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Australian archbishop says married indigenous priests 'highly likely'

The Archbishop of Brisbane, Australia, has called for the Vatican to authorize the ordination of married men to the priesthood for ministry among the country’s indigenous communities.

Archbishop Mark Coleridge made the call in an interview published Saturday with the newspaper The Australian. The archbishop argued that married priests ordained from within indigenous communities are part of necessary reforms for the Church which must “look quite different” in the future in order to continue its mission.

Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Brisbane. Image: Archdiocese of Brisbane via YouTube.

“I think it’s fairly bleak with regard to the Church generally now,” Coleridge said. “So one of the things I have just floated is that: is there reason enough to say that within indigenous communities we will ordain married men?”

There’s “no way you’re going to recruit a celibate clergy in those cultures,” Coleridge claimed.


Coleridge cited the example of Patrick Dodson, an indigenous Australian ordained a priest, who eventually left to become a prominent Labor Party senator in Australia and key figure in the national aboriginal reconciliation movement.

The archbishop said he “wouldn’t use the word inevitable” to describe Rome authorizing an end to clerical celibacy for indigenous communities, but said he believed it was “highly likely” to be approved in the future.

“I don’t know quite when or how, but the … question is certainly not going away,” he told the newspaper. “And I think there will come a point of maturation when it will look kind of the natural next step and not sort of an artificial or dramatic or untimely overturning of what’s been a very long tradition.”

Asked if his view reflected the thinking of the Australian bishops’ conference or local Catholics, the archbishop said the issue had come up “just in conversations, informal discussions within the bishops’ conference.”

“You know, we are deeply concerned with the Church’s engagement with indigenous people. And one of the things I’ve been saying loud and clear for some time is we need a new way to imagine and engage with the indigenous peoples, and leadership is a key question,” said Coleridge. 

“You can’t have the whitefella providing leadership; you’ve got to provide leadership from within the indigenous communities.”

The archbishop’s interview was carried under the headline “End of celibacy nigh, says Brisbane Catholic Archbishop Mark Coleridge,” provoking considerable public debate in the local Church. 

Coleridge then told his own archdiocesan newspaper, The Catholic Leader, that “the headline went quite a way beyond what I actually said, but the article was fair enough.”

“I don’t think the end of celibacy is nigh, but I’m also convinced that the question won’t go away, especially for communities like our indigenous peoples,” he said in a follow-up interview with The Catholic Leader on Monday.

Coleridge has served as Archbishop of Brisbane since 2012. From 2018-2020 he served as president of the Australian bishops’ conference and was a key figure during the Church in Australia’s plenary council, which ended last year, and called for the Church to “move from a pastoral ministry of mere conservation to a decidedly missionary pastoral ministry.”

Although discussion at the council included motions to support for the ordination of women as deacons, and commit the Australian bishops to ordaining women should the pope allow it, they were defeated during an acrimonious council session. 

In his interview Saturday, Coleridge drew a line between what he called the “highly likely” prospect of married male priests for indigenous communities and women’s diaconal ordination, which he termed “a glimmer of possibility.”

At the same time, the archbishop said women could not be excluded from leadership roles in the Church, and the way in which clergy operated at all levels of governance and pastoral ministry would need to change in future.

Priests and bishops, he said, could not function as a “one-man band.” 

“We’re going to have to move to a larger configuration with a community of communities, led by a team, some of whom will be lay, one of whom or more will be ordained,” said Coleridge.

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Both the issues of married priests for service in indigenous communities and the ordination of women to the diaconate were discussed during the 2019 meeting of the Synod of Bishops in Rome, convened to discuss the Amazon.

Despite widespread expectations that the pope would use the synod to authorize the ordination of so-called viri probati, that is “proven” married men, for priestly ministry among remote indigenous communities, and for the ordination of women deacons, Francis declined to do so.

The pope has instead repeatedly called clerical celibacy a “gift” to the Church and said is response to his stance on the discipline that “I am reminded of that phrase of Saint Paul VI: ‘I would rather give my life than change the law on celibacy.’” 

Both the ordination of married men, and the ordination of women, are expected to again feature during discussions at the synod on synodality, which will convene in Rome in October for the first of two sessions, though Archbishop Coleridge will not be among the delegates.

The archbishop will turn 75 in September, the age at which bishops are expected to offer the pope their resignations, though it is not clear if Pope Francis will act immediately to replace Coleridge. In several key archdioceses around the world, the pope has allowed archbishop to continue serving well past 75 and closer to 80 years old.

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