Australia: Ecclesiastical Celibacy Under Review

August 19, 2023
Archbishop Mark Coleridge

One of the most listened to Australian prelates has just spoken publicly in favor of the ordination of married men. It is an intervention which is not by chance, and which should be placed in the context of the unprecedented acceleration of the synodal reforms carried out in recent months by Pope Francis.

“The programmed end of ecclesiastical celibacy.” It is under this title that the August 12 and 13, 2023 edition of The Australian published the interview granted by Archbishop Mark Coleridge. “The title goes beyond what I said, but the tone of the article is fair enough,” said the Archbishop of Brisbane, a few days after creating a stir among Australian Catholics.

Because the prelate defends the idea that “celibacy should not be compulsory for everyone, given the context of crisis that the priesthood is going through and because of the needs of the people of God.” And Archbishop Coleridge warns: “The obligation of priestly celibacy is very likely to be lifted.… The question will continue to mature until the moment when it will seem quite natural to go beyond it, without it appearing as the artificial and dramatic reversal of an old tradition.”

As a first step in this maturation, the prelate proposes an exemption from celibacy for candidates for the priesthood from the indigenous aboriginal populations, on the grounds that it would be “impossible to recruit a clergy that would accept the obligation of celibacy among these populations,” as this discipline is radically foreign to their culture.

“Look at Pat Dodson: he ended up leaving the priesthood after a fairly short period of time,” explains Coleridge, referring to the Labor senator from Western Australia, the only Aboriginal to have embraced the priestly state, before abandoning it and going into politics.

As former President of the Australian Bishops' Conference, the word of the Archbishop of Brisbane carries a certain weight, especially since the prelate is very close to the line of Pope Francis: suffice to say that his sortie against ecclesiastical celibacy in the heart of summer is not really due to chance.

Not long ago, just before the start of World Youth Day - which ended at the beginning of August in Lisbon, Portugal - the Pontiff reaffirmed in the media his desire to reform the Church in keeping in step with developments in modern society.

In this perspective, priestly celibacy in particular will be the subject of discussions to open the priesthood to married men. It is in this context that Coleridge’s words should perhaps be situated. The Bishop of Darwin also declared himself to be in favor of an evolution of priestly celibacy: “We must be open to the idea of ​​having married indigenous priests. … And the Pope told us that he was open to talking about it to the bishops who would submit such and such a particular case to him.”

This rapid reform, carried out at full speed by the current Pope, is creating internal divisions within the Church. This is evidenced by the emotion provoked by the publication last June 20 of a “working document” which must be studied in a few weeks within the framework of a synod which seems to be transformed, over the months, into a sparring party.

On the part of Catholic pastors, to decide that a culture – in this case the Aboriginal culture – cannot be truly baptized by the gospel is a flagrant lack of faith.