Pope Francis

Pope Francis

Pope Francis’ remark to a German newspaper that the Roman Catholic Church may be open to ordaining married men to the priesthood “is being blown completely out of proportion,” according to a leading Catholic commentator on politics and faith.

Raymond Arroyo, lead anchor of the global Catholic television network EWTN, noted Francis initially said during the interview with Die Zeit that “optional celibacy” is “not the solution” to the priest shortage in the West.

“People often forget that there are married clergy in Catholicism’s Eastern rites — and have been for centuries,” Arroyo said. “This is a discipline in the Western Church and one that has real merit. Even Billy Graham has observed the importance of a man being single-mindedly devoted to his flock and the challenges of raising a family while shepherding a church.”

In an interview with the German weekly published March 8, Pope Francis said the lack of Catholic priests was an “enormous problem” for the church.

He indicated he would be open to altering the eligibility rules for the priesthood.

“We need to consider if ‘viri probati’ could be a possibility,” he said, using the Latin term for “tested men,” or married men of virtue.

“If so, we would need to determine what duties they could undertake, for example, in remote communities,” he said.

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Francis explained that while it would allow men who are already married to become priests, single men already in the priesthood would not be allowed to marry.

“Voluntary celibacy is not a solution,” he said.

‘A matter of discipline, not faith’

Zac Davis, who writes for the Catholic magazine America, commented that any time a pope “discusses the possibility of changing 1,000-year-old church tradition, it is news.”

“But Francis has expressed openness to this question on a number of occasions before, both prior to and after his election to the papacy in 2013,” he said.

Davis said it’s possible the rule could change because “priestly celibacy is not, technically, doctrine or dogma, but rather a matter of church law and tradition — a tradition guided, Catholics believe, by the Holy Spirit.”

He noted that as archbishop of Buenos Aires, then-Cardinal Bergoglio said celibacy is “a matter of discipline, not of faith. It can change.”

“If, hypothetically, Western Catholicism were to review the issue of celibacy, I think it would do so for cultural reasons … not so much as a universal option,” Bergoglio said at the time.

The earliest textual evidence of celibacy in the priesthood comes from fourth-century decrees of the Council of Elvira and the Council of Carthage.

In the interview with Die Zeit, 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.

Catholicism includes 23 Eastern churches in full communion with Rome whose clergy are allowed to marry. In the United States, there a few hundred former Protestant ministers have become priests as married men.

The Catholic news website Crux noted that in April 2014, a Brazilian bishop said he and Pope Francis had discussed the idea of ordaining married men in a private conversation.

The bishop said the pope appeared open to the idea and suggested it would be up to bishops’ conferences to propose such a change.

Francis touched on the issue in his 2013 book “On Heaven and Earth,” stating: “For the time being, I am in favor of maintaining celibacy with the pros and cons that it has, because it has been ten centuries of good experiences more often than failure.”

The church’s teaching on celibacy was re-affirmed by Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

‘Unsuspected joy’

Last November, Francis met in Rome with a community of seven families who were led by men who had left the priesthood to become married.

But last month, a popular priest in France was dismissed from the priesthood when he declared he had begun a relationship with a woman he wanted to marry.

In an open letter, David Gréa, 46, said he had “discovered an unsuspected joy that seems to me to be a continuation of what I have lived so far in giving myself body and soul in your service,” the London Telegraph reported.

He added: “I wanted to be in truth with the Church by stating my joy in being a priest and my wish to get married.”

Local newspapers commented that by choosing to marry, Gréa had cast doubt on the rule of celibacy.

In an interview with the Catholic newspaper La Croix last year, he said: “For a long time, renouncing sexuality has made me scared.”

Meanwhile, Francis continues to receive pressure from Catholics who believe he has been too loose with church doctrine and practice.

Roberto de Mattei, a historian and president of the Lepanto Foundation, a Rome-based group named after the Holy League’s naval battle in 1571 against the Ottoman Empire, says Francis has encouraged “relativism” in the church, the Financial Times reported.

Mattei said he has become “almost obsessed” with welcoming migrants, failed to understand that Islam is an “aggressive religion” that needed to be confronted and sought to sideline anyone who disagreed.

“The Catholic Church is in a state of unprecedented confusion,” he said. “There is a lack of orientation and clarity which leads to tensions and divisions and paves the way for a schism. I have met various cardinals, bishops and priests who have privately expressed their discontent with the direction of this papacy.”

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