Pope Francis’ comments that the Catholic Church must study whether to ordain married men to minister in remote communities may open up the possibility of allowing married priests throughout the church, experts said Friday.
In an interview published with Germany’s Die Zeit newspaper, Francis stressed that removing the celibacy rule is not the answer to the church’s priest shortage. But he expressed an openness to studying whether so-called “viri probati” — married men of proven faith — could be ordained to serve communities without enough clergy.
“We must consider if viri probati is a possibility. Then we must determine what tasks they can perform, for example, in remote communities,” he was quoted as saying in the interview published Thursday.
Church experts said the pope’s comments could portend a major shift in the church by eventually allowing married priests in general, though others cautioned that the pontiff may face a backlash from conservatives.
Some predicted the move could happen during Francis’ papacy, within a few years.
“I think we could see this happening within the next three to five years,” said the Rev. Thomas Reese, senior analyst for The National Catholic Reporter.
“I think he’s quite open to the question of married priests,” he said. “Frankly, once you’ve opened it for remote communities you’ve opened the possibility for everybody.”
John Thavis, author of “The Vatican Diaries,” agreed that allowing married priests could happen in the near future.
The pope’s comments don’t “surprise me at all,” said Thavis, a longtime Vatican correspondent. “I fully expected Pope Francis to move forward on at least exploring the possibility of married priests. I’m surprised it’s taken him four years to do so, actually.”
“I fully expect that he will allow this to happen on a case-by-case basis in specific countries and see how it goes,” Thavis said.
But Stephen Pope, a theology professor at Boston College, believes Francis is likely to face strong resistance from conservatives.
While many Catholics in countries such as the United States likely would support the move, in regions such as Africa there would be substantial opposition, Pope said. The resistance would be “not just grumbling” from people in the pews, he said. “He’ll have bishops and cardinals saying, ‘What are you doing?’ ”
At least one Long Island Catholic said she supports the idea of married priests.
“It’s definitely something that should be considered, especially with our modern-day young people who are considering the priesthood,” said Chyva Clarke, the Catholic campus minister at Hofstra University. “I’m excited. I’m also excited that he is so open-minded.”
A key to the debate is that, unlike the question of women priests, the idea of married priests does not involve church doctrine — which cannot be changed — but simply a church rule, Reese and others said.
The celibacy requirement was instituted about 1,000 years into the church’s history. Up until then, many priests and even popes — including the first one, St. Peter — were married, Reese said.
“There’s no doctrinal impediment here,” Thavis said. “He doesn’t need a doctrinal study of the question. He doesn’t need a whole lot more than his own authority to open the possibility of this.”
U.S. church experts said the lack of priests affects not just remote areas but suburban and urban regions packed with Catholics.
“You’ve got priests in the U.S. who are saying six Masses on a weekend in one church, and others who are traveling hundreds of miles on Saturday and Sunday to say Masses at different parishes,” Reese said.