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Photo: Pope Francis listens to a question from a journalist aboard his flight from Panama City to Rome, Jan. 27, 2019. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Another wide-ranging and frank press conference with Pope Francis on his flight home from World Youth Day in Panama raised a number of questions for reporters—and resulted in some wildly divergent headlines. Among the confused questions: Is Pope Francis open to married priests? Is he committed to maintaining celibacy for priests? Will men who are already priests be allowed to marry? Who are these “viri probati” who might make up the bulk of married priests? And what are we to make of the fact that there are already some married Catholic priests? Part of the confusion has to do with the variety of options and terms that come together in this conversation.

In an in-flight interview with reporters on the papal plane yesterday, Pope Francis drew a distinction between his own personal beliefs regarding celibacy and what might be required for the church to provide proper pastoral care. “Personally, I believe that celibacy is a gift to the church. Secondly, I’m not in agreement with allowing optional celibacy. No!” However, he continued, “there could only be a possibility in these far, faraway places—I think about the islands in the Pacific. It’s something to think about when there’s a pastoral need; there the shepherd has to think about the faithful.”

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Pope Francis drew a distinction between his own personal beliefs regarding celibacy and what might be required in order for the church to provide proper pastoral care.

Pope Francis also referenced the writings of Bishop Fritz Lobinger, the bishop emeritus of Aliwal, South Africa, who published two books on the subject: Teams of Elders: Moving Beyond “Viri Probati” (Claretian Publications, 2007) and Every Community Its Own Ordained Leaders (Claretian Publications, Philippines, 2008). Bishop Lobinger, Francis noted, said:

The church makes the Eucharist and the Eucharist makes the church. In the islands in the Pacific Lobinger [asks], ‘Who makes the Eucharist’ in these places? Who leads in these communities? It’s the deacons, the religious sisters or the laity. So Lobinger asks, whether an elder, a married man, could be ordained, but only to perform the sanctifying role: to say Mass, give the sacrament of reconciliation and the anointing of the sick.

Francis then noted that “priestly ordination gives three roles or functions (munus)”—teaching, sanctifying and governing—“but the bishop could give the license for only one: the sanctifying role.” In that formulation, the ordained man would not necessarily be a pastor or even a homilist, but might perform the sacramental duties from which Catholic deacons are currently restricted, presumably including hearing confessions and presiding at Mass. Such a provision could help the church attenuate the “sacramental famine” occurring in various geographic locales worldwide, where a shortage of priests prevents many Catholics from access to the sacraments—in particular, the Eucharist.

Pope Francis on relaxing the celibacy requirement for ordination: “There could only be a possibility in these far, faraway places…it’s something to think about when there’s a pastoral need.”

But what exactly is Pope Francis suggesting? The reality is that many of the different terms around married clergy are conflated or misused, with the result that clarity suffers. Below are some of these terms, explained:

Celibacy. While the term is often used to indicate abstention from sexual activity, in fact, celibacy simply refers to a state of life in which one is not married. “Celibate” simply means “unmarried” (for example, the Italian word for “bachelor” is “celebe”). Diocesan priests in the Roman rite make a promise of celibacy to their local bishop when they are ordained. The Code of Canon Law for the Roman rite states that “Clerics are obliged to observe perfect and perpetual continence for the sake of the kingdom of heaven and therefore are bound to celibacy which is a special gift of God by which sacred ministers can adhere more easily to Christ with an undivided heart and are able to dedicate themselves more freely to the service of God and humanity” (No. 277). Because celibacy is a practice of the church rather than a doctrine or dogma, exceptions to the rule can be made, as seen below. More information on the theology behind the celibacy requirement can be found here.

Chastity. While often conflated with celibacy, chastity means something rather different: It is a virtue required of all men and women according to their state of life. For unmarried people, this means abstention from sexual activity. Married people are also expected to be chaste, in the sense that they are called to avoid excessive lust and to abstain from sexual activity outside of marriage. For vowed religious, chastity is one of the three traditional vows (along with poverty and obedience) that constitute consecrated life and allow for communal living and apostolic availability.

Continence, in church terms, is abstention from sexual activity. “From the early fourth century forward,” historian John O’Malley, S.J., has written, “popes and bishops issued a number of decrees enjoining continence on married men who had been ordained to the diaconate, priesthood or episcopacy.” While there was no prohibition on married men being ordained until the Second Lateran Council (1139 AD), they were expected in most cases to abstain from sexual activity with their spouses after their ordination.

Married priests do exist in the Catholic Church, largely in the Eastern Catholic churches that do not have a tradition of celibacy for priests (though Eastern churches do mandate celibacy for bishops). Traditionally in these churches, while married men may be ordained, priests are not allowed to marry after ordination. In addition, in the Roman rite, Pope John Paul II created a provision in 1980 for married Episcopalian and other Protestant ministers who wanted to be ordained Catholic priests: They are exempt from the celibacy requirement and are expected to practice chastity (but not continence) in the context of their marriage.

Viri probati is a phrase first used in the first-century First Epistle of Clement, meaning “proven men” or “men of proven virtue.” It has been used in discussions around ordination in the decades since the Second Vatican Council to describe elders and respected, virtuous members of society who might perform sacramental ministry in a re-envisioned model of priesthood. Part of the attractiveness of the “viri probati” model is that it both provides a commonsense solution to priest shortages but also accords with the practices of the early church, at least as seen in Acts of the Apostles and the Pauline Epistles. (For example, all three synoptic Gospels attest to the fact that St. Peter was married, and I Timothy 3:2 requires that a bishop be “the husband of one wife” only.)

The Belgian theologian Edward Schillebeecxk argued in 1981 that if baptized Catholics have the right to the sacraments, the real leader of a local church has the right to preside at the Eucharist. Further, “the criteria for admission which are not intrinsically necessary to the nature of the ministry and are also in fact a cause of the shortage of priests, must give way to the original, New Testament right of the community to leaders.”

A danger of this model is that it could erode the discipline of celibacy in the priesthood as a whole (as noted above, Pope Francis has said he would only consider this model in “far, faraway places” where there is “pastoral need”). Others have criticized it as a stopgap that does not address larger systemic issues of patriarchy and misogyny. “Allowing married men into the priesthood while continuing the ban on women’s ordination,” wrote Jamie Manson in the National Catholic Reporter in 2004, “will only further the exclusion of women’s voices, expertise and insights from church doctrines, canon laws, moral teachings, and decision-making offices.”

Part of the attractiveness of the “viri probati” model is that it not only provides a commonsense solution to priest shortages but also accords with the practices of the early church.

Deacons are ordained ministers whose duties include baptizing, proclaiming the Gospel and preaching at Mass and presiding at weddings and funerals. A man must be ordained a deacon prior to being ordained a priest, and for a long period in the church, these transitional deacons were the primary way this ministry was preserved. The permanent male diaconate was reinstituted after the Second Vatican Council. As with married priests in the Eastern Catholic churches, men who are already married can be ordained to the permanent diaconate, but a deacon whose spouse dies is not permitted to remarry. In the United States, the diaconate grew rapidly, with the result that there are more than 15,000 permanent deacons in the United States today, approximately a third of the worldwide total.

Women’s ordination. The Catholic Church holds that ordination is restricted to men alone, and in the encyclical “Ordinatio Sacerdotalis” in 1994, Pope John Paul II declared that “the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women” and that “this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful.” In 2016, Pope Francis set up a commission to study the question of women deacons in the early church, with the implication that women deacons might be a possibility in the future (though without indication that their role would be the same as male deacons). Both Pope Francis and his doctrinal chief at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Luis Ladaria, S.J., have reaffirmed Pope John Paul II’s statement on women’s ordination to the priesthood.

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