Pope Francis has said 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 on Monday. “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”.
His comments were made ahead of a synod on the pan-Amazon region to be held in October, at which priestly celibacy is expected to be discussed as it pertains to the remote Amazon basin where there is often a shortage of priests.
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 St Paul VI’s comment: “I prefer to give my life before changing the law of celibacy.”
He described this as a “courageous” comment, during one of the then Pope’s “more difficult” periods. Paul VI was the author of the 1967 encyclical Sacerdotalis caelibatus which defends priestly celibacy.
Pope Francis also recalled the writings 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 emphasised 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.