In a recent interview with a left-leaning German newspaper, Pope Francis said that the possibility of ordaining married men in special cases needs to be considered, but he does not view a change in the celibacy requirement in the Western Church as a solution to the clergy shortage.
Voices calling for a change in discipline
The March 9 issue of Die Zeit, in which the interview appeared, reports that “multiple voices”, in Germany, including some diocesan bishops and leaders of Catholic lay associations, have been questioning the Church’s perennial discipline of mandatory priestly celibacy. Over the years, advisors and friends of the Pope, including Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Vatican Secretary of State, and Cardinal Claudio Hummes, former Prefect of the Congregation for Clergy, have suggested or advocated changing the discipline. Reportedly the Holy Father wanted clerical celibacy to be the topic for the next Synod of Bishops, although it was voted down by the Ordinary Council that organizes the periodic meeting of the Synod.
The actual public statements of Pope Francis about ordaining married men have been pragmatic and moderate. In 2016 he ruled out abolishing the requirement of priestly celibacy, saying that “it should remain as it is”. In the past and again in the recent interview with Die Zeit, he has mentioned ordaining viri probati; older men of proven faith and virtue, as a “possibility” that “we have to think about”. Married men could be ordained by way of exception in dioceses with the “enormous problem” of a shortage of priests. “We must also determine which tasks they can undertake, for example in remote communities,” the Holy Father remarked.
The Discipline of Celibacy
Apostolic Origins of Priestly Celibacy by Fr. Cochini, sj, Ignatius Press, 1990 (also Celibacy in the Early Church by Stefan Heid, Ignatius Press, 2000) is an excellent scholarly history of the much-debated discipline. Holy Orders has always and everywhere been an impediment to marriage, but in some circumstances a married man may be ordained. The Eastern Catholic Churches share with the Orthodox Churches a canon law tradition allowing married men to be ordained as priests but never as bishops. Even in the Latin Church, some married non-Catholic clergymen who become Catholics receive permission to be ordained priests (for instance for the Anglican Ordinariate).
In effect, Pope Francis told the reporter from Die Zeit that in the future there may be a few more special cases of married priests in the Catholic Church. Is that an open door to making exceptions a consented pastoral rule? Yet the solution to the vocations crisis, the Holy Father said, is not a married clergy but prayer. “That is what is missing: prayer.”
Abp. Lefebvre saw the answer for the Church
To all the crisis of the clergy throughout history, the Church always answered by promoting an authentic imitation of the Unique Priest Jesus Christ, demanding the chastity from the clergy as a more perfect identification with the Model.
By submitting the Statutes of the Society of St. Pius X to Church’ approval 50 years ago, Archbishop Lefebvre providentially answered the problem of the clergy he had foresaw when archbishop in Dakar.
The dream was to transmit, before the progressive degradation of the priestly ideal, in all of its doctrinal purity and in all of its missionary charity, the Catholic Priesthood of Our Lord Jesus Christ, just as he conferred it on His Apostles, just as the Roman Church always transmitted it until the middle of the twentieth century.