The Pope will gather church officials for a “reflection” on celibacy and marriage for priests tomorrow. The move has been prompted by the rebellion of an excommunicated Zambian archbishop, who has founded a movement for the promotion of married clergy.
The Vatican says that the heads of its congregations or ministries would examine the situation “created by the disobedience of Monsignor Emmanuel Milingo” and consider requests for exemptions to the celibacy rule for priests who wished to marry or who were already married.
It made clear that Pope Benedict XVI had not called the meeting intending to make significant changes but to discuss the issue in general and some circumstances in particular. “The meeting was called because of what happened with Mgr Milingo,” the Vatican said, “but they will also discuss the situation of priests who have left and who want to come back.”
The flamboyant Archbishop Milingo, 76, who married Maria Sung at a Unification Church mass wedding presided over by the Rev Sun Myung Moon in 2001, is the founder of a group called Married Priests Now. He was excommunicated in September after he installed four married Roman Catholic priests as bishops in a ceremony in Washington.
It was the culmination of a series of run-ins with his former superiors that included his own marriage. A few weeks after that ceremony he met Pope John Paul II, repented and was gathered back into the fold.
He resurfaced this year in Washington and told reporters that he was advocating the return of what he claimed were 150,000 priests worldwide who had left the church because of the celibacy rule.
After the unauthorised installation of the bishops, the Vatican issued an excommunication notice, saying that Mgr Milingo had “caused division and dismay among the faithful” and that he was in “increasingly open breach of communion with the Church”.
While the episode may appear to be a colourful aside, illustrated as it is by “Moonies” and Mgr Milingo’s fame as a mass exorcist and liberal borrower of his native Zambian religious practices, it is significant that Pope Benedict saw the need to address the issue. The claim of 150,000 married priests may be exaggerated, but the issue of allowing priests to marry, as they did before the Second Lateran Council of 1139, does not go away.
Dramatic changes are unlikely. In October last year a synod, or meeting of bishops from all over the world, rejected the possibility of relaxing the celibacy rules for priests and seminarians. Mgr Milingo has called for a meeting of married Catholic priests in New York in December.
CHANGES IN HOLY WEDLOCK
• St Peter, the first Pope, was married, as were most of the Apostles
• By the 6th century, married men could still be ordained but any priest found sleeping with his wife was excommunicated
• Marriage for clergy was made unlawful by the Second Lateran Council of 1139
• Exceptions are still made. Priests of the Uniate Catholic Church can marry, and recently in England, married Anglican clergy who objected to women priests were allowed to become Catholic priests without renouncing their wives