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, Francis stressed that removing the celibacy rule is not the answer to the Catholic Church’s priest shortage. But he expressed an openness to studying whether so-called “viri probati” — or married men of proven faith — could be ordained to serve communities facing priest shortages.
“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 the pontiff will face a strong backlash from conservatives.
Some predicted the approval could happen during Francis’ papacy over the next several years.
“I think it could happen, yes. I think it is realistic,” said the Rev. Thomas Reese, senior analyst for The National Catholic Reporter. “I think we could see this happening within the next three to five years. I think he’s quite open to the question of married priests.”
Reese added: “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 in the church could become a reality in the not-distant 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.
Stephen Pope, a professor of theology at Boston College, cautioned that Francis is likely to face a strong backlash on the idea from conservatives, which could delay or derail the notion of allowing married priests.
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, he said.
The resistance would be “not just grumbling” from people in the pews, Pope said. “He’ll have bishops and cardinals saying, ‘What are you doing?’ ”
Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI were clear in opposing married priests and supporting the rule of celibacy, Thavis said.
Reversing that “ would be seen by conservatives as an erosion of that principle ... Those Catholics and priests and bishops who were very loyal to John Paul II and Benedict might well see this as a partial undoing of their legacy.”
That Pope Francis is even raising the question is remarkable, experts said.
“The very fact he is allowing it to be discussed is such a change from the last two papacies when this topic could not even be discussed,” Reese said.
At least one Long Island Catholic said she supported the idea of married priests.
“I think 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.”
Married priests actually already exist in the Catholic Church. Married Anglican priests — Episcopalians and Lutherans among them — who have converted to Catholicism are allowed to remain married, Reese said.
The eastern rite Catholic Church such as the Ukranian church have always had married priests, he said.
Experts said they would not expect Francis to issue a blanket order permitting married priests throughout the Roman Catholic Church worldwide, but slowly use a piecemeal approach where the bishops of individual countries would request permission for it.
“What the pope said is actually very reasonable — we have to think about this,” Thavis said. “So he’s not going to wave his magic wand and make married priests happen overnight.”
“I think that is his attitude: He wants it to come up from below,” Reese said. “He doesn’t want to just walk out on the balcony one afternoon and announce tomorrow I am going to ordain some married men as priests.”
The “viri probati” proposal has been around for decades, but it has drawn fresh attention under history’s first Latin American pope thanks in part to his appreciation of the challenges facing the church in places like Brazil, a huge Catholic country with an acute shortage of priests.
Brazilian Cardinal Claudio Hummes, a longtime friend of Francis and former head of the Vatican’s office for clergy, is reportedly pressing to allow viri probati in the Amazon, where the church counts around one priest for every 10,000 Catholics.
Francis has shown particular openness to receiving concrete proposals for ordaining married men as well as his own pastoral concern for men who have left ministry to marry.
He has maintained friendship with the Argentine widow of a friend who left the priesthood to marry, and he spent one of his Friday mercy missions last year visiting with men who had left ministry to start families. He has also said that while he favors a celibate priesthood, celibacy technically can be up for discussion since it’s a discipline of the church, not a dogma.
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.
The Catholic Church in countries such as the United States has seen the number of seminarians decline for the past 50 years, he said.
“John Paul and Benedict just kept hoping and hoping that there would be a turnaround and we’d suddenly have more vocations,” he said. “Well, I’m sorry, it just has not happened.”
“When my generation dies or retires, there’s just not going to be enough priests to take care of the people’s needs,” Reese said. “We don’t have enough priests now and it’s just going to get worse.”