It looks like Pope Francis has started testing the waters for the possibility of reintroducing the option of having married priests in the Roman Catholic Church. In an audience with him,1 Erwin Kräutler, the bishop of Xingu in the Brazilian rainforest, raised the challenges of the shortage of priests. Bishop Kräutler told the Pope about only having 27 priests for 800 communities with 700 000 faithful in the Amazonian rainforest, which means that each parishioner only has access to the Eucharist 2-3 times per year.
Francis’ response was that local bishops know the needs of their people best and that they must be courageous and make proposals for new solutions. Bishops mustn’t act alone and should instead first agree in their local bishops’ conferences about proposals for reform, before then bringing them to Rome. This was followed by the topic of the possibility of ordaining married “viri probati” (“proven/tested men”) as priest,2 which lead Pope Francis to sharing the situation in a Mexican diocese, where there is a married, permanent deacon in every parish, but many do not have a priest. These 300 deacons, however, cannot celebrate the mass. How could this continue? It is here that bishops should make proposals.
That, in a nutshell, is Bishop Kräutler’s account of his conversation with Pope Francis, which The Tablet reported on 10th April in an article entitled “Pope says married men could be ordained – if world’s bishops agree.” Not exactly the letter of the original report, but, I’d say, in agreement with its spirit (the audience with Pope Francis points to a broader consultation process than just a yes/no about ordaining proven married men to the priesthood, and by the sounds of it, it was Kräutler who brought up the topic).
During the following days there then came a number of statements by bishops regarding the question of “viri probati,” in general being in favor of it. Among them are three English and Welsh bishops: Thomas McMahon, the previous Bishop of Brentwood, in whose diocese there were 20 former Anglican married priests, who said:
“I would be saying personally that my experience of married priests has been a very good one indeed. I think people in those parishes where they have been placed have taken to them very well indeed. People look to their priest as a man of God, to lead them to God. If he is a real pastor at their service then it is rather secondary as to whether he is married or not.”Bishop Seamus Cunningham of Hexham and Newcastle also expressed his support and Bishop Tom Burns of Menevia (Cardiff) said that “These married men would bring a wider experience and understanding to priestly ministry.” A couple of days ago, Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin also expressed his openness to considering the proposal, while emphasizing the importance to act in unity with the whole Church and with the Pope.
There have also been voices of support for this option in the past: Bishop Manfred Scheuer of Innsbruck in Austria declared himself in favor in 2011, while pointing out his skepticism about whether this would be a measure for addressing the shortage of priests though. Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, in the book-length interview, stated that he could see the priestly ordination of viri probati happening, but that he too had reservations about it being a solution to current shortage.
And, let’s not forget Pope Benedict XVI himself allowing for the future priestly ordination of married men in in the context of the Personal Ordinariate established by the apostolic constitution Anglicanorum Coetibus (as opposed to only considering it a transitory measure for the initial transferees from the Anglican Communion).
The concept of “viri probati” dates back to the first century, where it is referred to in a letter (§42:4) by Pope St. Clement I, albeit in a different context - that of candidates for being appointed bishops and deacons in general. The idea there was that the men in question had a track record of living a Christian life, before they were considered for ordination. This is already what is in place for married permanent deacons (a practice re-introduced by Vatican II and having resulted in 16 000 married men being ordained and active as deacons today in the US alone), where the minimum requirement (Can. 1031 §2) for a candidate is the age of 35 years (and the consent of his wife! :).
Essentially this new proposal sounds to me like an opening of priestly ordination to those who today are married deacons or who would become married deacons in the future.
Personally I think this is a good idea, but - like Bishop Scheuer and Cardinal Dolan - I don’t believe it would make a dramatic difference to the number of priests. It is not like there are huge numbers of married men vying for the priesthood and I believe vocations among them are going to be scarce. Not only will they need to have had the vocation to receive the sacrament of marriage (as opposed to just have gotten married) but they will then also need to feel the subsequent call to the priesthood. By probability theory alone I would expect this to be a small number. However, for that small number - even if it only ever applied to one - I’d be in favor of admitting them to the priesthood. Why? Mainly because Jesus did so himself - among the apostles, at the very least St. Peter (the first pope! and a viro very much probato) was married (cf. Matthew 8:14) and chances are that some of the other apostles were too. If it was good enough for Jesus, it sure is good enough for me!
What I find by far more encouraging - and a source of joy - is the process that has already taken place and that is being put into practice by Pope Francis: a bishop comes to see him, shares a concern with him and proposes a solution. Francis encourages him, invites him to consult with his brother bishops and asks him to then escalate the proposal to the universal Church’s level, for discernment by himself. Francis also emphasizes the importance of unity and invites the expression of opinion by others. Other bishops step forward and express their views. All of this within the course of days and in the absence of any formal process and without intermediaries and bureaucrats wedged between the Bishop of Rome and his brother Bishops from around the world. This is what collegiality is about, as Vatican II presents in in Lumen Gentium (§22), and it is finally being put into practice. Ad maiorem Dei gloriam!
1 The news was also picked up by the German branch of Vatican Radio some days later.
2 Note, that this is not the same as opening up the possibility of getting married to priest - a practice that has never existed in the Catholic Church. The question on the table is about married men being ordained priests, not vice versa.