ABOARD THE PAPAL PLANE — Pope Francis said Monday he is opposed to the idea of optional priestly celibacy in the Latin Rite, and he would consider it only for very remote places if a serious need existed.
“Personally, I think that celibacy is a gift to the Church,” the Pope said Jan. 28. “I would say that I do not agree with allowing optional celibacy — no.”
Speaking aboard the papal plane from Panama to Rome, Pope Francis said he does think there is room to consider an exception for married clergy in the Latin Rite in “very far places” “when there is a pastoral necessity” due to a lack of priests, such as in the Pacific islands.
However, he said that he has not thought or prayed sufficiently about the issue to come to a decision on it and that he would not want to put himself “before God with this decision,” even if it suggests he is “narrow-minded.”
Responding to a comment about the long tradition of married priests in the Eastern Catholic Churches, or in the case-by-case exceptions made for married Anglican ministers who convert to Catholicism, he said he was reminded of Pope St. Paul VI’s comment: “I prefer to give my life before changing the law of celibacy.”
Paul VI was the author of the encyclical Sacerdotalis Caelibatus, which defends priestly celibacy, published in 1967. Pope Francis commented that it was a “courageous phrase” of the Pope Paul, said during a “more difficult” period.
In his response, Pope Francis also recalled the writing of German Fritz Lobinger, bishop emeritus of Aliwal, South Africa, who argues for the possibility of ordaining viri probati, or “proven men,” in places where there is a dire lack of priests. These married priests could, he suggested, administer the sacraments and celebrate Mass, though they would not have the full competency of ordinary priests.
Francis called this idea “interesting” and said it could provide a basis for considering the question, but that it should be studied by theologians. At the same time, he emphasized that his personal opinion was against making celibacy a choice candidates made as they prepared for ordination: “Optional celibacy before the diaconate, no … I would not do it. And this remains clear.”
“It is something to study, think, rethink and pray about,” he said.
The celibate priesthood has long been a tradition of the Latin Catholic Church, with exceptions made only in the cases of married ministers of other denominations who convert to Catholicism and then become priests.
Early on in the Church, bishops were selected from the celibate priests, a tradition that stood before the mandatory celibate priesthood. As the “culture of celibacy” became more established, it increasingly became the norm in the Church, until married men who applied for ordinations had to appeal to the pope for special permission.
In the 11th century, St. Gregory VII issued a decree requiring all priests to be celibate and asked his bishops to enforce it. Celibacy has been the norm ever since in the Latin Rite, with special exceptions made for some Anglican and other Protestant pastors who convert to Catholicism.