Pope Francis discussed a range of issues in an interview published on March 9, in the German weekly Die Zeit. Among these topics was the shortage of priests, which led the Holy Father to reflect on possible solutions to this “crisis.”
The pope rejected one possible solution out of hand: opening seminaries’ doors to men “who do not have an authentic vocation.” He warned that those who are “not priests by vocation will ruin the Church.” I hope no Catholic would disagree with that stance.
Another theoretical possibility would be “optional celibacy,” which he also opposed. As Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergolio noted in his dialogue with Rabbi Skórka, “I am in favor of maintaining celibacy, with all its pros and cons, because we have ten centuries of good experiences rather than failures. Tradition has weight and validity.” As Andrea Tornielli paraphrases the future pope on Vatican Insider, “Catholic ministers had gradually chosen celibacy. Until 1100 it was optional, some chose it, some not ... it is a matter of discipline and not of faith. It can be changed. Personally, the idea of marriage has never crossed my mind.” To Pope Francis, celibacy “is not a dogma,” but “it is a gift” and a precious one at that.
But Pope Francis fully realizes that this gift is lived differently in the Eastern Churches (Catholic as well as Orthodox) than it is in the Western. As Tornielli notes, the Third Lateran Council (1179) “ruled that ecclesiastical celibacy has no divine nature, but only canonical, that is a tradition that belongs to the discipline of the Latin Church.” Therefore, that council did not presume to change the “apostolic discipline of the first seven ecumenical councils (which were recognized also by the Orthodox Church), which allowed priestly ordination also of married men,” but not their ordination as bishops. The marriage of clerics after ordination to the diaconate has not been allowed for over a millennium in the East or in the West.
While the Eastern Churches have married deacons (transitional as well as permanent) and (usually) married secular priests, they require celibacy of their bishops, who are necessarily chosen from among religious order priests, who must be celibate. “In June 2014, Pope Francis issued a special decree that allowed Eastern married priests to work in [Catholic] communities in the Diaspora, therefore, outside of their areas. The decree nullified previous existing bans,” such as that which had existed de jure (but not de facto for several decades) in the United States and Canada.
The present discipline of the Western (Latin) Church is to require celibacy of all bishops and most priests and transitional deacons, but not of permanent deacons. Beginning in 1951, Pope Pius XII allowed some Protestant ministers who had converted to Catholicism to be ordained priests without jettisoning their wives. Pope Saint John Paul II issued a pastoral provision regularizing procedures for converts from the Anglican Communion in 1980. Under that provision, the late Father Dan Munn was ordained a Catholic priest by Savannah Bishop Raymond W. Lessard. If a married Anglican bishop converted to Catholicism, he could be ordained a Catholic priest, but not receive the fullness of the episcopal order in the Catholic Church. Such was the case when Bishop Gregory J. Hartmayer ordained former Anglican Bishop Lou Lindsay to the priesthood in 2013.
Again, according to Tornielli, the “most significant regulation” on the ordination of married men to the priesthood in the Latin Church “was the one established in 2009 by Benedict XVI in the Apostolic Constitution Anglicanorum coetibus and the establishment of the Anglo-Catholic Ordinariate to welcome back into communion with Rome, pastors, bishops and priests of the Anglican Church.” This Constitution “effectively establishes the possibility of married clergy in the Latin Church, although as exception tied to specific criteria and conditions. In the second paragraph of Article 6 of the Constitution, after stating the rule of celibacy, Pope Benedict established the possibility of ‘admitting married men, case by case, to the sacred order of priesthood, according to the objective criteria approved by the Holy See’.”
All of the above is the background for understanding Pope Francis’ suggestion in Die Zeit “that the ordination of married Catholic men — viri probati — is a possibility to be studied. “But one must also decide the sort of tasks they must assume, for instance, for the isolated communities.” “It appears rather obvious that the possible ordination of viri probati would remain tied to certain specific situations and under certain conditions, with the aim of salus animarum, i.e. the salvation of souls that should be the aim of every ecclesial reform.
The Cardinal Secretary of State, Pietro Parolin, spoke at a conference at the Pontifical Gregorian University on February 6, 2016, and said, “In the current situation it is often highlighted a kind of ‘sacramental emergency’ especially in some regions, caused by lack of priests.” While “there is no need for hasty solutions based on urgency,” nevertheless, “the needs of evangelization, together with the history and multifaceted tradition of the Church, favor legitimate debates, if motivated by the announcement of the Gospel and conducted in a constructive manner, while safeguarding the beauty and loftiness of the celibacy choice.”
Father Douglas K. Clark STL is pastor of Saint Matthew Church, Statesboro.