Pope Francis hinted this past weekend that he is working on a “solution” to priestly celibacy, a move that could signal a possible shift in opinions — if not religious law — around the Catholic church’s practice of barring clergy from marrying.
In an interview on Sunday with La Repubblica, an Italian Newspaper, Francis described the practice of priestly celibacy in unusually negative terms compared to his predecessors, framing it as a “problem” in need of fixing.
“There definitely is a problem but it is not a major one,” he said. “This needs time but there are solutions and I will find them.”
The comment has drawn attention for challenging the centuries-long church tradition of prohibiting priests from taking wives, although Pope Francis has voiced an arguably ambivalent view of priestly celibacy in the past. In May, he told a group of reporters that, “[celibacy] is a gift for the church, but since it is not a dogma, the door is always open.” In addition, Francis’ own secretary of state also remarked to a Venezuelan newspaper last year that, “Celibacy is not an institution but look, it is also true that you can discuss (it) because as you say this is not a dogma, a dogma of the church.”
But the question remains: does the pope really want to change the church’s policy on priestly celibacy, and if he does, is that even within his power?
At least one of those questions is easy to answer: yes, Francis can change the church’s policy. Priestly celibacy is only canon law, or a man-made rule, and not church dogma or doctrine. Priestly celibacy didn’t even exist in early Christianity, with several early popes (including Jesus’ disciple Simon Peter), bishops, and priests marrying and fathering children during the church’s first three centuries. The tradition of clerical continence doesn’t show up until the Council of Elvira around 305–306 CE, and wasn’t even formally codified into canon law until 1917.
This is partially because — from a theological perspective — the argument for priestly celibacy is based more on informed religious assumptions and preferences than hard Biblical evidence. Many defenders of celibacy point to the fact that Jesus didn’t have a wife, and since priests are meant to emulate the example of Christ, marriage is thought to be suspect. But Jesus also spoke Aramaic, was Middle Eastern, and wore primitive clothing — things hard to find among many of today’s Catholic priests — and one of his disciples, Peter, is listed as having a mother-in-law. And while the Apostle Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 7:7–8 that “I wish that all were as I myself am,” meaning celibate, even he refrains from making it a hard-and-fast rule. He goes on to add the following caveat a few verses later: “But if they are not practicing self control, then they should marry. For it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion.”
In fact, married Catholic priests already exist — lots of them, actually. Roman Catholics are already allowed to ordain married men to the diaconate, an ordained position below priest, so long as they don’t intend to become full-fledged priests. Moreover, while the Roman Catholic Church constitutes the vast majority of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics, it is only one of 23 “rites,” or religious sub-groups, within the church. These rites are broken down into two categorical chunks, one “Western” (the Latin/Roman Catholic rite) and 22 “Eastern” (everyone else), all of whom answer to the pope but harbor their own theological and liturgical eccentricities. Of these, most Eastern Catholics ordain married men to the priesthood, and while many of these Catholics have been reluctant to do so in the West for fear of attracting unnecessary attention, last year the U.S. Maronite Catholic Church ordained its first married priest in America. What’s more, the Roman church recently expanded and streamlined the process allowing married (male) Lutheran and Anglican/Episcopalian priests to enter into the Catholic fold — with wives in tow.
As for whether or not Francis will actually follow through with finding “solutions” for priests who want to marry, that’s a little more difficult to discern, but it’s notable that his comments come in the wake of a noticeable uptick in support for married Catholic priests.
A global Univision poll released in February reported that the majority of Catholics now believe priests should be allowed to marry, a sentiment that is showing up in the church’s own worldwide survey as well. In May, a group of 26 women sent a letter to the pope begging him to endorse married priests so they can finally “start a relationship with a priest we are in love with.” Finally, in June, the Orthodox-Catholic Theological Consultation published a statement on the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops website urging the church to change its position, saying that allowing for married priests would “assure the Orthodox Church that, in the event of the restoration of full communion between the two Churches, the traditions of the Orthodox Church would not be questioned.” This message from the Orthodox Church, which allows for married priests, is particularly important given that Francis is actively cultivating a relationship with Patriarch Bartholomew, the head of the Orthodox church, in an effort to move towards a full unification of the two religious traditions.
To be sure, Pope Francis hasn’t made his exact intentions around priestly celibacy clear, and nothing in the Catholic Church moves quickly — any institution as large and old as the Vatican is likely to take its time on things. But as the church draws closer to its Extraordinary Synod on the Family — a large gathering of key bishops where a variety of “family issues,” including preistly celibacy, are on the docket for discussion — this October, it’s worth watching to see if Francis’ increasingly vocal ambivalence about unmarried priests turns into a major, if possibly long overdue, shift in church law.