church in Santa Rita do Weil, Brazil to which the nearest priest must travel four hours by boat to celebrate Mass. [Dado Galdieri for the Wall Street Journal]

The Rev. Gerald E. Murray, J.C.D. is a canon lawyer and the pastor of Holy Family Church in New York City. His new book (with Diane Montagna), Calming the Storm: Navigating the Crises Facing the Catholic Church and Society, is now available.