Pope Francis has called celibacy for priests a “temporary prescription,” signaling a potential end to a centuries-old requirement of the Roman Catholic Church that the clergy should not marry.
The Argentine-born pontiff made the comments in an interview Friday just before he marked the 10th anniversary of his elevation to the papacy, a tenure marked by laical and clerical disputes over homosexuality, the ongoing clergy sex abuse scandal, Communion for pro-choice politicians and the traditional Latin Mass, among other contentious issues.
Priests in the Roman Catholic Church, also known as Latin rite churches, have been required to remain unmarried throughout their ministry for 1,000 years. Married men in Eastern rite churches in communion with Rome have been allowed to be ordained.
Periodic suggestions have been made that allowing Catholic priests to marry or ordaining married men as priests could ease persistent clergy shortages in many parts of the world. Most recently, the idea was floated in relation to a critical lack of clergy in Brazil’s Amazon region.
On Friday, delegates to the German Church’s Synodal Way assembly voted to call on Francis to “reexamine” the celibacy doctrine and, a separate issue, consider the ordination of women as priests, the independent Catholic News Agency reported.
Speaking to the Argentine news website Infobae, Francis, 86, said the church’s celibacy requirement could be reconsidered, although he added that he did not believe relaxing the rule would encourage more men to consider a clerical vocation. He described celibacy in the priesthood as a “gift” from God but also a “provisional” discipline that is not essential to ordination.
“It is temporary in this sense: It is not perpetual like priestly ordination, which is forever, whether you like it or not,” the pope told the website. “Whether you leave [the church] or not is a different matter, but [ordination] is forever. Celibacy, on the other hand, is a discipline.”
The pontiff acknowledged that some priests in the Eastern rite churches, which are considered part of global Catholicism, are married and that churches aligned with the Eastern rite permit married clergy, though they must marry before ordination.
“Here in the Curia, we have one — just today, I came across him — who has his wife, his son [and he] comes [here],” Francis said of an Eastern rite priest who works at the Vatican.
“Everyone in the Eastern church is married. Or those who want to,” said Francis, the first pope from the Western Hemisphere.
Among the reasons for instituting celibacy more than 1,000 years ago was to block the priestly office from becoming a hereditary institution, passed on from father to son, said the Rev. Mark Morozowich, a Ukrainian Catholic priest and dean of theology and religious studies at the Catholic University of America.
“So this was instituted to stop this inbreeding and just passing on a church from generation to generation,” Father Morozowich said.
Although “the overwhelming majority” of Ukrainian Catholic priests are married, they were married before ordination, he said, and the rule applies in all Eastern rite churches.
“It’s very clear in the tradition of the East, no priest may marry, [but] married men may become priests. That’s an important distinction that one has always to be clear on,” Father Morozowich said.
While the Roman Catholic Church admits married Anglican and Episcopalian priests to its ranks when those clergy join the faith, Rome would have to “change the disciple” for priests to repeal the celibacy requirement.
One observer who knows both sides of the celibacy question is Jonathan Morris, a bestselling author and former Catholic priest who regularly contributed to Fox News Channel.
Mr. Morris, now an executive business coach in New York, tied the question of expanding the potential applicant pool to other issues plaguing the church.
“As every practicing Catholic knows, there is a crisis in parish leadership today,” he told The Washington Times in an email. “It’s not easy to find a parish church where your priest actually speaks to your heart and to your needs in a way that is compelling and authentic.”
He said, “Sadly, lack of inspiration from the pulpit is the least of our concerns; many parishes are also tarred by scandal (financial, sexual, ideological, etc).
“Opening the priesthood to married men who have lived lives of proven virtue would be a first step toward solving the urgent need for leadership renewal in our parishes and dioceses,” he added. “The solution is very simple: … expand the pool of potential leaders.”
Mr. Morris, who married 18 months after his 2019 departure from the priesthood, is less sanguine about immediate action coming from Rome.
“Pope Francis has hinted at this need for years, but he has done nothing to make this happen,” Mr. Morris said. “He has all the power to do so. Will he only talk, or will he act?”
Ten years into his pontificate, Francis has become something of a lightning rod for critics on both sides of the church’s political and theological divides.
Some liberal Catholics say he has not moved far enough on needed changes. The German church group also voted to bless same-sex unions, couples in which the parties divorced and remarried in civil ceremonies, and couples who live together. However, none of those ideas is likely to gain traction with the Vatican.
Conservative members of the church have reproached Francis for his clampdowns on church traditions such as the Latin Mass and his more lenient approach to homosexuality, evidenced by his statement about gays: “If a person of homosexual tendency is honest and seeks God, who I am to judge?”
That declaration, as well as his approval of a ministry to gays spearheaded by the Rev. James Martin, a fellow Jesuit priest, has sparked controversy.
Francis has his defenders, including the Bishop Michael F. Burbidge of Arlington, who praised in an interview last week the pontiff’s encouragement of evangelization and an activist church serving the community.
“I think our young people, millennials and young people, they love Pope Francis,” Bishop Burbidge said in a telephone interview. “His message is so Gospel-centered that we must be willing to love all people without exception, that we must be willing to listen to people, respectfully, even those who disagree with us, we must be willing to enter into a dialogue with others, we must be willing to accompany those who are struggling.”