(Image: Screenshot of the papal interview as it appears [with Google translation] in Zeit Online)
Today, 8 March, the German newspaper Die Zeit published an interview with Pope Francis which was conducted at the end of February at the pope’s residence Casa Santa Marta in Rome. In this somewhat lengthy interview, the pope speaks about two important topics which are both timely and of special interest.
First, he speaks directly about Cardinal Raymond L. Burke and the pope’s own decision to intervene into the affairs of the Order of Malta, and also why Cardinal Burke was subsequently sent to Guam. In one section of the interview, Pope Francis says: “I do not consider Burke to be an adversary,” and then later also adds:
Cardinal Burke went there [to Guam] because of a terrible incident. I am very grateful to him for that; there was a bad abuse case, and he is an excellent lawyer, but I believe that this mission is already nearly accomplished.
Later in the same interview, the journalist, Giovanni di Lorenzo, asks Pope Francis about an overall question of the Order of Malta and the pope’s intervention in this specific case. Pope Francis responds:
The problem with the Order of Malta was, rather, that Cardinal Burke was not able any more to act in a just manner in the affair because he did not any more act alone. However, I did not remove his title as Cardinal Patron. He still is Patronus of the Order of Malta, but it is now necessary to clean out a little bit in the order and that is why I have sent there a delegate who has another charism than Burke. [my emphasis]
Another important aspect of the interview is the ongoing debate about married priests. Giovanni di Lorenzo asks the pope about the wide lack of priests, for example in Hamburg, Germany. The pope responds, saying that “also in Switzerland, it does not look good.” He continues with the words: “Many parishes have brave women: they keep up the Sunday and celebrate liturgies of the word, that is to say without the Eucharist. The problem, however, is the lack of vocations.” (In a later section of the interview, Pope Francis explains: “One does not get more vocations with the help of proselytism.”)
When discussing the matter of married priests, Pope Francis answers: “But voluntary celibacy is not the answer.” Additionally, he does show, however, more openness toward the idea of giving more scope and clerical faculties to the “viri probati,” those married men who have lived abidingly a tested and proven virtuous life and who would be thus eligible for the permanent diaconate. Francis says:
We have to reflect about whether the viri probati are a possibility. Then we also have to determine which tasks they could have, for example in far distant parishes. […] In the Church, it is always important to recognize the right moment, to recognize when the Holy Ghost demands something. That is why I say that we will continue to reflect about the viri probati.
With regard to the discussion of female deacons, Pope Francis says that he encourages us all to study the question. He adds that this is the “duty of theology,” to ask, when studying Holy Scripture (in line with the historical-critical method): “What did this mean at that time [of the Bible]? What does it mean today?” Francis adds: “Truth is to have no fear. That tells us the historical truth, the academic truth: Don’t be afraid! That makes us free.”
The timing of this renewed discussion on the issue of married priests coincides with a meeting of the influential German Bishops’ Conference in Bergisch Gladbach this week, during which the question of a married priesthood (as part of a larger discussion on the priesthood itself) may be on the agenda. That this papal interview — originally conducted last month in Italian — is being released at this precise moment in a German-language publication raises questions about the possibility of a larger, coordinated communications effort to advance the issue. This is, according to Die Zeit, the pope’s “first interview with a German newspaper”.
Correction: The final paragraph of this post originally reported that the issue of married priesthood is on the agenda of the German Bishops’ Conference meeting this week. This was not technically correct — the issue of the priesthood is on the agenda, and one German auxiliary bishop, Dieter Geerlings of Münster, believes married priests should be part of the discussion. We do not yet know whether it was taken up in today’s meetings. (This post and the corresponding note have been updated to improve accuracy.)