In a wide-ranging interview with the German weekly Die Zeit that will be published on March 9, Pope Francis briefly discussed the idea of allowing the ordination of married men to the Catholic priesthood.
Describing the vocation crisis as an “enormous problem,” Pope Francis suggested he sympathizes with Catholics who come to Mass only to discover that there is no priest available to celebrate the Eucharist. “This weakens the church because a church without the Eucharist has no strength,” he told Die Zeit.
His interviewer suggested that it was hard to attract young men to the priesthood and asked if the church would consider telling them “that they don’t have to renounce a love life in order to become a priest? Maybe as a bishop or a cardinal—but not as a priest?”
The pope responded: “The issue of voluntary celibacy is frequently discussed, especially if there is a shortage of clerics. But voluntary celibacy is not a solution.”
"A church without the Eucharist has no strength.”
Die Zeit asked: “What about viri probati, those men of proven virtue, who are married but can be ordained deacons because of their exemplary Catholic moral conduct?”
The pope answered: “We need to consider if viri probati could be a possibility. If so, we would need to determine what duties they could undertake, for example, in remote communities.”
The term viri probati comes from the Latin viri, meaning "men," and probati, for "proven" or "tested." It is an expression that has been raised in previous discussions of the possibility of a married Latin Rite priesthood and is used to refer to married men of strong faith and impeccable virtue.
The church already allows the ordination of married men in Eastern Catholic churches outside their traditional territories and among Anglican and Episcopalian priests who were already married when they reunited with Rome. Regarding an expanded role for the viri probati, Pope Francis said the church has to be ready to recognize “the right moment when the Holy Spirit calls for something.”
The pope also returned to regular themes, lamenting unemployment in Europe as a “huge problem”—especially among the young—and worrying over the continent’s low birth rate and the treatment of refugees.
Commenting on the growing appeal of populist movements around the world, the pope noted Germany’s experience during the Weimar Republic and the rise of Adolf Hitler. “Populism always needs a Messiah,” he said, “and also a justification: ‘We preserve the identity of the people!’”
He said the term has some ambiguity and is interpreted differently in South America, but added, “Populism is evil and ends badly, as the last century has shown.”
He looked forward to the results of a papal commission on the history of women deacons. He noted that a Syrian theologian had once explained that “the question is not whether there were consecrated women or not but what they were doing.” He suggested that he was awaiting more information on the issue after the commission meets again this month.
Describing himself as fallible and a sinner, the pope noted his own dark moments when he struggled with faith and said such an experience was only natural and could be useful to the development of a mature faith. “My Lord is Lord of sinners,” the pope said, “also of the righteous, but sinners he loves more. Crisis helps us to grow in faith. Without crisis, we cannot grow because what fills us today, tomorrow no longer satisfies us. Life puts us to the test.”
He called for prayer and a recommitment to service to others as a means of responding to the declining vitality of the church throughout Europe.
“The Lord has told us: Pray!” the pope said. “That is what is missing: prayer and working with young people who are looking for direction. There is a lack of service to others. Working with young people is difficult, but it is necessary because the young yearn [to serve]. They are the big losers in modern society, in many countries there is no work for them.”
Correction (March 9, 11:38 a.m): The original version of this article suggested that a "Syrian professor" was serving or advising the Vatican commission for the study of the female diaconate. That was an erroneous read of the content of the Die Zeit interview. There is no such person on the commission. Pope Francis has previously mentioned this insight on the historical record regarding women deacons from an unnamed Syrian theologian.