Pope open to married priests in places with pastoral necessity

Pope Francis married priests

Another wide-ranging and frank press conference with Pope Francis on his flight home from World Youth Day in Panama raised a number of questions for reporters—and resulted in some wildly divergent headlines.

Among the confused questions:

  • Is Pope Francis open to married priests?
  • Is he committed to maintaining celibacy for priests?
  • Will men who are already priests be allowed to marry?
  • Who are these “viri probati” who might make up the bulk of married priests?
  • And what are we to make of the fact that there are already some married Catholic priests?

Part of the confusion has to do with the variety of options and terms that come together in this conversation.

In an in-flight interview with reporters on the papal plane, Pope Francis drew a distinction between his own personal beliefs regarding celibacy and what might be required for the church to provide proper pastoral care.

“Personally, I believe that celibacy is a gift to the church. Secondly, I’m not in agreement with allowing optional celibacy. No!”

The church makes the Eucharist and the Eucharist makes the church

However, he continued, “there could only be a possibility in these far, faraway places—I think about the islands in the Pacific. It’s something to think about when there’s a pastoral need; there the shepherd has to think about the faithful.”

Pope Francis also referenced the writings of Bishop Fritz Lobinger, the bishop emeritus of Aliwal, South Africa, who published two books on the subject: Teams of Elders: Moving Beyond “Viri Probati” (Claretian Publications, 2007) and Every Community Its Own Ordained Leaders (Claretian Publications, Philippines, 2008). Bishop Lobinger, Francis noted, said:

The church makes the Eucharist and the Eucharist makes the church.

In the islands in the Pacific Lobinger [asks], ‘Who makes the Eucharist’ in these places? Who leads in these communities?

It’s the deacons, the religious sisters or the laity.

So Lobinger asks, whether an elder, a married man, could be ordained, but only to perform the sanctifying role: to say Mass, give the sacrament of reconciliation and the anointing of the sick.

“There could only be a possibility in these far, faraway places—I think about the islands in the Pacific.”

Francis then noted that “priestly ordination gives three roles or functions (munus)”—teaching, sanctifying and governing—“but the bishop could give the license for only one: the sanctifying role.”

In that formulation, the ordained man would not necessarily be a pastor or even a homilist, but might perform the sacramental duties from which Catholic deacons are currently restricted, presumably including hearing confessions and presiding at Mass.

Such a provision could help the church attenuate the “sacramental famine” occurring in various geographic locales worldwide, where a shortage of priests prevents many Catholics from access to the sacraments—in particular, the Eucharist. Continue reading

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