(RNS) Pope Francis likes to say that he prefers to raise questions rather than issue edicts or change doctrine, and he has certainly generated plenty of debate with his off-the-cuff remarks about gays and his cold-call chats on topics like divorce and Communion, as happened recently with a woman in Argentina.

Now a recent conversation between the pope and a bishop from Brazil about the priest shortage may be moving the issue of married clergy onto the pontiff’s agenda.

Pope Francis greets a crowd on his way to a meeting with cardinals at the Vatican on Feb. 21, 2014. RNS photo by David Gibson

Pope Francis greets a crowd on his way to a meeting with cardinals at the Vatican on Feb. 21, 2014. RNS photo by David Gibson


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It began when Bishop Erwin Krautler, an Austrian-born bishop who heads a sprawling diocese in the Brazilian rain forest, had a private audience with Francis on April 4 in the Vatican.

During the meeting, Krautler and Francis compared notes on how much the priest shortage affects the church, especially in the Southern Hemisphere. Krautler’s diocese, geographically the largest in Brazil, has just 27 priests for 700,000 Catholics, most of whom might attend Mass a couple of times a year.

Francis said he knew of a diocese in Mexico where parishes had a deacon but no priest, and the pope wondered how things could go on that way — which is when Krautler raised the idea of married priests.

“The pope explained that he could not take everything in hand personally from Rome. We local bishops, who are best acquainted with the needs of our faithful, should be ‘corajudos,’ that is ‘courageous’ in Spanish, and make concrete suggestions,” the bishop told an Austrian newspaper the next day.

Francis, Krautler reiterated, wanted national bishops’ conferences to “seek and find consensus on reform and we should then bring up our suggestions for reform in Rome. … It was up to the bishops to make suggestions, the pope said again.”

It didn’t take long for other bishops to pick up on that cue.

Three prelates in Great Britain said they planned to raise the issue of married priests at a meeting of the hierarchy of England and Wales in May. Such a change could help relieve the clergy shortage in their dioceses, they said, noting that many of them have married priests already under a plan that allows Anglican clergy to convert.

“I would be saying personally that my experience of married priests has been a very good one indeed,” Bishop Thomas McMahon told The Tablet, a Catholic weekly. McMahon said he has 20 former Anglican priests, many of whom are married, in his Brentwood diocese.

“People look to their priest as a man of God, to lead them to God,” McMahon said. “If he is a real pastor at their service then it is rather secondary as to whether he is married or not.”

That Francis would be open to the change is not too surprising. As then-Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires, Francis commented that while he was in favor of retaining celibacy “for now,” it was a matter of church law and tradition, not doctrine: “It is a matter of discipline, not of faith. It can change.”

More recently, Francis’ secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, echoed those views in comments last fall when he said that celibacy “is not a church dogma and it can be discussed because it is a church tradition.”

So is optional celibacy a real possibility under Francis? “I think the topic is open for discussion,” said the Rev. Thomas Reese, a Jesuit priest and senior analyst for National Catholic Reporter.

There are at least three reasons why Francis may be amenable to the debate:

  • One, while a married priesthood is often seen as part of the “liberal” agenda for reform that includes ordaining women priests and overturning teachings on homosexuality and birth control, it’s not. In fact, church officials across the spectrum periodically raise the option of married priests — while keeping celibacy as the norm — but they often do so in private.
  • Two, because celibacy is a matter of law and tradition, not doctrine or dogma, it can be debated or even changed without signaling that the entire edifice of church teaching is about to crumble. Such a reform would be a pragmatic way of addressing a pastoral problem, and it has received a boost from none other than Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, a favorite of conservatives, who allowed some married Anglican clergy to become Catholic priests.
  • Three, Francis has framed the celibacy reform as one that should emerge from a local context, which reinforces his goal of decentralizing power and authority in the church. Celibacy could be a useful means of solving a problem while promoting collegiality and the idea of organic change in Catholicism.

“If, hypothetically, Western Catholicism were to review the issue of celibacy, I think it would do so for cultural reasons … not so much as a universal option,” as Francis said in 2010 remarks on the issue, three years before he was pope.

In fact, it is not surprising that the issue came up in discussions between Francis, an Argentine, and a churchman in Brazil because bishops in Latin America, Africa and Asia have often been the most outspoken about the need to consider a change.

Whether the American hierarchy would press the issue is unclear.

Russell Shaw, a former spokesman for the U.S. bishops, said he is leery about any change that does not take into account the views of lay people and “real-life experience that already exists” in churches that have married clergy or in Eastern Rite branches of Catholicism that also allow married priests.

But above all, Shaw, author of a new book on the “uncertain future of Catholicism in America,” warned that “a piecemeal approach — married priests in this country, celibate priests in that one — would cause confusion or worse.”

“There has to be a uniform policy on something like this,” he said. “If the pope thinks the question should be studied, let him ask the bishops’ conferences to study it and then see what they say. Any change in this area would be momentous, so we need to take our time.”

KRE/AMB END GIBSON

31 Comments

  1. Married priests? Forgiven heretics and homosexuals? Atheists in Heaven?
    Whatever next?!

    I think people are missing the big story about Pope Francis. Things at the Vatican are much more dramatic than they appear. Francis is acting as if somewhere a secret Holy bookkeeper or lawyer has told him some sort of gig is up.

    It is easy to forget that the Catholic Church has been on the ropes for a very long time (to mix metaphors). But the recent era has been particularly ferocious.

    Francis is acting like a sort of Pope Gorbachev of the Vatican Glasnost and he is just as desperate and prepared to shock.
    The church can’t survive with its 2000 years of Iron fisted laws – but neither can it survive not trying to toss a few of them.

    It is an amazing experiment because Francis is trusting in the best preachings of Jesus (compassion, love, forgiveness) to transform the church. But thanks to the internet all patience with authoritarian rule is vanishing.

    It appears to be a “go for broke” strategy, which is why it reminds me so much of Gorbachev. And his popularity is similarly high – as Gorbachev’s was – outside of the institution. As with Gorbachev, the world seems to have been waiting for this.

    But look closely – The Pope is preparing to jump to his Father in the deep end of the pool. Will Jesus save him?

    Francis has that kind of trust in the best of Jesus – to catch him and not let the church fail.

    This is much more dramatic than the news coverage is playing it.
    Will Jesus be there as Francis leaps?
    What will it mean to the world if Jesus doesn’t show up?

    It is extraordinary to see. Francis is showing some courage.
    When he hands over the pedophile priests to the courts, and trashes the superstitious parts of the Bible – including God – I’ll wish him well.

    • rev. joseph P. annese

      I am with the Pope. Get the men who wear the miters start the discussion. I am a priest going on 53 years of priesrhoos. I am saying thre and four Masses a week with an occasional funeral, wedding, mission. I love what I do. How long will I be able to continue? I am going on 82 years of age. Giving the option of celibacy will call for a greaat change in the Church, especially financially.Open the doors!

    • Hi everyone!
      I feel that not allowing priests to get married is one of the biggest mistakes the Catholic Church has made. There are numerous denominations all over the world with church pastors being married. If any man needs a help mate, is certainly is church leaders, especially pastors and priests. Of course, history shows other reasons that has been negatives about the Catholic Church not allowing their priests to marry.
      God Bless!
      Dr. Gary

  2. Edward Borges-Silva

    It would be difficult to argue a biblical warrant for forced celibacy, it was not required of the priests of Israel under the Old Covenant, and it seems clearly to have led to any number of sexual abuses by priests over the centuries; perhaps the worst being the egregious pedophilia of recent note. For those who truly wish the Roman Catholic Church well, the elimination of celibacy as a requirement for the priesthood would be a good and biblical place to start.

    • Celibacy has not led to pedophilia or other sexual abuse. The instance of priests committing this evil is no greater than other groups of men. In other words, Edward, you are just as likely to do this as your parish priest.

      These men did what they did in spite of, not because of, their vow of celibacy.

      • billywingartenson

        GARBAGE – tje endless hidden molestation of chidlren was largely due to the not natural bull droppings about celibacy, masturbation etc.

        Along with the ultimate crime of hiding these horrors., leavingg a message to other pedo riests tha tlittle boys and girls were fair game

    • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

      “Mandatory celibacy” “forced celibacy” What a crock. Celibacy and the priesthood are a package in the Latin Church. You don’t want to live a celibate lifestyle so as to be completely available to your parishoners and so as to be able to concentrate on the things of the spirit and God–then become a public high school teacher. But spoiled brats don’t think that way. The world must bow to their stamping feet.
      Celibacy is under attack as a great spiritual commitment (even praised by media darlings like the Dali Lama and Gandi) in our time because there are so many spoiled brats in our culture who think that if they want something, they should be able to have it with no strings attached and on their own terms.

    • Edward – If you have evidence that priests who take a vow of celibacy commit sexual abuse more than the male population as a whole you need to present it. Good luck. You won’t find it because they don’t. But, I’ll wait nonetheless!

  3. This should not even be an issue. Mandatory celibacy goes against common sense. Since Augustine the church has been sexually repressive. I am Eastern Catholic and in our diocese my pastor is about the only celibate priest because he is also of the Roman Rite. The rest are married with families from Eastern Europe. The first 72 Popes had wives and most priests had wives at that time. Celibacy was instituted in the Roman Rite in the 1500′s partly due to politics and partly due to the influence of the monasteries. Why is it that priests from the Anglican/Episcopalian Churches can become Catholic, be married, and get ordained. It is unfair to priests have been life long Catholics. I think it is because the homosexual power base in the church would diminish. There is a homosexual culture in seminaries and the priesthood. I know I lived it and glad I got out.

  4. The notion that allowing priests to marry will be the panacea to solve the crisis of the shortage of priests is nonsense, utter nonsense. It also will not solve the problem of sexual assaults on young children by priests. In the case of the former, the vast vast majority of priests are not so concerned about their sex lives (or lack thereof) as they are really too busy to even care. They are out there amongst their parishioners all the time, baptizing, celebrating Mass, visiting the sick and the shut ins, attending administrative meetings, etc. It also doesn’t help that the number of priests started to rapidly decline after the decrees of Vatican II came into full effect essentially stripping the Roman Rite of its beauty and making it into a quasi-Protestant service filled with guitar masses and entertainment for the faithful. What reasonable priest would want to celebrate that kind of nonsense?

    In the case of the latter, priests who abuse young men or women have a disease which will NOT be cured by allowing them to turn their sexual energies onto women in the form of marriage. They’re not interested in sexual relations with women. I think a lot of men who suffer from these predispositions of sex with young boys/girls enter the priesthood because they believe (falsely) that the holy living demanded of the priesthood will essentially create a barrier between their perverted desires and the ability to act upon them. Such is clearly not the case as evidenced by these past 50 years.

    I’m no fan of the celibacy rule. I’m Greek Orthodox and most of the priests I have known are or have been married. But it’s not right for me to judge ROman Catholic Canon Law since I’m not Roman Catholic. If the Roman Catholic Church is going to end the celibacy rule, it should be ended for the right reasons, not with vague insinuations that it will cure the priest sex abuse scandal or even to make it liked by the world. What the Roman Catholic Church needs to do first is eliminate any exceptions to its rule of celibacy of priests who use the ROman Rite. Those Byzantine Catholics who are married have never been subject to these rules and their practice should continue unhindered. If a married Anglican priest wants to become a Roman Catholic he should not presume to be ordained and the Roman Catholic Church should be under no obligation to ordain him. Let him come into the fold, but have him laicized. Once they get rid of all the exceptions to the “rules” then the Roman Catholic Church will be in a much better position to start discussing about how to deal with celibacy issue and apply those decisions fairly across the board.

  5. Edward Borges-Silva

    As has been pointed out here, celibacy came late to the Roman Church, and further, as the Bible is the rule of faith, where beyond a single admonition does the New Testament even suggest celibacy as a requirement of ministers? The Roman Church has the ‘right’ I suppose to set criteria for admission into its priesthood, but I still think it is not an efficacious policy. As to the likelihood of a given body of individuals to engage in particular behaviors, the British public school system with its tradition of separate institutions for boys and girls has historically, perhaps anecdotally, had a higher rate of homosexualism than other systems that were coeducational. Celibacy in the Church should be an individual call, not a mandate. I applaud Pope Francis for at least broaching the idea of married Roman priests.

    • You wrongly assume that Roman Catholics believe the Scriptures are the rule of faith. They are not. That is also the position of the Orthodox communion of churches. The church is the pillar of the Truth, who is a person, not an abstraction and the church guards the Truth in the fullness in which He was revealed. That said, the church is responsible for its discipline and dogmas in service to the kerygma which include priestly celibacy rules.

    • Good grief Edward – One can barely keep up with your nonsense. Have you actually ever read the New Testament? Almost all Christian New Testament scholars recognize a “strong preference” for celibacy. Paul mentions it too many times to recount here. I can go either way on celibacy as a “requirement” but it is clearly preferred in the New Testament. Jesus was celibate as was Paul.

      • Edward Borges-Silva

        As a former Catholic and current Evangelical I am not unsympathetic to the RCC, but the notion that ‘tradition’ trumps scripture is absurd. Further, Paul declared, ‘It is better to marry than to burn.’ Celibacy is a hoped for ideal for those that can bear it. Additionally, Peter himself was married, and again celibacy came late to the Church. If the present Pope is willing to discuss it, are all you staunch traditionalists prepared argue with him? Whatever became of papal infallibility in matters of doctrine and faith?

        • Edward Borges-Silva

          Nor am I suggesting that married priests would be a ‘panacea,’ but it might be a worthwhile move. It would be interesting to see, if such data is available, what the rate of sexual abuse is in the Orthodox community, or any community of ministers of the Christian faith. Probably, the rates are comparable to the general public as argued, but it just seems like common sense to me that celibacy is a difficult burden and can only be managed successfully by the few who are ‘called’ to it by God. Obviously most of us aren’t, or we would become the the Shakers who all practiced celibacy, which as a christian sect virtually no longer exists.

  6. You forgot about St Peter and All Successors of St Peter are: (1) Vicars of Christ and hold (2) Primacy of Peter – that Christ gave to them. “You are Peter and on this rock I will build my Church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven. And whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” (Matthew 16:16-18)

    It’s not going to be a panacea like everyone hopes it will. They still will be tempted to the whole gamut of sins. In and of itself, it is not the cure to social sins. Only GOD is.

  7. St. John Paul II was the one that first allowed married, former-Anglican clergy to become married Catholic priests, not Benedict XVI. St JPII issued his Pastoral Provision in 1980.

    Further, the Eastern Catholics have married priests, and always have.

    What the practice of the full Latin Rite of the Church should be is of course another question but we should not pretend that what is being discussed is some radically departure or new debate. Pope Francis’s style might excite media stories but the debate and wide-spread discussion is nothing new. The media is just paying attention now.

  8. Victor Rodrigues

    I am a married catholic priest and would love to return to my priestly duties with my renewed vision. My renewed vision is that Christ is all about love–this love starts first at home–there is no “God” out there except in the self sacrificing love that is so well nurtured in a family.

    Our family, consisting of a mother, father, and child is the place where we get to experience true creative, affectionate, warm, caring, nurturing and self-sacrificing love. Such love is absent in single sex “communities.” I know from first hand experience first as a priest and then as a dedicated husband and dad. This love of the Holy Family has to return as the core inspiration for our Church of Love (or is it a church of cold buildings, laws, and doctrines only?–sounds satanic)

    I do value celibacy. It is a gift and not everybody has it. However, married life and family life are gifts from the same God. Married people with families have been gifted with an equal ability to serve the Church as efficiently as celibates–in fact, weak as we are, we might be even more capable because Chirst is then strongest.

    No, we don’t need only celibates to be priests and bishops in our Church. Married people can also do it–maybe even better–just as our early Chirstians did.

  9. rev. joseph P. annese

    Let the discussion begin. I am going on 82 years old. I say three or four liturgies a weekend, help with confessions, weddings, funerals, lenten missions. Two other priests, each in their 80′s, help out at the same parish. How long can we continue? Force the Bishops to start the discussion. There are many capable, intelligent, committed catholic men and women out there who would make great priests. “Don’t be afraid!” JPll
    Fr. Joe Annese, Las Vegas, NV

  10. A married or a non married is not a big problem comparing to what the young ppl raised in this world full of darkness almost in everything are facing and this generation can grow and make kids and the church is still arguing about if a married priest is good or not my opinion is we are all leaders of this church cause we act as one in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord savior at the same time we should protect ourselves from sin but we the ppl can’t do this all alone we need the priests cause they are our leaders the servants of God our creator we cant live without food water and education and work the church is the same its our second house but our meal is different and inside this meal is all kinds of vitamins against the poison we receive from this world daily and we receive this new bread in communion from the hands of our priests confession is another kind of drug we receive also from our priests the third is the holly mass the word of God that will heal and touch our hearts and spirits to give us peace and love and to share it with others and we also receive this by our priests HINT; Jesus asked his disciples till now you did not ask anything so what are you waiting for ask and you shall receive.nothing with God is impossible but possible.Amen ralph aoun

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