In a first interview conducted in German, the pope referenced the option of ordaining the viri probati, which means “proven” or “tested” men, or in this context married men who have proven virtuous or faithful.
While he dismissed the idea of voluntary celibacy in the priesthood, he was open to the option of a married priesthood, as is allowed for deacons, in remote areas where the priest shortage is especially serious.
“We have to think about if the viri probati are a possibility,” Pope Francis said. “Then we also have to discern which tasks they can take on, for example, in forlorn communities.”
“There is much talk about voluntary celibacy, especially there where the clergy is lacking,” the pope said in an interview published last week with German newspaper Die Zeit. “But a voluntary celibacy is not a solution.”
Asked whether this is the right moment to loosen priestly celibacy or to abolish it, the pope answered, “In the Church, it always counts to discern the right moment, to recognize when the Holy Spirit is asking for something. That is why I say that we are thinking about the viri probati.”
The Church’s law of clerical celibacy is not a doctrine, but a discipline that came into effect in the 12th century after the Second Lateran Council. The Catholic Church does include some Eastern Rite churches that allow married clergy. And certain married priests of other Christian faiths, such as with the Anglican Ordinariate, can continue to serve as married priests when they convert to Catholicism.
The discipline of priestly celibacy is based in part on the understanding that a married man cannot adequately give himself simultaneously to both the Church and a family.
Canon law states regarding celibacy that “Clerics are obliged to observe perfect and perpetual continence for the sake of the kingdom of heaven and therefore are bound to celibacy which is a special gift of God by which sacred ministers can adhere more easily to Christ with an undivided heart and are able to dedicate themselves more freely to the service of God and humanity.”
Pope Francis said in the German interview the decline in vocations to the priesthood was an “enormous problem.”
“Why are there no priests to celebrate the Eucharist?” he pondered regarding areas of particular concern, including Germany and Switzerland. “That makes the Church weak, since a Church without the Eucharist has no power. Vocations of priests are a problem, an enormous problem.”
Asked about the devastating lack of priests in those two countries, Pope Francis acknowledged the problem, conceded that women will often fill the lesser liturgical roles and said the Church must do something about it.
“Yes, that is a great problem,” the pontiff said. “Also in Switzerland it does not look better.”
“Many parishes have well-behaved women,” he continued, “they keep up Sunday and celebrate liturgies of the word, that is without the Eucharist. The problem is in fact the lack of vocations. This problem needs to be resolved by the Church.”
The decline parallels increased liberalized reform by hierarchy in the Church there. Just more than half of the country’s priests go to the Sacrament of Confession, and in Germany there is a significant push to loosen the Church’s approach to Communion for divorced and civilly remarried Catholics.
The Church in Germany has taken one of the most liberal interpretations of the pope’s Amoris Laetitia exhortation, opting to officially allow the sacrament for Catholics in so-called “irregular unions.”
This came when the permanent council of the German Bishops' Conference, which includes 27 of the nation's 66 bishops, issued a formal statement last month stipulating that Catholics living in adulterous unions can receive Communion without abstaining from sexual intercourse.
Cardinal Reinhard Marx, the head of the German Bishops’ Conference and a member of Pope Francis’ Council of Cardinals, had said Germany would go its own way on the issue regardless of the two Synods on the Family outcomes. The question of Communion for the divorced and remarried was strongly contested then.
“We are not a subsidiary of Rome,” Cardinal Marx said. “The Synod cannot prescribe in detail what we should do in Germany.”
The German Bishops Conference has also promoted homosexual unions as a sacrament via its website, published material supporting gender ideology, and advanced apologia for same-sex “marriage.” The Conference voted in 2015 to allow its employees to publicly defy the Church’s moral teaching without risk of losing their job.
Similar issues exist in Switzerland, with the Swiss Bishops’ Conference conducting a controversial Day of Study in 2015 to address how to overcome the Catholic Church’s “old-fashioned ideals” on marriage and family.
Pope Francis’ comments last week to Die Zeit also hark back to wide speculation since just after the close of the 2015 Ordinary Synod on the Family that the next Synod would be a vehicle to advance a married priesthood.
Specifically regarding the German vocations crisis, Francis said, “The rate of births. […] Where there are no young men, there are no priests. That is a serious problem which we will address in the upcoming synod on young people.”
In the German interview, Pope Francis also criticized evangelizing people of other faiths, which Christians are called to do. He said it has a negative effect on vocations and on the Church.
“That has nothing to do with proselytism,” he said of low priest numbers in Germany. “By proselytism, you will not gain vocations … ”
He defined proselytism for the German newspaper as “the poaching of those with a different faith, like with a charity organization, who poaches members. Then many young people come, who do not feel called, and ruin the Church.”
Pope Francis said as well in regard to depleted vocations in Germany and Switzerland that prayer was lacking, but also repeated his contention of youth unemployment as the source of societal ill.
The idea of a married priesthood was proposed during Vatican II but did not gain sufficient traction.
Before Vatican II in Church documents, the term viri probati had denoted “approved men,” without reference to marital status.
It shows as such in Caput III, 20 of the Vatican II document Constitutio Dogmatica de Ecclesia Lumen Gentium, the footnotes of which reference the writings of Pope St. Clement I, the fourth pope.
Pope Clement had also used the term in Chapter 44 of his Letter to the Corinthians, which was titled, The Ordinances of the Apostles, That There Might Be No Contention Respecting the Priestly Office.
The understanding of viri probati has since shifted to encompass married men.
Pope Francis’ remarks last week to Die Zeit on the possibility of married priesthood also come amid continued speculation of abandoning Church teaching on the male-only priesthood.
Although the pope has confirmed Church teaching that women cannot be ordained priests, the supposition has persisted after the announcement last year of Francis’ agreeing to establish a commission to study the possibility of women deacons in the Church. That also is suspected to be a topic at the next Synod.
The pope’s comments on the possibility of a married priesthood also follow new guidelines for seminarians published this past December by the Vatican's Congregation for the Clergy focused on “ecological conversion.”
The guidelines stated, “It will be necessary for future priests to be highly sensitive to this theme.”
The pope recently equated his level of worry over the dropping number of vocations to the priesthood with the worry he experiences when he hears about burgeoning vocations numbers in traditional institutes.
“Some are, I might say, ‘restorationist:’ they seem to offer security but instead give only rigidity,” he told a closed-door meeting with 140 Superior Generals of male religious orders and congregations held last November.
Pope Francis said at the time, “When they tell me that there is a congregation that draws so many vocations, I must confess that I worry.”
The Pope said his interview with Die Zeit that the Church should be “fearless” in encountering change.
“Truth means not to be afraid,” he said. “Fears close doors, freedom opens them. And if freedom is small, it at least opens a little window.”