Are married priests next on Pope Francis’ reform agenda?

(RNS) 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.


Pope Francis greets a crowd on his way to a meeting with cardinals at the Vatican on Feb. 21, 2014. RNS photo by David Gibson

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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33 Responses to “Are married priests next on Pope Francis’ reform agenda?”

  1. nick batt

    Christian martyrs don’t kill others in the process. I’m not sure what is meant by relativism in this context. Certainly Christianity represents a different set of values than that practiced in the world including by too many tepid Christians.

  2. Patrick

    “By the world’s logic you don’t accept martyrdom…..”
    Yes but, Nick, you have already pointed out that one man’s venerable holy martyr is another man’s crazed “islamist” suicide bomber.

    “…A different order of logic,” you suggest?
    ….If you choose to see it that way.
    Relativism at work here, clearly.

  3. nick batt

    In our fallen world with it’s emphasis on power self gratification and status, I’m sure the Christian view is counter-cultural, perhaps even counter-intuitive, but this is the message of the Gospel as I’ve noted above. By the world’s logic you don’t accept martyrdom; choose a life in a religious order; rush into a burning tower when everybody else is running out; or jump on a hand grenade to save the lives of others. These are things that belong to a different order of logic.

  4. Patrick

    “That women have done most of that work through the centuries shows how elevated they have always been in the eyes of the Church.”

    The logic of that statement is just a trifle faulty, Nick.
    By that token, do you think cotton-picking slaves in 1850 Alabama, present-day WallMart proles, and the poor SOB’s in China who make Nikes for 1.50 bucks a day can be considered “elevated in the eyes” of those who control their lives?
    People who “…do most of the work” are always expendable mugs. We all know that.

    (Fie…I’m beginning to sound like Karl Marx. Groucho would be more like it.)

  5. nick batt

    I don’t think I know a wife who doesn’t think she needs to civilize her husband. As for women only being “worthy” to care for the sick etc., in the third century St. Lawrence when ordered by the Roman authorities to turn over the riches of the “church returned with a crowd of sick and poor folks saying this is the church’s treasure. He correctly saw service to others as the most worthy calling. That women have done most of that work through the centuries shows how elevated they have always been in the eyes of the Church. Some here seem to want this to be about power. That seems inappropriate when one of the titles of the Pope is “Servant of the servants of God” This comes from Jesus statement “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.”Mark 9:35

  6. Michele Joseph

    But, guess what ?
    In the life of the church, it is the women who have the power.
    For me, like in Paul Simon’s song Graceland “In early memory. mission music was ringing ’round my nursery door.”
    I spent some of my very earliest years in St. Anthony’s Villa on Cherry St.
    Later Ladyfield, and raw overly-sensitive adolescence st Notre Dame Academy.
    The women there, only worthy to take care of the sick, orphaned & students,
    shaped my life- showed me what feminine power is.
    When I was recently sick and delirious- who came out of the fog of my fevered imagination to comfort me ? Was it a male figure ? No, it was the SIster the dear rubber-soled, crisp-dressed sister, just as ,I would imagine it would be with a child with a wet-nurse.
    So, in her subjugation, there is power. It was the nun who shaped our lives, our childhoods. How to hold and say a Rosary, our First Communion, how to sit properly, how to pray, how to write out our alphabet.
    I have no recollection whatsoever of any male influence in my Catholic life.
    So, you don’t want to recognize wonen as clergy?
    HA, the joke is on you.
    They are. They have been for generations.
    The nuns have raised the children.
    And we remember.
    Thank you, Sisters.

  7. Christy Besozzi

    By the way, Baha’u’llah, the Prophet-Founder of the Baha’i Faith, wrote of Mary Magdalene calling her “the lioness of God”.

    I thought of that quote when I first heard of the remarkable “nuns on the bus”.

  8. Denis Eble

    “We’ll take over from here !” Imagine, if you can, if women had continued the teachings of Jesus going after his death instead of the ‘Fathers of the Church.’ Too bad that women were positioned lower than cattle in that misogynistic and backwards culture. Men in charge! Blundering buffoons.

    And those same buffoons are ‘in charge’ of the decision to keep women out of authoritarian roles two millennia later. The idiocy of it all!

  9. Michele Joseph

    And to bring the micro-cosm into the macro-cosm—
    maybe it’s that time for our world.
    ” Guys, you are drunk with testosterone toxicity ! Our planet is
    dying ! Shut up n’ git in the truck ! We’ll take over from here !”

  10. Michele Joseph

    There are times in life when it becomes necessary for a woman to say
    “Shut the ” ” up n’ git in the truck ! “

  11. Michele Joseph

    Very lovely, very sexy in a way.
    But sometimes, the husband is a blithering idiot.
    You may recall my sad story about the hurricane in which we almost died,
    because I was into the sexy practice of subservience, and he was
    shall we say, mentally challenged ?
    Ladies, a hurricane is not an “adventure ” !
    Ladies, if you are going to “submit”, make sure he’s not mentally
    Take it from an older woman who knows.

  12. nick batt

    I didn’t intend to get into a contest on who’s more egalitarian just that it’s but that Christianity’s as egalitarian as any. The other areas mentioned are matters of civil law which had not yet come to the Christian ideal. As with slavery, the Ideal noted in Galatians about women took time to be realized. It’s not accuse conservative Christians of going backward. The oft cited “Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord.” Eph. 5:22 sets up a model of service leadership where the husband offers up his whole life for the good of his wife as did Christ for his Church. I’m not aware of any widely followed preacher that teaches otherwise.

  13. Christy Besozzi

    RE: Nick’s comment – “Christianity is the most egalitarian of religions.” (regarding equality of the sexes).

    This is incorrect. Whatever equality in opportunities and treatment that we see these days are very recent developments in the predominantly Christian west since the suffragettes started the ball rolling in the 1800s. Common law in Britain and the colonies, then in the USA, did not allow married women to own property, make their own decisions regarding any money women did have, and could not even earn a salary for work until the 1800s.

    Note that in many countries that were predominantly Muslim at that time allowed women to own property. You cannot claim Islam teaches equality of the sexes, but these countries were way ahead of the West on some counts regarding the rights of women.

    As we learned recently in a Toledo FAVs coffee chat, one of the chief tenets of the Sikh faith is that men and women are equal.

    The Bahá’í Faith also teaches the equality of men and women as one of our basic tenets from the laws established by our Prophet-Founder, Bahá’u’lláh.

    Perhaps there are other faiths that can legitimately claim to believe and practice the equality of the sexes.

    Unfortunately, some conservative Christian sects are even going backwards regarding equality of the sexes.

  14. Michele Joseph

    I would have nothing to do with a man that needed me to civilize him.
    I want him pre-civilized & self -civilized.
    I like having a relation-ship with a man ,not to feel like I’m raising a puppy.
    And a man who had been fighting and carousing would not be a candidate for partnership

  15. Patrick

    I’ve long advocated that men should not be allowed to be priests.
    Most of them are far too naughty.
    …It would seem.

    Women are generally superior to men – especially in the qualities we might hope to find in a priest – although when it comes to going off their heads and shooting people indiscriminately, men are vastly superior, and probably always will be.
    (Anyone know how many women are actively engaged in the waterboarding business?)

  16. nick batt

    I’m inclined to agree that in many ways women are superior to men. Men need women to civilize them. Having a wife and children causes a man to take a longer view; to depart from the instant gratification to building a family. Women have a more obvious connection to their children. Before DNA the man usually is acknowledged as father because the mother names him. All of his energy that is focused on fighting and carousing becomes constructive. Nonetheless both stand before God as equals as previously noted. I recommend “Men and Marriage” by George Gilder for more detail on this issue.

  17. Michele Joseph

    “Does men’s inability to bear children & breast-feed make them less than women ?”
    Let me see…….. warfare — women are now accepted into the military, ——
    antelope chasing is no longer necessary -it’s the women who go out and pick up burgers at Kroger….
    Yes, some would agree — women have greater capabilties than men.
    Women are carrying so much of the weight that there are men that have
    nothing to do but sit around and whine.
    No wonder they are holding on to their little ecclesiastical roles !
    It’s all they have left.

  18. Zappa912

    Nick, you are such a bore.

  19. nick batt

    I’m waiting for an answer. Does men’s inability to bear children make them less than women? There are folks richer, prettier, more talented than any of us. Did God discriminate against us? Do you think you know better than God? Or, perhaps you’re just angry with Him for something else? Nobody forces anyone to belong to the Catholic Church. If you don’t believe, that’s fine with me. i’ll literally be eternally grateful that my folks raised me in the Faith. Whatever alienated you from The Church is your issue.

  20. Zappa912

    Nick, quit being such an apologist for the outright discrimination against women by the Catholic Church. God created men and women differently, but they are equal in his eyes. Jesus said nothing about whether women could be priests. That was decided by men. That difference should have nothing to do with whether a woman is capable of performing the duties of a deacon, priest, bishop or pope. Woman and men are equal before God and should be complete equals in the Catholic Church. Our country recognizes equality between the sexes. The Church should do the same. No need for women to hide their femininity in order to be priests. Being a female should have nothing to do with whether you should be qualified to perform the duties of a priest. The Church clearly discriminates between men and women in the Catholic Church. That is wrong.

  21. nick batt

    Men can’t be mothers. Do you think this makes men “less than” women. Neither is greater or lesser, just different. “So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” Gen 1:27 I knew at an early age that boys and girls are different. Only if you start hating the Church or are a radical feminist that wants all women to hide there feminity at all costs can you view this as a slight to women so be amazed.

    • Denis Eble

      Sure, Nick, it’s the church-haters and…what’s that term used by Rush? Something like Nazis. Too much right-wing media, Nick. Time to open your shades and your windows and look out. Guess what? It’s the 21st century!!

      Gosh, where has the time gone, eh?

  22. Zappa912

    As I have said before, it is still amazing how women can remain faithful Catholics when they are treated unequally by the Church. They cannot be deacons or priests for whatever reason. Maybe they should consider whether their financial support is appropriate of an institution that so obviously discriminates against them, and does not permit them to be full equals in all of the different clergy roles available to men, as well as the governance of the Church. Catholic women should have the same equal opportunities to serve the Church as their male counterparts.

  23. nick batt

    No. Christianity is the most egalitarian of religions. “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Gal 3:28 That was revolutionary at the time. Today it is ignored in the haste of some to bash the Church.

  24. Denis Eble

    “The reason that there can be married priest but not a woman priest is that…”

    …is that because at the time of this ‘doctrine’ women were inferior and considered less worthy than cattle.

  25. nick batt

    The reason that there can be married priest but not a woman priest is that the male priesthood is a matter of doctrine. Celibacy for priests is merely a matter of discipline. In fact, “the one who came before” when he was Cardinal Ratzinger called for a renewed conversation of the question of celibacy in 1970. Too bad he was ignored by some.

  26. Zappa912

    And while we are at it Holy Father, why not open the door to women being ordained as priests, and married priests if they would so choose? God bless Pope Francis and grant him good health for many years to come. Peace to all.

  27. Michele Joseph

    Not to gossip, but even concubines !

  28. Michele Joseph

    It’s really hard to tell what’s next on Pope Francis’s agenda !
    He’s always surprising – always fresh & delightful.
    I’ll never forget when he first stepped out onto balcony without the big hat.
    I was thinking “So where is the Pope ? Where is he ? “He had the gentle smile
    and wave.
    When I realized he was the Pope, my hair stood right up on my head.
    I love him.
    I sure don’t ignore him like the one before.
    Can’t wait to see what happens next !

  29. nick batt

    Additionally, it should be noted that there already are married Catholic priests. Priests of various eastern communions that are in union with The Holy See, such as the Maronites have long had a married clergy as have priests of the Anglican use who have converted from the Episcopal Church. Finally, there are thousands of married permanent deacons in the Latin Rite.

    • Denis Eble

      Additionally, there were married bishops and, gulp, married popes! Wow, imagine that, will ya?

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