According to the Austrian Catholic website Kath.net, Pope Francis is considering allowing the ordination of so-called viri probati. These “tested men” are said to have “proved their worth” by living virtuously in their marriages and in parish life, indicating a proposed relaxation of the requirement of celibacy in the priesthood for these men who would assist in the duties of celibate priests, including the offering the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Based on a report in the German newspaper Die Zeit, kath.net says that the promoter of the idea of married priests, Bishop Erwin Kräutler — an Austrian-born prelate who has spent much of his ecclesiastical career in Brazil — is said to have helped to write up a paper which is now lying on the desk of Pope Francis to be authoritatively signed. With this likely decision, the pope is said to wish to help alleviate the priest shortage in the Amazon region in Brazil.
This piece of news comes to us in light of Pope Francis’ recent decision to invoke a synod of bishops for the year 2019 about the Amazon region and its special challenges.
At the beginning of 2017, Pope Francis gave an interview to the newspaper responsible for breaking this story, Die Zeit, in which he opened up to the idea of ordaining certain viri probati. As we reported at the time:
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.
Bishop Kräutler had earlier publicly spoken about the fact that Pope Francis had encouraged him privately about the furthering of the idea of married priests. As I reported in 2016:
He [Bishop Kräutler] claims that these words [“have courage!”] are “among the favorite words” of Pope Francis. Francis, says Kräutler, encourages especially the bishops to be courageous: “I will never forget how he [Pope Francis] told me during a private audience on 4 April 2014 that he expects from the bishops ‘courageous proposals’ ….” When asked what proposals he himself is thinking of with regard to the shortage of priests in some regions, the bishop answers that one needs to rethink the admission requirements for the priesthood. He continues: “But the Eucharistic celebration should not be dependent upon the fact whether or not a priest is present who is celibate. Pope Francis certainly does not want to decide this question all alone, but especially in this context he expects ‘courageous’ proposals.”
Last September, Radio Vatikan (the German branch of Vatican Radio) reported that Bishop Kräutler had raised the issue of married men again, in light of the lack of priests in his region in Brazil, claiming that “whether or not there is a celebration of the Eucharist should not be dependent upon the question whether there is available a priest who is celibate.” The bishops of the region of the Amazon had already been speaking about the matter last year, but sought support “from Europe,” according to this Radio Vatikan report.
Bishop Kräutler has again reportedly proposed to study further the work of Bishop emeritus Fritz Lobinger of Aliwal, South Africa who is not only in favor of married priests as such, but is also a promoter of female deacons, and has voiced support for the idea of female priests. Pope Francis himself once recommended the writing of that same author of South Africa to the German bishops during their Ad Limina visit to Rome in 2015.
Leonardo Boff, a liberation theologian from Brazil who has served recently as a consultant to Pope Francis, said last December that Cardinal Hummes, also from Brazil, had suggested that the pope consider the option of allowing married priests to perform pastoral care in his country, where only 18,000 priests serve a population of 140 million Catholics. Boff said that he was told the pope wanted to try an “experimental period in Brazil” to this end. Marco Tosatti and Sandro Magister, both long-time Vatican watchers, indicated in separate reports last year that they see movement in this direction. Simultaneously, the issue of relaxing celibacy has been pushed by the largest lay Catholic organization in Germany while Germany is facing an unprecedented vocations crisis. Their support comes at a time when the bishops of Germany are enjoying enormous influence in the Vatican.
Bishop Kräutler, whose study on the married priesthood is said to be under review by the pope, also said that Pope John Paul II’s proscription against women priests in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis “certainly has a lasting effect, but it is not a dogma.”
Steve Skojec contributed to this report.