Pope Francis: Married priests "on my agenda"--"reform of the reform" not so much.

This week, during the bishop of Rome's annual meeting with his priests, Francis delivered a talk on homiletics, after which he took questions. A couple of his responses raised eyebrows. First the pope announced that the question of married priests "is on my agenda." Asked whether priests who married could receive a dispensation to celebrate Mass, Francis said that the Congregation for Clergy is looking into it, but that "it is a problem that does not have an easy solution." Pope Francis's openness to a married clergy is not in itself big news. Before he was elected pope, he acknowledged that clerical celibacy is matter of tradition, not a doctrine: "It can change." And last May Francis gave a bishop the impression that he was open to changing that tradition. Just a few months ago, the Vatican finally relaxed the rule barring Eastern Rite bishops from ordaining married men who minister outside their native countries. So it's not terribly surprising that he would say the issue is on his agenda.

What did surprise was Pope Francis's comments on the Latin Mass--or, as it was known after Benedict XVI approved its wider use in 2007, the Extraordinary Form. Francis called that decision "a couragous hand to Lefebvrists and traditionalists"--neither of whom seem terribly taken with Benedict's successor. Zenit reports:

The Pope noted that there are priests and bishops who speak of a "reform of the reform." Some of them are "saints" and speak "in good faith." But this "is mistaken", the Holy Father said. He then referred to the case of some bishops who accepted "traditionalist" seminarians who were kicked out of other dioceses, without finding out information on them, because "they presented themselves very well, very devout." They were then ordained, but these were later revealed to have "psychological and moral problems."

The so-called reform of the reform was, of course, one of Benedict's signature issues. American reformers of the reform were delighted when Benedict dispensed with the English translation of the Roman Missal and in 2011 forced the U.S. church to accept a new version--one that slavishly adheres to the original Latin--that its priests still haven't warmed to.

Naturally, traditionalists are not pleased with Pope Francis's reported criticism of the "reform of the reform," not that many of them could have been surprised. He's the first pope whose ordination followed Vatican II--and his liturgical preferences show it. These comments only confirm what had been obvious since his election: Pope Francis is not terribly interested in the pet issues of liturgical traditionalists. But what he said about the "psychological and moral problems" of some traditionalist seminarians really struck a nerve.

Back to Zenit:

It is not a practice, but it "happens often" in these environments, the Pope stressed, and to ordain these types of seminarians is like placing a "mortgage on the Church." The underlying problem is that some bishops are sometimes overwhelmed by "the need for new priests in the diocese." Therefore, an adequate discernment among candidates is not made, among whom some can hide certain "imbalances" that are then manifested in liturgies. In fact, the Congregation of Bishops – the Pontiff went on to say – had to intervene with three bishops on three of these cases, although they didn't occur in Italy.

At least one traditionalist finds the pope's remarks condemnatory and contemptuous, and I can understand why. But the pope is speaking from experience. Apparently the pope did not name the men he had in mind, but it's hard not to think of deposed Bishop Rogelio Livieres Plano, formerly of the Paraguayan Diocese of Ciudad del Este. He's the man who happily welcomed the Society of St. John, a group of traditionalists who were kicked out of the schismatic Society of St. Pius X, who found a home in the Diocese of Scranton, Pennsylvania, where then-Bishop James Timlin (known to have a soft spot for the unreformed Latin Mass) did precious little to rein in the lavish spending and unusual sleeping habits of SSJ members, including and Fr. Carlos Urrutigoity, founder of the SSJ, who settled a sexual misconduct lawsuit that was eventually brought against him and others in Scranton, whose Society was eventually suppressed by Timlin's successor, and who apparently remains a priest in good standing somewhere in Ciudad del Este, even while other members of the SSJ are running schools elsewhere in South America. (I wrote a little bit about all that last year.) Even Timlin recognized that one side effect of the SSJ scandal would be that “many people would be confirmed in their belief that the traditional movement is made up of contentious people who cannot get along.”

The Society of St. John found favor in Catholic circles--and raised millions--by marketing itself as a champion of the Latin Mass. Bishop Joseph Martino of Scranton (now retired), who quickly moved to suppress the Society of St. John after he succeeded Bishop Timlin, said that the Society's support for the Latin liturgy forced him to act cautiously as he tried to oust the group from his diocese.

Martino suspected that the SSJs were “blackening” his name “at a time when the Holy See, the pope [Benedict XVI] was asking bishops to be sympathetic to those we might call traditionalists, those who prefer the Mass as it was celebrated [in Latin] until 1962,” he testified. “The last thing I wanted was to be regarded as some leftist liberal who just went after this group simply because they were old fashioned or conservative,” Martino continued.

The SSJs knew they were members of a protected class. That's why, after SSJ priests left Scranton for Paraguay and were seeking formal approval for the transfer, they enlisted the support of Cardinal Arinze, a Latin Mass enthusiast who was then in charge of the Vatican's Congregation for Divine Worship. Martino warned every bishop who would listen--including Vatican officials and the bishop of Ciudad del Este--that the SSJs were a risk. Arinze vouched for them--and later apologized for "putting his nose where it didn't belong," as Martino put it. Of course, according to Livieres, Arinze wasn't the only Vatican official to give his stamp of approval to Urrutigoity: Joseph Ratzinger did too.

Grant Gallicho joined Commonweal as an intern and was an associate editor for the magazine until 2015. 

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