In 2005, at a Vatican synod on the Eucharist, Cardinal Angelo Scola floated a trial balloon. “To confront the issue of the shortage of priests,” the then Patriarch of Venice said, “some … have put forward the request to ordain married faithful of proven faith and virtue, the so-called viri probati.”
The cardinal’s balloon did not attract much attention. The final synod document said tersely: “this hypothesis was evaluated as a path not to follow”.
For the last decade, the phrase viri probati was only heard in a few circles. But last week, Pope Francis said the Church should reflect on whether the Holy Spirit is demanding viri probati. That doesn’t mean making celibacy optional, he says.
But the Pope believes it could help dioceses where a tiny number of priests have to serve a great number of Catholics.
Conversation about priestly celibacy is, of course, nothing new: it goes back much further than the 2005 synod. But the Pope has recharged the debate in two ways: first, by focusing it on the question of viri probati, and secondly, by introducing it at a time when the Church is remarkably divided over doctrine.
What would this look like in practice? The idea of viri probati is chiefly associated with retired German Bishop Fritz Lobinger, a leading voice in the campaign for a new kind of priestly ministry. Bishop Lobinger suggests that the Church could have “two different forms of priesthood”. Both would receive the sacrament of Holy Orders. But the married “elders” would take weekend courses rather than go to seminary. They would support themselves financially, wear ordinary clothes and, rather than being called “Father”, would be addressed like anybody else.
On the other hand, the Pope could allow some formerly active priests, who have left ministry and got married, to return to celebrating the sacraments. The Brazilian theologian Leonardo Boff, one of those married men and a friend of Pope Francis, says he has heard that the Pope might allow the Brazilian Church to experiment with this. (It somewhat complicates Boff’s point that he himself celebrates Mass despite having resigned from the priesthood in 1992.)
The Church could opt for either Boff’s or Bishop Lobinger’s proposal, or neither – the Pope has only said the Church should “reflect”. According to Edward Pentin of the National Catholic Register, Francis wanted next year’s synod to be on clerical celibacy, but that was voted down by his advisory council, in favour of the theme of youth.
But in any case, the arguments about married priests are likely to be acrimonious, if less so than those over Communion. That is partly because married priests, even if they began as a possibility in “special circumstances”, could soon reshape parish life. And the practical considerations are daunting. It’s often pointed out that the Eastern Catholic Churches have married clergy. But at the 2005 synod, it was precisely the Eastern Catholic bishops who said that married priests were difficult to support financially and found it hard to balance their commitments.
As for the idea of viri probati, its heritage will provoke controversy. For one thing, its chief proponent, Bishop Lobinger, sees the reform as a step towards women priests. “Because the majority of proven local leaders are women,” he wrote in 2010, “it is unavoidable that the question of their inclusion among ordained elders will arise, though present Church law does not permit it.”
Leonardo Boff, too, has suggested that a new community-based form of leadership would be the foundation for women becoming priests. At the moment, he has written, the priesthood may be too male an institution to accommodate women.
Of course, there are married priests in Britain already – in the ordinariate. One of them, Fr Ed Tomlinson, supports at least considering a broader application, although “it should only be considered for reasons of faith, not cultural modernist pressure”. He dismisses the idea that “we married are impossibly expensive” – it can be hard for him to support a family of five, he says, but they manage.
Perhaps, says Fr Tomlinson, we could learn from the Eastern Orthodox: “The celibates are cherished first, rightly so, and only those on that path are called to the office of bishop. Nor can any priest get married, for dating clergy would be a disaster. But they do ordain those already married, and these men do great work sharing an experience of family life with those they minister to.”
Fr Tomlinson adds: “Nobody in my parish in Pembury seems remotely bothered by my being married, but then I am fortunate to have a wife far more wonderful than myself.”