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Q and A with Fr Flader: Will priestly celibacy become optional?

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Mrs Josephine Albayeh and Mrs Helen Maroon participate during the vesting of their husbands as priests, above. Photo: Snapix, courtesy Maronite Eparchy
Mrs Josephine Albayeh and Mrs Helen Maroon participate during the vesting of their husbands as priests, above. Photo: Snapix, courtesy Maronite Eparchy

Dear Father, I read recently that Pope Francis has said that the church could consider having married priests. Is this true, and is he likely to abandon the requirement of celibacy for priests in the Catholic Church?

Pope Francis did indeed address the question of married priests. It was in an interview with the Argentinian news agency Infobae, on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of his election as pope. In the interview he said, “There is no contradiction for a priest to marry.”

He called priestly celibacy “a temporary prescription”, one that could be reviewed.

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The Holy Father made clear what he meant by these words. He said that celibacy is a “temporary prescription” inasmuch as “it is not eternal like priestly ordination, which is forever, whether you like it or not. Whether you leave or not is another matter, but it is forever. On the other hand, celibacy is a discipline.”

Secular media outlets and even some Catholic ones immediately jumped to the conclusion that the pope is open to revising the discipline of celibacy and that he might lift it.

Is priestly celibacy open to review? Of course it is. In the Latin or Roman rite, the rite of the immense majority of Catholics throughout the world, priestly celibacy has been lived from the earliest centuries, and those priests who were married refrained from having acts of sexual intimacy with their wives.

But in the Eastern rites, such as the Maronites, Melkites, Ukrainians, Chaldeans and others, priestly celibacy is optional.

A great number of their priests are married, even if their bishops are always chosen from priests who are celibate.

Moreover, even in the Latin rite there are married priests. They are men who were serving as married clergy in other Christian denominations, such as the Anglican, Lutheran and various Orthodox churches, who converted to the Catholic faith and then were ordained as Catholic priests.

It is clear from this that the question of married priests is a matter of discipline, not of dogma.

Jesuit Father Alfredo Ferro celebrates Mass in 2019 in the indigenous community of Nazaret, Colombia. In Pope Francis’ postsynodal apostolic exhortation, “Querida Amazonia,” released on 12 February 2020, the pontiff acknowledged the serious shortage of priests in remote areas of the Amazon, but he insisted not all avenues have been exhausted to address the issue. Photo:, David Agren

Pope Paul VI outlined the reasons for the church’s requirement of priestly celibacy in his 1967 encyclical Sacerdotalis caelibatus.

He explained that the priest is, as it were, an icon of Christ, who is represented in the Scriptures as the bridegroom and the church as the bride.

Just as Jesus himself was celibate and given over wholly to building up the church, so a celibate priest, like christ, is in a sense “married” to the church and gives himself wholeheartedly to her.

Moreover, celibacy is a particular sign of the kingdom of heaven, where “they neither marry nor are given in marriage” (Mt 22:30). In this way a celibate priest by his very life reminds people more effectively of the life to come.

The mind of the bishops of the church on priestly celibacy was stated unequivocally in the 1990 General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops on the formation of priests:

“The Synod does not wish to leave any doubts in the mind of anyone regarding the church’s firm will to maintain the law that demands perpetual and freely chosen celibacy for present and future candidates for priestly ordination in the Latin Rite” (Proposition 11; in Pope John Paul II, Apost. Exh. Pastores dabo vobis, n. 29).

That Pope Francis is not likely to lift the requirement of priestly celibacy is clear from his refusal to do so at the time of a meeting of the synod of bishops for the Pan-Amazon region in 2019.

In that synod, a majority of bishops voted in favour of ordaining married men as priests for remote parts of the Amazon rainforest, where communities are unable to celebrate the sacraments regularly.

In his response to the synod, Pope Francis issued the Apostolic Exhortation Querida Amazonia (2020), in which he avoided any reference to married priests.
Rather, he called for missionary clergy to be sent to the Amazon, and for bishops to promote prayers for priestly vocations.

This should be our own response too: to pray very much for the fidelity of priests and for many vocations to the priesthood.

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