Pope Francis: Strong Defender of Priestly Celibacy

Pope Francis: Strong Defender of Priestly Celibacy January 14, 2020

Christopher Altieri wrote in Catholic Herald (1-13-20):

There is not now, nor has there ever been, a proposal “to end priestly celibacy” in the Church.

There is a proposal from the [Amazon] synod fathers, now before the Holy Father, asking him to consider relaxing the very long-standing discipline currently in force for secular (roughly “diocesan”) priests in the Latin Church, which impedes married men from receiving ordination to the priesthood. . . .

Pope Francis has taken a strong position in favour of the current discipline. He even made Paul VI’s line on the subject his own: “For the Latin rite,” he offered in January of last year, “I am reminded of a phrase of St. Paul VI: ‘I prefer to give my life before changing the law of celibacy.’ This came to me and I want to say it because it is a courageous phrase,” he told journalists in response to a direct question asked in solicitation of his personal thoughts on the matter.

While the rest of Pope Francis’s answer left the possibility for some relaxation of the discipline open, he concluded his remarks by saying, “I do not say that it should be done — because I have not reflected, I have not prayed sufficiently on this — But the theology should be studied.”

Charles Collins added, in an article for Crux (1-13-20):

“Personally, I think that celibacy is a gift to the Church. Secondly, I would say that I do not agree with permitting optional celibacy, no,” Francis said on Jan. 28, 2019.

The pope then admitted possible limited exceptions, such as the Pacific Islands, before discussing more deeply one of the viri probati proposals to ordain older, “proven men” – similar to those chosen for the permanent diaconate – to provide sacraments in remote areas.

Such a possibility was endorsed by the October 2019 Amazon synod as a way to provide sacraments to a region where people might see a priest only once or twice a year.

Francis – and most of the synod fathers – have been clear that celibacy as a rule is not being questioned; but rather, they are looking at possible exceptions to the rule for pastoral necessity.

Of course, Benedict is more than familiar with this idea, since he more than any other previous pontiff has facilitated the reality of married priests in the Western Church (most of the Eastern Rites of the Catholic Church allow married men to be ordained.)

Benedict’s 2009 document Anglicanorum Coetibus provided for the establishment of Ordinariates to provide pastoral care for former Anglicans who had become Catholic; including their mostly married clergy. Benedict established three ordinariates – one each in the UK, North America, and Australia – all of which have a large percentage of married priests.

When Benedict made these provisions, he was not wavering on his commitment to priestly celibacy; he was establishing an exception based on pastoral need.

The above is sufficient to dispel the current tempest in a teapot. I’d rather do a survey of what Pope Francis has stated in the past on this topic. Sadly — as so often –, it will not be in accord with the secular media and much of conservative Catholic media’s jaded, distorted spin.

Secondly, it bears repeating that priestly celibacy is a discipline, not a dogma, which means that it can and may change (possibly, greatly so). It wasn’t always a strict requirement (even in the western, Latin church) — this requirement began in the 11th century — and may not always be in the future. It doesn’t take much research and study to verify this.

[Cardinal Robert Sarah oddly observed on 1-13-20: “Priestly celibacy, far from being merely an ascetical discipline, is necessary to the identity of the Church.” Really? It would follow that Eastern Catholics are not fully in line with a Catholic identity (which is ludicrous), and moreover, that the entire Church for the first ten centuries of its existence lacked necessary requirements of Catholic identity: which is grotesquely absurd. With all due respect (and I love Cdl. Sarah), I think the good Cardinal was having a bad hair day, or some frustrating equivalent ordeal, evidenced by “reasoning” like this, which is well-nigh indefensible on close examination]

Thirdly, Eastern Catholics are every bit as much Catholics as anyone else, and they allow married priests. I believe (without having actual statistics) that the great majority of Eastern Catholic priests are married.

[Cardinal Robert Sarah stated yesterday (1-13-20), according to a Catholic News Agency article: ” ‘[t]he Eastern married clergy is in crisis,’ pointing to comments by some members of these Churches noting tension between the priestly and married states, as well as the problem of divorce by priests.” Whether this is true, or how extensive the purported problem is, I have no idea. I’m merely reporting what was stated . . . ]

Fourth, there are exceptions to the rule of priestly celibacy in the west: particularly for former Anglican priests. I personally have known two married priests in the Latin rite: the late Fr. Ray Ryland, and Fr. Dwight Longenecker. Exceptions to the rule are nothing new, and as Charles Collins noted above, Pope Benedict XVI in particular encouraged them, where it was pastorally wise and helpful.

Fifth, my own position (if anyone cares to know) is identical to that of Pope Francis and Pope Benedict: I’m a strong advocate of priestly celibacy, and have defended it many times: probably as much as anyone has in recent times. At the same time, I am open to further possible rare exceptions, just as I am a supporter of married priests in the East and of the three Ordinariates that Pope Benedict established for former Anglicans: with a high percentage of married priests.

If it’s a discipline and not a dogma, why all the uproar, hysteria, and conspiratorialism? Well, I submit that it’s because of a certain paranoid, cynical reactionary or semi-reactionary mindset (spearheaded by good ol’ Taylor “Tin Foil Hat” Marshall) that has taken hold among many Catholics: accustomed to hearing the lying nonsense and hogwash about Pope Francis, week in and week out.

Even a normally sensible, rational person like Karl Keating (not strictly a reactionary in my definition: I hasten to add, and merely a “papal nitpicker”) succumbed to it, when he put up a ridiculous meme (on 10-26-19) on his Facebook page, stating, “THE REAL PLAN [:] Married priests in Amazon today, married priests everywhere tomorrow” [caps in original, italics mine]. It has received 186 likes and 25 shares, as of writing: including 25 mutual Facebook friends (or 13% of the total). I’m delighted to see that 87% of the “likers” are not on my friends’ list. That’s heartening to me (i.e., my friends online know better than to espouse such silliness), while it is disturbing that such a large number of Karl’s Facebook friends succumb to such groundless paranoia and suspicion.

What follows are the pope’s own words.


Think about this: when a priest — I say a priest, but also a seminarian — when a priest or a sister lacks joy he or she is sad; you might think: “but this is a psychological problem”. No. It is true: that may be, that may be so, yes, it might. It might happen, some, poor things, fall sick…. It might be so. However in general it is not a psychological problem. Is it a problem of dissatisfaction? Well, yes! But what is at the heart of this lack of joy? It is a matter of celibacy. I will explain to you. You, seminarians, sisters, consecrate your love to Jesus, a great love. Your heart is for Jesus and this leads us to make the vow of chastity, the vow of celibacy. However the vow of chastity and the vow of celibacy do not end at the moment the vow is taken, they endure…. A journey that matures, that develops towards pastoral fatherhood, towards pastoral motherhood, and when a priest is not a father to his community, when a sister is not a mother to all those with whom she works, he or she becomes sad. This is the problem. For this reason I say to you: the root of sadness in pastoral life is precisely in the absence of fatherhood or motherhood that comes from living this consecration unsatisfactorily which on the contrary must lead us to fertility. It is impossible to imagine a priest or a sister who are not fertile: this is not Catholic! This is not Catholic! This is the beauty of consecration: it is joy, joy. (Address, 7-6-13)


Family life is the vocation that God inscribed into the nature of man and woman and there is another vocation which is complementary to marriage: the call to celibacy and virginity for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven. It is the vocation that Jesus himself lived. (Address, 10-4-13; italics in original)


Seminary formation must offer young men a serious path of intellectual and spiritual growth. May priestly holiness be authentically proposed to them, beginning with the example of priests who live out their own vocation with joy; may future priests truly learn to live the demands of priestly celibacy, . . . (Address, 3-24-14)


I urge you to be close to your young people as they seek to establish and articulate their identity in a disorienting age. Help them to find their purpose in the challenge and joy of co-creation with God that is the vocation to married life, fulfilled in the blessing of children; or indeed in the celibate vocations to the sacred priesthood or religious life, which the Church has been given for the salvation of souls. Encourage young Catholics by living lives of virtue to experience the liberating gift of chastity as adults. (Address, 11-17-14)


In a time of an apparent decrease in vocations to the priesthood and to religious life, it is important to speak openly about the fulfilling and joyful experience of offering one’s life to Christ. For when your Christian communities are built up by your own continued example of “living in truth and joy your priestly commitments, celibacy in chastity and detachment from material possessions” (ibid., 111), then vocations to the priesthood and the consecrated life will most certainly abound. (Address, 4-24-15)


Initial formation at the Seminary and vocational discernment are necessary. In addition to intellectual, spiritual and communal formation, particular attention must be given to their human and emotional formation, so that future priests are capable of living their commitment to celibacy, in which no compromise is acceptable. (Address, 5-15-15)


In the seminaries, may there be no neglect of the human, intellectual and spiritual formation which ensures a true encounter with the Lord; while cultivating the pastoral devotion and emotional maturity that render seminarians fit to embrace priestly celibacy and capable of living and working in communion. (Address, 5-28-15)


In fact, Jesus was already revealing himself as a Messiah different from their expectations, from how they imagined the Messiah, how the Messiah would be: not a powerful and glorious king, but a humble and unarmed servant; not a lord of great wealth, a sign of blessing, but a poor man with nowhere to rest his head; not a patriarch with many descendants, but a celibate man without home or nest. (Angelus, 3-12-17)


There might only remain a few possibilities in the most remote places – I am thinking of the Pacific islands… But it is one thing to reflect on when there is pastoral necessity, there, the pastor must think of the faithful. There is a book by Father Lobinger [Bishop Fritz Lobinger, Preti per domani (Priests for Tomorrow), Emi, 2009], it is interesting – this is a matter of discussion among theologians, there’s no decision on my part. My decision is: optional celibacy before the diaconate, no. That’s something for me, something personal, I won’t do it, this remains clear. Am I “closed”? Maybe. But I don’t want to appear before God with this decision. . . .

Yes, you ask me about what Pope Benedict had done, it’s true. I had forgotten this: “Anglicanorum coetibus”, the Anglican priests who have become Catholics and keep their [married] lives, as if they were of the Eastern [rite]. At a Wednesday audience, I remember seeing many of them, with their collar, and many women with them and children holding the hands of the priests…, and they explained to me what it was. It is true: thank you for reminding me. (Press conference, 1-27-19)


Allow me now to offer a heartfelt word of thanks to all those priests and consecrated persons who serve the Lord faithfully and totally, and who feel themselves dishonoured and discredited by the shameful conduct of some of their confreres. All of us – the Church, consecrated persons, the People of God, and even God himself – bear the effects of their infidelity. In the name of the whole Church, I thank the vast majority of priests who are not only faithful to their celibacy, but spend themselves in a ministry today made even more difficult by the scandals of few (but always too many) of their confreres. I also thank the faithful who are well aware of the goodness of their pastors and who continue to pray for them and to support them. (Address, 2-24-19)


Related Reading:

Mandatory Celibacy of Priests & Religious (Dialogue) [1997-1998]

Why Peter’s Marriage Doesn’t Disprove Catholicism: A Dialogue [January 1999]

Clerical Celibacy: Hostile Protestant Commentary & Catholic Replies [2-21-04]

Martin Luther & Antipathy Towards Clerical Celibacy [2-21-04]

Dialogue w a Baptist on Required Clerical Celibacy [7-2-06]

Objections to Clerical Celibacy: In-Depth Dialogue [7-12-06]

Unbiblical Rejection of Priestly Celibacy (vs. Calvin #31) [9-15-09]

Clerical Celibacy: Dialogue with John Calvin [9-17-09]

Mandatory Celibacy of Catholic Priests in the Western / Latin Rite: A New (?) Argument [11-16-12]

Further Reflections on Mandatory Priestly Celibacy [8-2-14]

Forbidding Marriage? Consecrated Virginity & the Catholic “Both / And” [9-13-17]

Priestly Celibacy: Garden-Variety Objections Debunked [9-18-17]

Married Bishops (1 Tim 3) & Catholic Celibacy: Contradiction? [9-18-17; expanded on 6-20-18]

Pope Benedict Eschews Co-Authorship; Ignatius Says “No!” [1-14-20]


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