Issue of married Catholic priests gains traction under Pope Francis

Pope Francis waves to faithful at the end of the Angelus prayer he delivered in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican, Sunday, Oct. 21, 2018. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)

VATICAN CITY (AP) — As the Vatican copes with the growing clergy sex abuse scandal and declining number of priests worldwide, it is laying the groundwork to open formal debate on an issue that has long been taboo: opening up the priesthood to married men in parts of the world where clergy are scarce.

Pope Francis has convened a meeting of South American bishops next year focusing on the plight of the church in the Amazon, a vast territory served by far too few priests. During that synod, the question of ordaining married men of proven virtue—so-called "viri probati"—is expected to figure on the agenda.


This week, a two-hour documentary on Italian television is likely to contribute to the conversation. "The Choice: Priests and Love" profiles more than a dozen men in four European countries who are either living clandestinely with women, have created their own unsanctioned church communities where married priests preside at Mass, or left the Catholic priesthood altogether to marry.

The documentary, to be aired Wednesday on Discovery Italia and previewed to The Associated Press, makes the case that many of these men would gladly return to the priesthood and offer their pastoral services.

"The Choice: Priests and Love" profiles more than a dozen men in four European countries who are either living clandestinely with women, have created their own unsanctioned church communities or left the Catholic priesthood.

Their plight has found a sympathetic ear in Francis, who has long expressed a willingness to consider "viri probati" to address pastoral needs in the Amazon. He has also expressed sympathy for priests who have made the anguished choice to leave.

Vocatio, an Italian association of these "married priests," wrote Francis earlier this month pledging their solidarity as he copes with the global fallout of the sex abuse scandal, and once again offering their services in ministry.

"We would like you to take into consideration—without prejudice or pretense—the opportunity of allowing us an active presence in diocesan activity, given our experience and competence in the sacraments we have lived: ministry and matrimony," the group wrote.

The head of Vocatio, former priest Rosario Mocciaro who married civilly in 1977, estimates there are about 5,000 men in Italy alone who have left the priesthood, a third of whom would seek a return to married ministry if allowed. He said he was hopeful for progress under Francis and some sympathetic Italian bishops, saying they brought "a new air and atmosphere" to a long-standing problem.

"The possibility of having 'viri probati' would be a great opening, a great step forward," he told AP, adding it would begin to sensitize the church and public opinion to the prospect of both a married and a celibate priesthood.

The celibate priesthood has been a tradition of the Latin rite Catholic Church since the 11th century; no doctrine requires it, and many eastern rite Catholic Churches allow married men to be ordained. In addition, the Catholic Church allows married Anglican clergy who convert to remain in priestly ministry.

Francis has long said he appreciates the discipline of celibacy, but that it can change given it is discipline, not doctrine.

History's first Latin American pope has been particularly attentive to the argument in favor of the "viri probati" in the Amazon, where the mostly indigenous faithful can go months without seeing a priest, and where Protestant and evangelical churches are wooing away Catholic souls.

While the situation is particularly grave there, overall the number of priests worldwide has dropped for another consecutive year — down 687 to 414,969 — while the global Catholic population has grown by 14.25 million, according to recent figures from the Vatican's Fides missionary service.

Opening the priesthood to married men, even in limited and localized places, would open the question of providing financially for the priests' families — an expense long cited as a key reason for the imposition of celibacy in the 11th century: The church didn't want its assets to pass down to priests' heirs.

The issue of providing for the children of priests, however, is already on the agenda at the Vatican and in bishops conferences and religious orders around the world, given the cases of priests who violate their celibacy vows and have children secretly.

An Irish psychotherapist and son of a priest, Vincent Doyle, has founded an online resource, Coping International, to offer assistance for priests' children, who often endure depression, anxiety and other mental health issues blamed on the silence imposed on them by the church.

Doyle has successfully petitioned the pope's Pontifical Council for the Protection of Minors — his hand-picked sex abuse advisory committee — to consider the issue of priests' children to be part of its mandate, given some of these children are born to minors.

"Our expectation is that from this process will emerge initiatives that can contribute to the healing of those impacted by this issue," wrote commission member Neville Owen, who heads the commission's committee on guidelines

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John Seiler
1 year 7 months ago

Any church that did this would not be Catholic.

Judith Jordan
1 year 7 months ago

I do not understand your comment. Centuries ago, the Catholic Church had married priests. St. Peter was married.

Nora Bolcon
1 year 7 months ago


It is hilarious that we bother with a synod on youth just to ignore their priority list. Even Future Church's List of young adults top 10 priorties had women ordained priests as its most important priority and married priest as its 10th priority, and no where was optional celibacy for male priests only even on the list. Are we surprised that we have a synod so we can ignore the youth and let them know how little we care about them, women or justice? I can't even feign the surprise anymore.

FYI-St. Peter was never a priest - he was an unordained presbyter like many women at the same time in our church, along with all the other 12 Apostles and many other male and female disciples of Christ. Priestly Ordination does not exist anywhere in the New Testament, it came over a hundred years later on.

Ed Dem
1 year 7 months ago

The article just stated that the Catholic Church has some married priests already. Let those who want to serve God while married, serve God married. Let those who want to serve God celibate, serve God celibate. It is currently being done and it is possible for the Catholic Church to stop preventing thousands more from serving God by allowing married priests. Besides, it seems to me that the offspring of a married priest will be themselves more likely to want to become a priest. A married priest is the perfect example to all Catholics in addition to celibate Priests of how to live a holy life for God.

Arthur Sullivan
1 year 7 months ago

About time, and include women, too. Involuntary celibacy has done nothing for the church, and it's deprived the church of the spiritual offerings of so many.

Patrick Murtha
1 year 7 months ago

How is celibacy in the priesthood involuntary? A man voluntarily takes up the priesthood, and with it the vow of chastity. He is not forced to enter the priesthood, nor is he forced to take the vow. What is true is, if he wants the one, he must take the other.

But to follow up on your unfounded and unproven proposition, how do you know that celibacy has done nothing for the Church? How has it deprived the Church of "the spiritual offerings of so many"? The Native Americans to whom the Jesuits went, were impressed and often converted by these men who voluntarily gave up marriage and family. They wondered at the strength of character of these men. And so much did they marvel that, it is said, many of them held the married protestant ministers to be weaker and less caring and less sincere and less in love with God, for they had not the character of the celibate Blackrobes. Many of these conversions to Catholicism would have never happened had the priests been married.

Rather then scoff and scorn the practices of the past, it is better to try to understand them first. Then if you find their reasoning to be trite, then scoff and scorn as you see fit. It ought to further be remembered that not being a matter of doctrine is insufficient reason to cast off a practice. The disciplines are founded on the principles of doctrine.

The practice of celibacy in the priesthood dates back to the early days of the Church. In fact, in his letter to Himerius, Pope St. Siricius (c. 380) says that a priest is bound by celibacy and if he persists in getting married, he is to be removed from the priesthood. He uses his authority as pope, saying "by the authority of the Apostolic See they have been cast out of every ecclesiastical office." And why? Because as priests, they are called to "give up both our hearts and our bodies to contenance and chastity, provided only that through all things we may please our God in these sacrifices which we daily offer." The pontiff notes as well that it was even the Hebrew practice that the priest whose year it was to offer sacrifice in the temple lived apart from his wife that whole year. "And so [Christ] has wished the beauty of the Church, whose spouse He is, to radiate with the splendor of chastity." What his letter makes very clear is that the practice dates back even before him, but rather he puts the start of the celibate priest with Christ Himself.

The problem with this new attack against priestly celibacy is that it fails to see the beauty of chastity in the spotless sacrificial victim, which the priest is at the Mass and in his daily life; it fails to recognize the beauty of the sacrifice of the priests to remain "all things to all men" and not be bound to a wife and a family. Rather, this new attitude scorns celibacy as it scorned virginity. It would have no priest be celibate, as it would have no one be a virgin. Just as it turned the word "virgin" into a derogatory term, a word to mock a man or a woman, so too it turns "celibate" into a term of disgust. Like a demon, envious of the glory of exceptional goodness, the world which is too lustful passionately hates anything that proves itself more virtuous, and will seek to destroy that higher calling and those called to a higher life. Envy is driving much of this and an intense hatred for virginity and the virgin.

Ed Dem
1 year 7 months ago

You seem like you love the Church. However, the Church is already allowing some married priests.

Ed Dem
1 year 7 months ago

( I hit "save" more than one time because the site was slow to respond----and this is the result-- two extra saves made in error and that cannot be deleted.)

Ed Dem
1 year 7 months ago

( I hit "save" more than one time because the site was slow to respond----and this is the result-- two extra saves made in error and that cannot be deleted.)

victoria keating
1 year 7 months ago

First of all, many Roman Catholic priests are married. The entire Eastern Rite of the Catholic Church ordains married men, so there are thousands of
married Catholic priests

Gino Dalpiaz
1 year 7 months ago


Nicole Winfield writes that “the celibate priesthood has been a tradition of the Latin rite Catholic Church since the 11th century.” She is flat wrong. In his 1990 masterpiece, The Apostolic Origins of Priestly Celibacy, Fr. Christian Cochini, S.J., professor at Sophia University in Tokyo, proves beyond any doubt that the origins of priestly celibacy go back to the Apostles. He proves this statement by examining the marital status of every known bishop, priest or deacon of the Eastern and Western Churches from apostolic times until the end of the seventh century, coming up with an exhaustive list of married and unmarried clerics. Through patristic sources and conciliar documentation Fr. Cochini shows that from the beginning of the Church, married men could be priests, if they and their wives took a vow of celibacy before ordination, meaning they promised to henceforth live a life of continence.

Nicole is flat wrong again when she writes: “I believe it [priestly celibacy] became mandatory about 1,000 years ago.” Here’s what really happened a thousand years ago. In 1139 A.D. ,the Second Lateran Council established that marriages contracted by bishops, priests and deacons—as well as those contracted by people who had made religious vows—were not only illicit but also invalid. They had always been illicit; but, from now on, they were also to be considered null and void.

Finally, celibacy doesn’t make a pedophile and marriage doesn’t cure him. Marriage doesn’t make an adulterer and remaining unmarried doesn’t cure him. Celibacy doesn’t make a homosexual nor is homosexuality cured by marriage. Celibacy should not be suspect because of occasional priestly pedophilia, just as marriage should not be suspect because of occasional adultery. As the psychoanalyst, T. Anatrella, put it: "Marriage has never been a therapy for affective and sexual immaturity." So, it would be unfair to blame divorce on the fact that marriage is indissoluble, and likewise unfair to blame celibacy for the scandals caused by
some priests.

Nora Bolcon
1 year 7 months ago

Since we as a church obviously don't care much about women, based on this article and the comments which follow it, I feel I should share the following:

For the record, homosexuality and celibacy do not increase pedophilia or other forms of child abuse according to known evidence. However, Sexism, especially sexism in religion, does directly cause pedophilia and that has been evidenced even in our own church's abuse drama still playing out now, and in many other organizations, or in countries, on a global scale, that include children and Adults.

Also, FYI - increased sexism will increase pedophilia, and decreasing sexism will decrease pedophilia based on all known evidence, and perhaps by great amounts in both directions.

Optional Celibacy, because it is only being offered to men who seek priesthood, and we are still refusing all women the same ordination, will likely cause greater amounts of pedophilia to take place, in our church, in the future, not less. This is because we will have gone from a church that has bias against both most of its men and all of its women, within our ordination practices, to a church with total gender bias only against women, i. e. complete gender segregation. This would represent a form of sexism that is the worst our church will have ever experienced in its entire history.

However, choosing to demand our hierarchy first ordain called women to priesthood, and then allow called married people, would likely decrease pedophilia in our church's future, as this would cause an extreme lessening of our current sexism.

This should be a no-brainer right? Yet it isn't. It seems, unfortunately, for us to make the right decision on this subject demands we actually have to be a church that genuinely cares about our children and women, and we tend to only talk about those things but act in opposition, showing forth hatred or disdain for both groups instead.

This is likely why Jesus commanded all who wanted to be considered his followers to always treat all others the same as they wish to be treated themselves and that includes church leaders actions towards women. When we don't, indeed our most vulnerable pay.

There is a certain sad irony to the fact that our sexism against all women has led to a church that has far more abused its male children than its female children, at least in the number of victims. No coincidences here folks!

Remember, Satan is the best liar around and he always makes injustice look like progress towards justice, and evil look sooo goood!

Tom Poelker
1 year 7 months ago

Supporting the families would not be a problem if we treated the priesthood as a part-time ministry instead of a profession. St. Paul was proud of being self-supporting as well as an apostle. The professional, paid cleric is a creation of the church as institution instead of community. Let lay leaders run their communities and ordain mature adults with liturgical skills to be purely sacramental ministers.


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