Pope Francis has expressed openness to a renewed consideration of married priests in the Catholic Church, especially the possibility of ordaining the so-called viri probati, meaning tested married men, who could be called into clerical service.
“Then we have to consider what tasks they could perform, for instance in isolated communities,” the pontiff said.
While the question put to Francis specifically referred to ordaining viri probati as deacons, many theologians and some bishops have also suggested they could be considered for priestly service.
The pope’s comments came in a new interview with the German newspaper Die Zeit, excerpts from which were published on Wednesday, with the full version set to appear on Thursday.
At the same time, Francis appeared to rule out simply making priestly celibacy optional, saying that approach “is not a solution.”
Calling diminishing vocations to the priesthood an “enormous problem,” Francis said the first response must be prayer, coupled with a more intense focus on “working with young people who are seeking orientation.”
A lack of priests, Francis said, weakens the Church “because a Church without the Eucharist doesn’t have strength — the Church makes the Eucharist, but the Eucharist also makes the Church.”
Francis called for the question to be faced in the Church “fearlessly.”
“Fears close doors, freedom opens them, and even when [the space for] liberty is small, it opens a window,” he said.
At present, most Catholic priests are expected to remain celibate, although Catholicism does include 23 Eastern churches in full communion with Rome whose clergy are allowed to marry. In the United States, there are also a few hundred former Protestant ministers who’ve entered the Catholic Church as married men and permitted to remain married after being ordained as Catholic priests.
In April 2014, a Brazilian bishop said he and Pope Francis had discussed the idea of ordaining the viri probati in a private conversation and the pontiff appeared open to the idea, suggesting it’s up to bishops’ conferences to make proposals along those lines.
Last November, Francis crossed Rome to meet with a community of seven families, all led by men who had left the priesthood to become married. There had been speculation that Francis might choose to devote the next Synod of Bishops in 2018 to the topic of married priests, but instead the focus of that gathering will be on youth, faith and vocational discernment.
In another portion of the interview, Francis, as he has on other occasions, sounded an alarm about the rise of political populism in the West today.
“Populism is evil and ends badly, as the past century has shown,” he said, arguing that it means “using the people” by offering them a messiah.
Francis also rejected the suggestion that he’s something special, saying, “I am a sinner and I am fallible.”
As he has many times in the past, he suggested that exaggerated celebration of a pope is actually dangerous.
“We must not forget that the idealization of a person is always a subliminal kind of aggression,” he said. “When I am idealized, I feel attacked.”
In the same interview, released on Thursday, Pope Francis also spoke about American Cardinal Raymond Burke, “fundamentalist Catholics,” and his travel schedule.