Cardinal Kasper Says Pope ‘Would Probably Accept’ Married Priests If Proposed by Synod

The possibility has raised concerns that allowing such an exception would signal the end of mandatory priestly celibacy in the Latin Rite.

Cardinal Walter Kasper at the Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls on Jan. 18, 2019.
Cardinal Walter Kasper at the Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls on Jan. 18, 2019. (photo: Daniel Ibáñez/CNA)

Cardinal Walter Kasper has said that if the bishops’ conferences of the Amazon region mutually agreed that married men could be priests and proposed such a change to the Pope, Francis “would in principle probably accept it.”

In a June 4 interview with the German daily Frankfurter Rundschau, the president emeritus of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity said that as “celibacy is not a dogma, it is not an unalterable practice.”

And although strongly in favor of mandatory priestly celibacy as a binding way of life showing undivided commitment to Christ, the German cardinal said it does “not exclude that in special situations a married man could undertake the priestly ministry.”

The cardinal’s comments are significant as not only is he one of Pope Francis’ most favored advisers, but he relates such a possible change to the October Synod of Bishops on the Amazon region.

The upcoming meeting, on the theme “Amazonia: New Paths for the Church and for an Integral Ecology,” is expected to discuss allowing the ordination of older married men of proven virtue, so-called viri probati, as a possible solution to priest shortages in the region.

The possibility has raised concerns that allowing such an exception would signal the end of mandatory priestly celibacy in the Latin Rite.

In March, Cardinal Claudio Hummes, the general relator of the synod, said it will be up to the synod to say “yes or no” to such a change but that it “will be necessary to discuss” the issue as it relates to the region.

He said it “does not mean that it is for the whole world, but for situations of extreme necessity,” but observers have pointed out that that “extreme necessity” could quite easily be applied to a country such as Germany where vocations have hit an all-time low.

Cardinal Kasper’s comments follow those of Cardinal Reinhard Marx, president of the German bishops’ conference, who has suggested changing the priestly celibacy rule as part of a “synodal path” for the German Church which would also include a revision of the Church’s teaching on sexual morality, including contraception, cohabitation and homosexual relationships.

Cardinal Hummes has long championed the ordination of viri probati but Benedict XVI prevented the Brazilian cardinal from pursuing the possibility when he was prefect for the Congregation for Clergy in the late 2000s.

Under Pope Francis, however, the current prefect, Cardinal Beniamino Stella, has openly floated the possibility. In an interview for a book last year, he said the Amazon synod could be an occasion to allow married priests as a response to the region’s “emergency situation.”

At the same time, he tried to offer reassurance that such a proposal would not replace the priesthood as it is today nor place any emphasis on optional celibacy, but would instead complement mandatory celibacy.

The Register asked Cardinal Hummes last month, among other questions about the synod, about his position on clerical celibacy, and whether he thinks a change to it at the synod might weaken the discipline.

But he declined to answer the questions, saying he preferred “discretion” as he had just been appointed general relator. “Let's wait for the Synod and trust the Holy Spirit!” he said.

Pope Francis himself has given conflicting signals on the issue, saying in January that although he could not see himself ordaining married men, it was “something to study, think, rethink and pray about.”

He also praised the work of the pioneer of the idea of viri probati, Bishop Fritz Lobinger, emeritus of Aliwal, South Africa. Cardinal Marx encouraged the Pope to read Bishop Lobinger’s work during the German bishops’ ad limina visit in 2015.

In the preparatory document for the Amazonian synod published last summer, the intention to discuss the issue is clear. It stops short of mentioning viri probati specifically, but the document clearly points to the possibility:

One priority is to specify the contents, methods, and attitudes necessary for an inculturated pastoral ministry capable of responding to the territory’s vast challenges. Another is to propose new ministries and services for the different pastoral agents, ones which correspond to activities and responsibilities within the community. Along these lines, it is necessary to identify the type of official ministry that can be conferred on women, taking into account the central role which women play today in the Amazonian Church. It is also necessary to foster indigenous and local-born clergy, affirming their own cultural identity and values. Finally, new ways should be considered for the People of God to have better and more frequent access to the Eucharist, the center of Christian life (cf. DAp 251).

In his interview with the Frankfurter Rundschau, Cardinal Kasper firmly ruled out the possibility of ordaining women, saying the male-only priesthood is an “unbroken tradition” that is “based on the New Testament.”

He said this is the case not only in the Catholic Church but “in all the churches of the first millennium, according to which the priesthood and correspondingly episcopal ordination is reserved for men.”

He said women already have many important roles in the Church, “ten times more than the former deaconesses ever did.”

Each diocese and parish would “collapse tomorrow” without the service of women, the cardinal said, adding it would be important to make such service “liturgically visible” and to “publicly acknowledge it.”

This article has been updated to include comments from Cardinal Hummes to the Register.