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  • John Thavis

Pope says no to wholesale change on priestly celibacy, but sees room for exceptions

Updated: Feb 18, 2020

Pope Francis has offered some clarity about how far he’ll go on the issue of married priests.

Speaking to reporters aboard his flight from Panama to Rome Jan. 27, the pope said he did not agree with those who want to make priestly celibacy “optional” throughout the Latin-rite church.

The pope was asked whether he could envision the Catholic Church adopting the practice of Orthodox Churches, in which priestly candidates can choose whether to marry or remain celibate – a choice made before they are ordained as deacons.

“My decision is: optional celibacy before the diaconate, no,” the pope said. “That is what I think. I will not do it and this remains clear. Am I closed minded? Perhaps, but I don’t feel that I can make this decision before God.”

But he left the door open to ordaining married men as an exception to the celibacy rule, in local areas of great pastoral need.

“I think the question should be open in places where there is a pastoral problem because of the lack of priests. I’m not saying that we have to do it, because I have not reflected and prayed about this sufficiently, but theologians have to study this,” he said.

He said that for local church communities, the essential question is access to Mass and the sacraments. “Where there is not the Eucharist … who will make the Eucharist?” he said.

The issue is expected to be raised during a regional Synod of Bishops from the Amazon region, to be held at the Vatican in October. The region faces a severe shortage of priests, and a preparatory document for the synod has called for “courageous, daring and fearless” proposals to deal with pastoral challenges.

If such an exception is granted in the Amazon region, many believe it will place the church on a path of change regarding the overall celibacy rule.

The Catholic Church already has married priests. Generally, Catholic Eastern churches allow married men to be ordained. Celibacy in the Latin-rite church – to which the vast majority of Catholics belong – has been a tradition for many centuries, and a topic of increasing theological debate for decades.

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