Pope Francis Says ‘No’ Then ‘Maybe’ to Married Priests

On the papal plane back from Panama, the Holy Father said he is personally opposed, but then recommended the radical ideas of a missionary bishop who supports ordaining untrained older married men of proven virtue.

Pope Francis speaking to reporters on the papal plane from Panama, Jan. 27, 2019.
Pope Francis speaking to reporters on the papal plane from Panama, Jan. 27, 2019. (photo: Mercedes De La Torre/CNA)

During his inflight press conference from Panama, Pope Francis gave conflicting signals about the ordination of married men in the Latin rite, on the one hand saying he was personally opposed to it while at the same time open to considering possible radical exceptions. 

His comments come as an upcoming synod on the Amazon in October is expected to debate the possibility of ordaining married men in order to alleviate priest shortages — a move that some observers say is a means of allowing married priests universally through the back door.

Central to the Pope’s comments were his references to missionary Bishop Fritz Lobinger, emeritus of Aliwal, South Africa, known to be a pioneer of the idea of viri probati — the ordination of older married men of proven virtue. 

Although the Pope reiterated several times during the press conference that he could not see himself ordaining married men, he made it clear that it was “something to study, think, rethink, and pray about.” 

Referring to areas suffering shortages of priests, he said “some possibility” exists for married clergy in “very far places,” adding that when there is a “pastoral necessity, the pastor should think of the faithful.”

But it was his emphasis on Bishop Lobinger’s ideas, contained in his 1998 book Like his Brothers and Sisters — Ordaining Community Leaders, that drew most attention. The Pope described the book as “interesting” and warranting further study.

A native of Regensburg, Germany, 90-year-old Bishop Lobinger has long championed his proposal to ordain community elders, or a “team of elders,” who would carry out a special ministry. These men, selected from their communities, could be married and not have attended seminary. The theory, Bishop Lobinger says, is based on the early Church. 

In a 2010 article in US Catholic, he outlined his proposal and firmly advocated the ordination of married men, saying if the Church “continues to admit only celibate, university-trained candidates to ordination, there will be no hope of ever overcoming the scarcity of the sacraments.” 

He claimed hundreds of bishops agreed with his radical proposal while acknowledging that hundreds of others did not, fearing that it “might solve one problem” only to then create “bigger ones.” But in common with the Pope, he called for a greater discussion of the issue so that “it will become more apparent that certain proposals will not work while others will.”

He also predicted pressure to ordain women would increase if his proposal were accepted: “Because the majority of proven local leaders are women, it is unavoidable that the question of their inclusion among ordained elders will arise, though present Church law does not permit it,” he said. 


Cardinal Marx Recommendation

The Pope’s reference to Bishop Lobinger comes as little surprise as Cardinal Reinhard Marx recommended he read the retired bishop’s works when the German bishops were on their ad limina visit in 2015.

It also comes after various statements in recent years advocating possible changes to allow married clergy, notably from Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin, and the prefect of the Congregation for Clergy, Cardinal Beniamino Stella.  

Bishop Lobinger’s theories are also backed by Bishop Erwin Kräutler, whom Francis appointed last March to a pre-synodal council which is preparing the Pan-Amazonian synod in October. 

Bishop Kräutler, an Austrian missionary who ministered in the Brazilian rain forest from 1981-2015, has openly said finding ways to address the priest shortage will be one of the main topics of the upcoming synod. As a result, he believes the synod will lead to the ordination of married men to the priesthood and women to the permanent diaconate. 

In an interview with the Austrian Catholic news agency Kathpress soon after the announcement of the synod in December 2017, he said: “Perhaps even Bishop Fritz Lobinger's suggestion will be taken up.”

In his comments to reporters, the Pope said Bishop Lobinger’s book “could help to think about the problem” and that “the theology should be studied.”