Pope Francis on Priestly Celibacy

Pope Francis’ remarks during the in-flight presser after World Youth Day on the way to Rome from Panama, regarding the discipline of clerical celibacy in the Latin American Church have received a good deal of attention over the past few days. Analysis, commentary, and several explanatory news pieces have appeared, many of which have heard the pope saying more or less what the authors want or expect him to say about the subject.

His answer to the question had a little bit for everybody, but there was a discernible logic to what he said. His answer is worth a patient unpacking.

“I prefer to give my life before changing the law of celibacy,” Francis offered, quoting Pope St. Paul VI on the point. He could have left it there, but he didn’t. “This came to me and I want to say it because it is a courageous phrase,” Francis continued, “[spoken] in a moment more difficult than this – it was in the years 1968-1970.”

“Personally,” Francis continued, “I think that celibacy is a gift to the Church. Secondly, I would say that I do not agree with permitting optional celibacy, no.”

“There remains,” Pope Francis went on to say, “only some possibility for very far-away places.” Then, he said, “I think of the Pacific islands, when there is a pastoral necessity.” He continued, “the pastor should think of the faithful.”

There followed two paragraphs discussing the thesis of Bishop Fritz Lobinger, emeritus of Aliwal, South Africa, according to whom certain viri probati (tested married men) might be chosen from among the faithful of remote and pastorally unprovided areas for ordination to the priesthood. Only, their license to exercise the teaching and governing powers inherent in the priestly degree of Holy Orders would be restricted. They would be permitted to exercise only the munus sanctificandi: in essence, to celebrate the sacraments.

Before he went into that, Francis had been careful to reiterate his personal opposition to the idea. “My decision is: optional celibacy before the diaconate, no,” he said. “It is my thought, personally, but I would not do it. And this remains clear. It is only my personal thought. Am I narrow-minded, maybe? I do not want to put myself before God with this decision.”


Francis has his ideas, in other words, but God could have others – and Francis won’t stand in the way of the Holy Spirit if he can help it.

Next, Pope Francis moves from discussing a remote and not terribly attractive hypothesis to which he is personally opposed, to one about the sorts of entirely plausible hypothetical circumstances in which the thing ought to be done – indeed, has been done, and recently, too.

[The candidate for priestly ordination on the Lobinger hypothesis] is already a mature man. I make this example to show the places where it should be done. I was speaking with an official of the Secretary of State, a bishop, that had worked in a communist country at the beginning of the revolution. When he had seen the crisis of the Revolution arrive it was the 1950s. The bishops secretly ordained peasants, of good religious faith. The crisis passed and 30 years later the thing was resolved. And he told me the emotion that he had when during a concelebration of the Mass he saw these farmers with their farmer hands put on their albs to concelebrate with the bishops. This has been given in the history of the Church. It is something to study, think, rethink, and pray about.

The journalist who posed the question about clerical celibacy, Paris Match’s Caroline Pigozzi, then asked a follow-up about converts from Protestant denominations.

“You ask me a question about that which Benedict did,” began Francis’s response. Pigozzi hadn’t asked him about that – not specifically, anyway. “[T]hat it is true, I had forgotten this,” Francis continued. “Benedict XVI made the Anglicanorum coetibus. Anglican priests who have become Catholic and maintain the life an Eastern priest would.”

Priests of the Anglican use and priests of Eastern rites will alike be surprised, no doubt, to learn how similarly their lives are ordered, but that was not the main point: “I remember in a Wednesday audience that I saw many men with a collar, but many women and children with them, in the hands of the priests, and they explained it to me . . . it’s true, thank you for reminding me of this.”

One may perhaps be forgiven for garnering the impression that Francis wanted to hit Anglicanorum coetibus, and from a specific angle, too. In any case, this is something that’s clearly been on Pope Francis’s mind.

One possible interpretation of his remarks is that he is trying to soften the ground, and/or talk himself into a change. He didn’t object to the query, even though the interim Director of the Press Office of the Holy See, Alessandro Gisotti, had asked that questions be kept to the doings around World Youth Day. Pigozzi’s question had no firmer a footing in those doings than did Junno Arocho’s question for the Catholic News Service about the abuse crisis, which Francis made a point of saying Arocho “snuck” in.

Long story short: The lid is up on this can of worms.


*Photo: Pope Francis answers reporters’ questions on the plane from Panama City to Rome with Alessandro Gisotti, of the Holy See Press Office [Alessandra Tarantino/AP]

Christopher R. Altieri is a journalist, writer and editor based in Rome, Italy. He spent more than a dozen years on the news desk at Vatican Radio. He holds the PhD from the Pontifical Gregorian University, and is the author of The Soul of a Nation: America as a Tradition of Inquiry and Nationhood.