Pope Francis said in an interview with the German newspaper Die Zeit that he is willing to consider the ordination of married men as a possible solution to increasing manpower shortages in the priesthood. The Pope stressed that the answer to the shortage was not in removing the celibacy rule entirely – he would, however, study the possibility of ordaining so-called viri probati – “tested men,” or older, married men of proven faith and adult children, according to the Chicago Tribune.
The proposal has existed for decades and is said to already have been unofficially adopted in certain areas such as the Brazilian Amazon, where there are 10,000 members of the church for every priest. The New York Times reports that, in the area of Xingu, Brazil, upwards of 700,000 Catholics are served by only 27 priests.
Meanwhile, according to Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, there are now about 2,500 Catholics per priests – compared to 851 per priest in 1972. Attempts to deal with the shortage include promoting the use of deacons, male clerics who can marry, but are unable to perform the sacraments of Mass or Confession.
Rev. Thomas J. Reese, a Jesuit priest and senior analyst for The National Catholic Reporter, who said that while previous popes had more or less simply hoped for some sort of turnaround in the number of priests, Pope Francis seems to be interested in addressing the issue for directly. For Reece, a key question was whether the principle of celibacy outweighed depriving the faithful of Mass and Confession, sacraments performable only by priests.
According to Reuters, prominent Catholics from both the progressive and conservative wings of the Church voiced support this Friday for the Pope’s suggestion.
Parishioners in the deeply Catholic country of Brazil, meanwhile, also voiced support. Reuters quoted Paulo Franca, who was attending an afternoon Mass in Santa Luzia Church in Rio De Janeiro: “If he (a priest) had a wife and children, he may have a much fuller experience, which could help those around him.”
The concept of priestly celibacy goes back to the church during the Roman Empire, where several attempts were made to insist that priests be unmarried, or, if married, that they not have relations with their wives. Many priests, however, did continue to have families. It took Pope Gregory VII in the 11th century to formally assert that priests be unmarried.
In Orthodox Christianity, however, priests can be married. Even within Catholicism, married priests exist. Pope Francis lifted a ban dating from 1929 that forbade Eastern Catholics from ordaining married men in Australia, Canada, and the United States. In 1980, Pope John Paul II allowed married Protestant ministers to remain with their families after they converted to Catholicism.
The New York Times quoted one of Pope Francis’s own books, written when he was Cardinal, which noted that the question of clerical celibacy was an issue of canon law and not dogma. Hence, the issue was open to discussion as a matter of discipline, not faith.
Pope Francis, however, denied that there is any discussion when it comes to the issue of female ordination. However, according to the National Catholic Reporter, the Pope did call for a commission to look into the prospect of female deacons. That commission is expected to hold its third meeting this March.
What do you think of the Pope’s suggestions here? Should older, married men be ordained as Catholic priests? Should clerical celibacy be abandoned altogether? Should Pope Francis allow women to become Catholic priests? Sounds off in the comments and tell us what you think!
By James Mayfield