Today, the German Bishops’ official website, Katholisch.de, published an interview with Cardinal Walter Kasper on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of his own priestly ordination. In this context, the German cardinal also made some significant statements regarding the question of the viri probati — that is to say, on the ordination of married and morally proven men.
When the interviewer asked Kasper about the viri probati question, he responded, saying that there is an “urgent need for action.” There has been many a long-term discussion about this matter, but in the past, explains the cardinal, this topic “was not approved officially by Rome.” But now, adds Kasper, Pope Francis has said in a recent Die Zeit interview that “one should think about it,” even though the pope did not say “it will come.”
Kasper then shows his own sympathy for the idea of the viri probati when he says that “I consider such a discussion to be of the utmost necessity.” “We cannot go on as usual;” he adds, “this discussion is very urgent.” As an explanation, Kasper says that, when he was ordained, there were forty candidates ordained in his own diocese alone. “Now, there are 40 priestly candidates in the whole country.” Thus he brings up again the problem of the grave shortage of priests in Germany.
Cardinal Kasper insists upon the urgency by saying that the viri probati need to receive a formation; that is to say, it will take some preparation time before they can start working as priests. He adds that “the pope thinks that this discussion is worth it; he sees it positively.” One had to see what this concept of the viri probati means, explains the cardinal. Importantly, Kasper now says that the pope wishes that the national bishops’ conferences approach him with their individual proposals which he then can approve. Kasper goes on to say: “He [the pope] wants to leave the decision up to the bishops’ conferences.” They can “come to him and make a request.” “If this request is a reasonable request, I have the impression that he is willing to respond then positively to it,” adds Kasper. “It is now up to the bishops’ conferences.”
Such a process, as described by Kasper, could well have been designed to offer cover for the pope, creating the appearance that he is not soliciting such requests, but rather only receiving and considering them.
Cardinal Kasper has come to be known for his close relationship with Pope Francis. In the years that led up to the post-synodal exhortation Amoris Laetitia, the German cardinal had accented that Pope Francis himself supported his “Kasper proposal” which wanted to give access to Holy Communion for the “remarried” divorcees. His assessment, though widely dismissed at the time as his own wishful thinking, has since been proven true.
Now, Cardinal Kasper openly says that the pope wishes that the local bishops’ conferences make their more specific proposals to introduce the viri probati — that is to say, the issue of married priests — which the pope might then subsequently (and very likely) approve. (He did not at all speak, however, of the mulieres probatae. Not yet.)
The plan for further reform is thus laid out. It is only a question of time until the first national bishops’ conference will come up with the first proposals. Will it be the Germans again?
When the interviewer asked Kasper as to whether he will encourage Cardinal Reinhard Marx, the President of the German Bishops’ Conference, to make such a proposal, he responded: “He does not need it [such an encouragement]. Cardinal Marx wishes to push things ahead. But he cannot directly intervene into each local Church [diocese]. That has to be decided locally; one has to differentiate here.” [my emphasis]
This statement by Cardinal Kasper seems to stand in direct opposition to Cardinal Marx’s own recent March 2017 statement, according to which Marx is very hesitant to open up to the viri probati question, which was, he believed, more urgent elsewhere — namely, for other “extreme cases” in other places in the world with severe shortages of priests. Even so, Marx more or less contradicted himself a few days later, when he frankly admitted that in 2016 the seminary of his own Diocese of Munich-Freising had received only one new seminarian — certainly as serious a situation as the “extreme cases” he referred to in other countries.
The future will soon show us which Bishops’ Conference will take the first practical steps toward ordaining married priests — and whether they will be doing it with papal encouragement and approval.
This post has been updated.