Priests and marriage: Pope's response not so new after all

By Junno Arocho Esteves

CITY (CNS) — While Pope Francis’ recent comments on the subject of married
priests made headlines around the world, his response falls clearly in line
with the thinking of
his predecessors.

In an
interview with German newspaper Die Zeit, published in early March, Pope Francis was asked
if allowing candidates for
the priesthood to fall in love and marry could be “an incentive” for
combatting the shortage of priestly vocations.

He was also
asked about the
possibility of allowing married
“viri probati” — men of proven virtue — to become priests.

have to study whether ‘viri probati’ are a possibility. We then also need to
determine which tasks they could take on, such as in remote communities, for
example,” Pope Francis said.

Expressing a willingness to study the question of allowing
married men to become priests
was hardly a groundbreaking response given
that the topic was explored in two meetings of the Synod of Bishops and by both
Pope Benedict XVI and St. John Paul II.

During the
2005 Synod of Bishops on the Eucharist, the possibility of ordaining men of
proven virtue was raised as a way to provide priests for areas of the world
where Catholics have very limited access to Mass and the sacraments.

participants made reference to ‘viri probati,’ but in the end the small
discussion groups evaluated this hypothesis as a road not to follow,” a proposition
from the synod said.

Eight years before he was elected pope,
then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger said that while married priests in the Catholic
Church were not on the horizon in “the foreseeable future,” it was
not an entirely closed subject.

In “Salt of the Earth,” an interview-book
with Peter Seewald published in 1997, the future Pope Benedict said, “One
ought not to declare that any custom of the church’s life, no matter how deeply
anchored and well founded, is wholly absolute. To be sure, the church will have
to ask herself the question again and again; she has now done so in two synods.”

The question of mandatory celibacy for most
priests in the Latin rite of the Catholic Church has been debated heavily in recent years, with some people seeing
it as a way to encourage more men to enter the priesthood since they would be
able to serve without giving up marriage and the possibility of having a family.

Benedict said celibacy in the priesthood is difficult to understand today
“because the relationship to marriage and children has clearly

To have
children, he explained, was once viewed as a “sort of immortality through

renunciation of marriage and family is thus to be understood in terms of this
vision: I renounce what, humanly speaking, is not only the most normal but also
the most important thing,” he said.

celibacy rule is a church discipline, but its roots are found in the Gospel
when Jesus speaks to his disciples about the possibility of remaining celibate
for the kingdom of God.

are incapable of marriage because they were born so; some, because they were
made so by others; some, because they have renounced marriage for the sake of
the kingdom of heaven. Whoever can accept this ought to accept it,” Jesus
says in the Gospel of Matthew (19:12).

In his
apostolic exhortation, “Pastores Dabo Vobis” (“I will give you
shepherds”), written
in response to the 1990 Synod of Bishops, St. John Paul II wrote that
Jesus wished to not only affirm the “specific dignity and sacramental
holiness” of marriage, but also to show that another path for Christians

This path,
he said “is not a flight from marriage but rather a conscious choice of celibacy for the
sake of the kingdom of heaven.”

Expanding on the subject, Pope Benedict told Seewald that to view priestly celibacy as a
way for priests to have more
time for ministry without dealing with the duties of being a husband and
a father is “too primitive and pragmatic.”

point is really an existence that stakes everything on God and leaves out
precisely the one thing that normally makes a human existence fulfilled with a
promising future,” he said.  

Francis response to the
question of allowing young men thinking about the priesthood to marry as
an “incentive” followed
in the same line.

celibacy is often discussed in this context, especially where there is a lack
of clergy. However, voluntary celibacy is not a solution,” the pope told
Die Zeit.

In the book
“On Heaven and Earth,” originally published in Spanish in 2010, the
then-Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, acknowledged that while he is in favor of
maintaining celibacy in the priesthood, it “is a matter of discipline, not
of faith.”

St. John Paul II had said the same. During a
general audience July 17, 1993, he said that while celibacy “does not
belong to the essence of priesthood,” Jesus himself proposed it as an

then-Cardinal Ratzinger said the celibacy requirement “is not dogma”
but rather a “form of
life” that involves the priests’ faith and not his dominion over
his own nature.

think that what provokes people today against celibacy is that they see how
many priests really aren’t inwardly in agreement with it and either live it
hypocritically, badly, not at all, or only live it in a tortured way. So people
say,” he said.

When all is
said and done, Pope
Francis’ openness to considering an expanded possibility for married priests
is not revolutionary at all, but is a continuation of a conversation that has
gone on for decades and is likely to continue for some time.

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Arocho on Twitter: @arochoju.

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