In his first ever interview with a German newspaper, Pope Francis has said the issue of ordaining some married men as priests needs to be considered, but stressed that “voluntary celibacy” is not the solution to the vocations crisis that exists in many parts of the world.

Speaking in the interview to be published tomorrow (March 9) in Die Zeit, Germany’s leading left-leaning newspaper, the Holy Father said the shortage of priests around the world is an “enormous problem” that must be resolved, but added that “voluntary celibacy is not the answer.”

However, he said the issue of viri probati, married men proven in faith and virtue who could be ordained to the priesthood, is a “possibility” that “we have to think about.”

“We must also determine which tasks they can undertake, for example in remote communities,” the Pope said. 

The Latin rite already allows some married non-Catholic clergymen who become Catholics to be ordained priests, such as former Anglican clergy. The Eastern Catholic Churches allow the ordination of married men as priests but like the Orthodox and Latin Catholic churches, they do not allow clerical marriage, that is priests to marry once ordained.

Last year, Pope Francis ruled out moving away from priestly celibacy, saying it should “remain as it is.” But he has mentioned the possibility of ordaining “proven” married men before, reportedly saying privately in 2014 it could be left for bishops to decide, depending on the situation. He referred to a diocese in Mexico where each community had a deacon but no priest.

The Pope is also understood to have wanted the next synod to discuss priestly celibacy, although it was voted down by the Ordinary Council of the Synod of Bishops. The secretary general of the Synod of Bishops, Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, further ruled out the possibility of the issue being discussed at the 2018 Synod on “Young People, the Faith and Vocational Discernment.” 

In a short summary of the interview, Die Zeit reported that the Pope stressed the importance of prayer to overcome the vocations crisis. “That is what is missing: prayer,” Francis said, adding that young people are yearning for guidance.

According to the newspaper, “multiple voices” in Germany have recently been questioning mandatory priestly celibacy. They have included Bishop Dieter Geerlings, auxiliary of Münster, and Thomas Sternberg, the head of the Central Committee of German Catholics (ZdK), a body comprising various Catholic lay organizations in Germany. Sternberg said mandatory celibacy had “lost its plausibility.”

Some of the Pope’s advisors and friends have also hinted at, or clearly advocated, changes in the priestly celibacy rule over the years. They include respectively Cardinal Pietro Parolin, now the Vatican Secretary of State, and Cardinal Claudio Hummes, a friend of the Pope and former prefect of the Congregation for Clergy.

Changes to allow some form of married priesthood, intercommunion and possibly the advent of women deacons are three reforms some Church watchers expect to see in the coming months. They are concerned that, as with admitting some remarried divorcees to the sacraments, exceptions will be made to each of these that will ultimately end such disciplines as priestly celibacy and generally undermine the Church’s doctrine on the priesthood and the Eucharist.

But the Pope argues in the interview that the Church should be “fearless” in confronting 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.”

In the interview, the Pope also discusses Cardinal Raymond Burke, saying he does not consider him an “adversary” but an “excellent lawyer”, and that he was grateful to him for travelling to Guam to deal with the “terrible” abuse case there last month.

The Holy Father also says that, as Pope, he does not consider himself as “anything special”. “I am a sinner and am fallible,” he says, adding that he believes the idealization of a person is a “subliminal form of aggression.”

“If I am idealized, I feel attacked,” the Pope says. He also decries populism, calling it an “evil” means of using people that “ends badly.”