News Focus

Does Francis want priests to marry?

An ordination ceremony at St Peter's Basilica in Rome (AP)

‘The next synod is already in the works – on married priests,” wrote the veteran Vatican commentator Sandro Magister last week. The article provoked a collective groan in the Catholic blogosphere. “We need to start lining up writers for the 58 cardinals book,” wrote Fr John Zuhlsdorf, referring to the 11 cardinals’ book opposing a change in Church teaching on Communion for the remarried at the family synod.

Yet Magister’s column was an interpretation, not a news flash. And it stretches belief. Could Francis, after all the tensions over Communion for the remarried, really want to open the door to more in-fighting?

Magister’s claim rested on a speech by the late Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, who outlined his “dream” of what a synodal Church might look like. At the top of the list of issues to tackle was the “shortage of ordained ministers” – in other words, the possibility of married priests.

Francis, known by Magister as the “Martini Pope”, seems to be following the cardinal’s roadmap so far. Other subjects on the list were “the discipline of marriage” and the “Catholic vision of sexuality” – both raised at the last synod. And there are plenty of other indications that Francis would favour a discussion of married priests. In February he apparently told a group of priests from Rome: “The issue is in my diary.” And Oscar Crespo, a childhood friend, claimed that Francis said one of his priorities was to “eliminate the law of celibacy”.

Yet none of this has been said publicly. The Pope’s most candid public comments on the subject were hardly a plea for change. In On Heaven and Earth, a record of conversations with his friend Rabbi Abraham Skorka, he said: “For the moment, I am in favour of maintaining celibacy, with all its pros and cons.”

A better assessment of the Pope’s thinking might be to say he is open to a discussion of the topic if bishops’ conferences press for it. Austen Ivereigh, author of The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope, pointed out that in the reformed synod: “Francis has created a mechanism of ecclesial discernment capable of deliberating on precisely such issues – that is to say, matters of pastoral practice rather than doctrine per se.

So his view is that if the bishops want mandatory priestly celibacy discussed, he is happy to enable the discussion if the time is right. That will in part depend on the views of the synod’s elected council.”

One of the council’s members is Cardinal Vincent Nichols, president of the bishops’ conference of England and Wales. Reformers apparently had high hopes for the Church in England and Wales, expecting it to be a protagonists in the push for reform. Prominent American Jesuit Fr Michael Garanzini, chancellor of Loyola University Chicago, said in August that he would not be surprised if Francis introduced married priests adding that he expected England to lead the charge during the family synod.

But he was disappointed. Despite support for the ordination of married men from Bishop Tom Burns of Menevia, along with three other retired bishops in England and Wales, the idea has been rejected. According to the Northern Cross newspaper, at their plenary meeting last month, the bishops of England and Wales discussed a proposal to urge Rome to ordain married men, which was presented by Bishop Seamus Cunningham of Hexham and Newcastle.

Bishop Cunningham told the paper that the proposal was rejected after a “thoughtful discussion” among the bishops, who concluded that priestly celibacy was a sign and symbol of an interior dedication to Christ and his kingdom.

So the bishops of England and Wales have rejected the change. But the question remains: will Pope Francis lead the way instead?

Papal biographer Paul Vallely, author of Pope Francis: The Struggle for the Soul of Catholicism, said that “Francis sees great personal value in celibacy”. But he added: “Having said that, he told one friend, Clelia Luro: ‘It’s a cultural issue; change may well be accepted at some point’.”

Vallely continued: “But if the Pope is happy for the subject to be on the agenda my hunch is that it is not a top priority for hm. Before the publication of Laudato Si’ he had a private meeting with Erwin Kräutler, Bishop of Xingu in the Brazilian rainforest. The Pope wanted to talk to him about his forthcoming encyclical on the environment. But Bishop Kräutler’s big anxiety was the desperate shortage of priests in his huge diocese, which had 700,000 Catholics in 800 church communities and only 27 priests. Could married men be ordained? ‘You tell me,’ the Pope replied. Local bishops, through their regional and national conferences, the Pontiff said, should make proposals based on their lived experience and then bring them to Rome.”

Vallely argued that this incident reflected the Pope’s “shrewd sense”. In other words, he recognises that he cannot not tackle everything at once.

As one senior curial official has put it, the Pope understands “you need to pick your battles”. But Francis’s recent synod battle on Communion for the divorced and re-married proved to be very divisive. Why would a shrewd Pope risk picking an even fiercer fight?