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Pope Francis likes to say that he prefers to raise questions rather than issue edicts or change doctrine, and he has certainly generated plenty of debate with his off-the-cuff remarks about gays and his cold-call chats on topics like divorce and Communion, as happened recently with a woman in Argentina.

Now a recent conversation between the pope and a bishop from Brazil about the priest shortage may be moving the issue of married clergy onto the pontiff’s agenda.

It began when Bishop Erwin Krautler, an Austrian-born bishop who heads a sprawling diocese in the Brazilian rain forest, had a private audience with Francis on April 4 in the Vatican.

During the meeting, Krautler and Francis compared notes on how much the priest shortage affects the church, especially in the Southern Hemisphere. Krautler’s diocese, geographically the largest in Brazil, has just 27 priests for 700,000 Catholics, most of whom might attend Mass a couple of times a year.

Francis said he knew of a diocese in Mexico where parishes had a deacon but no priest, and the pope wondered how things could go on that way — which is when Krautler raised the idea of married priests.

“The pope explained that he could not take everything in hand personally from Rome. We local bishops, who are best acquainted with the needs of our faithful, should be ‘corajudos,’ that is ‘courageous’ in Spanish, and make concrete suggestions,” the bishop told an Austrian newspaper the next day.

Francis, Krautler reiterated, wanted national bishops’ conferences to “seek and find consensus on reform and we should then bring up our suggestions for reform in Rome. … It was up to the bishops to make suggestions, the pope said again.”

It didn’t take long for other bishops to pick up on that cue.

Three prelates in Great Britain said they planned to raise the issue of married priests at a meeting of the hierarchy of England and Wales in May. Such a change could help relieve the clergy shortage in their dioceses, they said, noting that many of them have married priests already under a plan that allows Anglican clergy to convert.

“I would be saying personally that my experience of married priests has been a very good one indeed,” Bishop Thomas McMahon told The Tablet, a Catholic weekly. McMahon said he has 20 former Anglican priests, many of whom are married, in his Brentwood diocese.

“People look to their priest as a man of God, to lead them to God,” McMahon said. “If he is a real pastor at their service then it is rather secondary as to whether he is married or not.”

That Francis would be open to the change is not too surprising. As then-Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires, Francis commented that while he was in favor of retaining celibacy “for now,” it was a matter of church law and tradition, not doctrine: “It is a matter of discipline, not of faith. It can change.”

More recently, Francis’ secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, echoed those views in comments last fall when he said that celibacy “is not a church dogma and it can be discussed because it is a church tradition.”

So is optional celibacy a real possibility under Francis? “I think the topic is open for discussion,” said the Rev. Thomas Reese, a Jesuit priest and senior analyst for National Catholic Reporter.

There are at least three reasons why Francis may be amenable to the debate:

• One, while a married priesthood is often seen as part of the “liberal” agenda for reform that includes ordaining women priests and overturning teachings on homosexuality and birth control, it’s not. In fact, church officials across the spectrum periodically raise the option of married priests — while keeping celibacy as the norm — but they often do so in private.

• Two, because celibacy is a matter of law and tradition, not doctrine or dogma, it can be debated or even changed without signaling that the entire edifice of church teaching is about to crumble. Such a reform would be a pragmatic way of addressing a pastoral problem, and it has received a boost from none other than Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, a favorite of conservatives, who allowed some married Anglican clergy to become Catholic priests.

• Three, Francis has framed the celibacy reform as one that should emerge from a local context, which reinforces his goal of decentralizing power and authority in the church. Celibacy could be a useful means of solving a problem while promoting collegiality and the idea of organic change in Catholicism.

“If, hypothetically, Western Catholicism were to review the issue of celibacy, I think it would do so for cultural reasons … not so much as a universal option,” as Francis said in 2010 remarks on the issue, three years before he was pope.

In fact, it is not surprising that the issue came up in discussions between Francis, an Argentine, and a churchman in Brazil because bishops in Latin America, Africa and Asia have often been the most outspoken about the need to consider a change.

Whether the American hierarchy would press the issue is unclear.

Russell Shaw, a former spokesman for the U.S. bishops, said he is leery about any change that does not take into account the views of lay people and “real-life experience that already exists” in churches that have married clergy or in Eastern Rite branches of Catholicism that also allow married priests.

But above all, Shaw, author of a new book on the “uncertain future of Catholicism in America,” warned that “a piecemeal approach — married priests in this country, celibate priests in that one — would cause confusion or worse.”

“There has to be a uniform policy on something like this,” he said. “If the pope thinks the question should be studied, let him ask the bishops’ conferences to study it and then see what they say. Any change in this area would be momentous, so we need to take our time.”

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Mike Evans
10 years 2 months ago
Does this background article mean that there might actually be an open discussion of the value and practicality of a married priesthood? In the USA we are critically short of 'celibate' priestly vocations, while importing dozens and hundreds of foreign born and trained priests who can barely relate to the American church and culture. As an indication of vocational enthusiasm, there are now over 18,000 ordained deacons serving the U.S. church, most of whom are married men.In most dioceses, the inflow of new aspirants is severely limited by their capacity to train new deacons. If we also permitted women to be ordained to the diaconate, a whole new influx of vocations would flood the church. Imagine that every small parish, mission and outpost could remain or be re-opened and properly staffed for the good of the faithful. While our protestant brethren continue to "plant" new churches everywhere, our Catholic bishops are consolidating and closing parishes due to lack of celibate vocations. What does that say about so-called "new evangelism?"
David Pasinski
10 years 1 month ago
The plot thickens! As a "married priest" who, twenty five years, desperately struggled with the question of marriage and priesthood and chose the former without ever effectively "resigning" the latter as my life in different ministries has been lived out, I would have rather easily glided into a "married priesthood" if it were available at that time since it felt like a very true vocation. Yet, these years later of marraige, children, and awareness of the multiple other moral issues (contraception, divorced friends, gay friends who wish to marry) and especailly the myriad of issues about women in priesthood, I could not in conscience espouse the Church's teaching on those issues in a public way that being a "priest" would explicitly or implicitly endorse. The issues right now are larger than this question, in my mind, and while a married clergy may address some of the current neds, it really is only a band-aid solution, I think....
Alan Aversa
10 years 1 month ago
You were married before becoming a priest, right? This is the distinction that we have to make:Can priests marry? No! The Church has never permitted this.Can married men be priests? Yes! The Church has permitted this in special cases.
10 years 1 month ago
The biggest question will be, in my humble opinion, which of the formerly alternative vocations will be the priority. It used to be a young Catholic man could see himself as either becoming a priest or becoming married. They were always more or less contrasted. Now it's not rocket science to understand that both vocations can be yoked from a practical and ministerial perspective. But from the personal and individual perspective are they not still contrasted? "Which comes first, Father, your people or you wife (and children)?" Also, is this question as commonly proposed not being way to one sided? Is it the priest who is married? Is it not the man who is a priest who is married to a woman who both become involved in this question. Let's have a survey of Catholic women to ask whether or not women would want to be married to a priest. Let's also get a youth survey going. To teens perhaps (13-18), "How would you like to be in a family whose father is a priest?" In short there are a lot of people who become involved here on a very personal level and not just in terms of creating a full complement of priests in our parishes. The formulation of the question (state of the question) is critical and it wouldn't hurt to have a good, if only short summary of the pros and cons in good Thomistic style.
Sara Emory
10 years 1 month ago
Priests in religious orders (and by priests I include Rabbis and any other leader of a formalized, religious community) are not prohibited from taking a wife, and the community does not suffer for it. It is the divorce between spirit and flesh that needs reconciliation, here. And the shadow side of that unnatural split has played out in truly horrific damage to countless victims of sexual abuse. Where there is taboo, there is violence.
Alan Aversa
10 years 1 month ago
The Catholic Church has never permitted a Catholic cleric to take a wife.
Ronald McMahon
10 years 1 month ago
I think they should be allowed to get married. But they must understand the Sacrament of Marriage. Today you have Priest like Father Jose Gonzalez of St. Catherines of Sebring Fl supporting divorce over marriage counseling because one spouse says thet"re unhappy when other does not realize something is wrong. He has recommended divorce to others. Yet the Diocese of Venice does nothing about it. Maybe a married Priest would understand more.
Alan Aversa
10 years 1 month ago
Allowing the clergy (priests or deacons) to marry means permitting them to father biological children. Considering how neglected and lacking of a fatherly figure many children of married Protestant ministers are, is allowing the clergy to father biological children a good idea? There are good reasons the Church has never permitted the clergy to marry: although it has allowed married men to join the clergy, it has always mandated they cease sexual relations with their wives.
Dale Wisely
10 years 1 month ago
Everyone agrees that this is not a matter critical to faith but is, rather, a disciplinary matter. Celibacy is non-essential, even if someone regards it as desirable. Access to the sacraments is essential to Catholics, and apparently is increasingly limited by shortages of priests. So, I wonder why we would maintain a non-essential discipline at the expense of something as essential as access to the sacraments.
Alan Aversa
10 years 1 month ago
The Church has always allowed, no doubt with a special dispensation and the consent of the wife, that a married man be a priest. The issue here seems to be whether priests should be allowed to marry. The Church has never permitted this because
  1. What benefit would there be for the Church in allowing clergy (priests and deacons) to father biological children?
  2. The Church has always required that a cleric remain 100% continent (not have marriage relations with his wife if he is married).
Michael Barberi
10 years 1 month ago
I agree that the choice of marriage or celibacy should be optional, with celibacy preferred but not required. However, I see a larger issue here that may be missed. It seems clear that Pope Francis wants a more decentralized Church, not the centralization of power and authority in Rome that was strengthened and expanded under JP II. Pope Francis wants the Conferences of Bishops to study and make recommendations regarding whether a specific issue should be the subject of a rethinking. Subsidiarity and collegiality seems to be the theme rather than the type of governance of the Church under JP II. This change in mindset by Pope Francis is causing nightmares for most of the orthodox traditionalists who regard any crack in the so-called armor of the church as the end of the RCC. For many in the Church, the truth has already been revealed, taught and is universal and unchanging, not merely as articles of faith but in every aspect of morals. Of course there are universal truths, but thank God the moral truth is constantly emerging for we are brought to a better understanding of truth in community and with our growing knowledge of Scripture, Tradition, Reason and Human Experience as well as the sciences, theology, anthropology, philosophy and what it means to be human.
William Nassari
10 years 1 month ago
Women are more than capable to be priest. The Church hierarchy often says that women always have a special place in the Church, but it won't show them what is that place?
Alan Aversa
10 years 1 month ago
Just because Our Lady was not a priest, how does that make her have a less special place in the Church? Without her there would be no Church.
Alan Aversa
10 years 1 month ago
It seems the argument is "that the married state is to be preferred," for reasons like the shortage of priests, "to the state of virginity or celibacy," yet Trent Session 24 condemned this: "Can. 10. If anyone says that the married state is to be preferred to the state of virginity or celibacy, and that it is not better and happier to remain in virginity or celibacy than to be united in matrimony [cf. Matt. 19:11 f.; 1 Cor. 7:25 f.; 28-40]: let him be anathema." Also: "Let every man abide in the same calling in which he was called." (1 Cor. 7:20). And hasn't the Church always allowed, no doubt with a special dispensation, married men to become priests with the consent of the wife? I know the East has been more permissive of this than the West, yet the Universal Church has never permitted the clergy (priests or deacons) to marry and/or father biological children; viz., they must remain 100% continent.

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