Last week eight Catholic political leaders in Germany sent a letter to the Catholic Bishop's Conference urging the Roman Catholic Church to change the celibacy rquirement and accept married men as priests:
"Eight members of Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) urged the German Bishops' Conference to consider allowing married men into the priesthood, ahead of the clerics' meeting in the southern city of Würzburg last weekend.
The letter - signed by Bundestag President Norbert Lammert, Education Minister Annette Schavan and former state premiers Bernhard Vogel, Erwin Teufel and Deiter Althaus - stated it was "of urgent importance, in light of the worrying and growing shortage of priests, that Germany's bishops take on the ordination of 'viri probati' ['established men'] as their own cause.""
In fact, the number of priests in German has declined by half since 1960 to just 8,500. Of course, the letter is likely to fall on deaf ears in the Vatican: Pope Benedict XVI has made i clear on numverous occasions that the celibacy requirement for priests - and the ordination of women - will not be up for discussion during his papacy.
But, in using the phrase "viri probati" the petitioners did something quite clever: they threw Benedict's own words back at him. As a young theologian in 1970 Joseph Ratzinger envisioned the Church in crisis and published his thoughts in a collection of essays Glaube und Zunkunft (available in English translation as Faith and the Future). The crisis of the future, Ratzinger wrote, would lead to a much smaller Church in which lay believers - the viri probati - would play an essential role:
„Aus der Krise von heute wird auch dieses Mal eine Kirche morgen hervorgehen die viel verloren hat. Sie wird klein werden, weithin ganz von vorne anfangen müssen. Sie wird viele der Bauten nicht mehr füllen können, die in der Hochkonjunktur geschaffen wurden. Sie wird mit der Zahl der Anhänger viele ihrer Privilegien in der Gesellschaft verlieren. Sie wird sich sehr viel stärker gegenüber bisher als Freiwilligkeitsgemeinschaft darstellen, die nur durch Entscheidung zugänglich wird. Sie wird als kleine Gemeinschaft sehr viel stärker die Initiative ihrer einzelnen Glieder beanspruchen. Sie wird auch gewiss neue Formen des Amtes kennen und bewährte Christen, die im Beruf stehen, zu Priestern weihen.
(From today’s crisis, a Church will emerge tomorrow that will have lost a great deal. She will be small and, to a large extent, will have to start from the beginning. She will no longer be able to fill many of the buildings created in her period of great splendor. Because of the smaller number of her followers, she will lose many of her privileges in society. Contrary to what has happened until now, she will present herself much more as a community of volunteers… As a small community, she will demand much more from the initiative of each of her members and she will certainly also acknowledge new forms of ministry and will raise up to the priesthood proven Christians who have other jobs… )
Could Ratzinger's bewährte Christen also encompass married men? Another document from 1970 - this time a letter signed by Joseph Ratzinger and other leading Roman Catholic clergy would seem to indicate that he was open to the idea:
As a young priest, Pope Benedict put his name to a document calling for the Church to seriously investigate the obligation to priestly celibacy. Joseph Ratzinger was one of the signatories of a 1970 document calling for an examination of priestly celibacy which was signed by nine theologians. The memorandum was drawn up in the face of a shortage of priests and other signatories included Karl Rahner and the future cardinals Karl Lehmann and Walter Kasper. The German newspaper Die Sueddeutsche reported about the document today.
But that was then. Today Pope Benedict XVI would regard these ideas as heresy, and he is perfectly content to permit parish after parish in his native country disappear due to a shortage of of priests.