No to Marriage for Priests, but Yes to the Priesthood for Married Men?

February 26, 2019
Caroline Pigozzi and Pope Francis

On the way back from the World Youth Day events in Panama on January 28, 2019, during his in-flight press conference, Pope Francis answered—in a rambling way, as he often does—the questions of Caroline Pigozzi of Paris Match about a possible authorization of marriage for priests.

In the Latin rite…For the Latin rite, 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. In a moment more difficult than this—it was in the years 1968-1970. 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. There remains only some possibility for very far places. I think of the Pacific islands, when there is a pastoral necessity, the pastor should think of the faithful.

There is an interesting book by Fr. Lobinger (Bishop Fritz Lobinger, see the last paragraph of this article—Ed.)—this is an issue of discussion between theologians, it is not yet my decision—my decision is: optional celibacy before the diaconate, no. It is my thought, personally, but I would not do it. And this remains clear. It is only my personal thought. Am I narrow-minded, maybe? I do not want to put myself before God with this decision.

Fr. Lobinger says that the Church makes the Eucharist and the Eucharist makes the Church. But where there is not the Eucharist, do you think Caroline, in the Pacific islands…

Encouraged, Caroline Pigozzi suggests, “In the Amazon as well…”

Francis replies,

Maybe there…In many places, says Lobinger, who performs the Eucharist? The directors, the organizers of those communities are deacons or sisters, or directly, the laity. And Lobinger says: you can ordain an older married man; it is his thesis, but only that exercise the munus santificandi, that is, that celebrate the Mass, that administer the sacrament of reconciliation and of unction.  

Priestly ordination gives three munera (functions): regendi (governing), that that commands; docendi (teaching), that that teaches, and sanctificandi (sanctifying). This comes with ordination. But the bishop gives them (the viri probati) only the license of santificandi. The book (of Lobinger) is interesting. And maybe it could help to think about the problem. I believe that the problem should be open in this sense: where there is a pastoral problem due to the lack of priests. 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.  

For example, Fr. Lobinger is an example, is a fidei donum of South Africa. [The potential candidate for priesthood] is already a mature man. I make this example to show the places where it should be done. I was speaking with an official of the Secretary of State, a bishop, that had worked in a communist country at the beginning of the revolution. When he had seen the crisis of the Revolution arrive in the 1950s. The bishops secretly ordained peasants of good religious faith. The crisis passed and 30 years later the thing was resolved. And he told me the emotion that he had when during a concelebration of the Mass he saw these farmers with their farmer hands put on their shirts to concelebrate with the bishops. This has been given in the history of the Church. It is something to study, think, rethink, and pray about.

The strategy of “no, yes-no, yes”

The next day, on January 29, on website Katholisches, Giuseppe Nardi analyzed the “strategy of no, yes-no, yes,” in which Francis is well versed. 


It is the third time in his pontificate, as can be shown, that Pope Francis has given evasive and cryptic replies on the subject of the sacraments. Since we know how things ended in the other two cases, it is not difficult to anticipate that his response to the French journalist is oriented towards a similar development. (…)

First of all, he states that in the Eastern Rite, married men may be ordained deacons and priests. Then he explains he does not ever intend to authorize this in the Latin Rite. He speaks of priestly celibacy—as the enemies of celibacy do—as a law of the Church only. And he emphasizes that his refusal to abrogate the celibacy is only based on his own ‘personal’ opinion. (…) Married priests? No, except for…the exotic Pacific islands. Pigozzi mentions the Amazon, a region that Francis has summoned an extraordinary synod to discuss in October. You will see: “Yes, maybe there, maybe in many places,” Francis says, slipping in the name of Bishop Lobinger, who is presented by the enemies of celibacy as the campaign manager and the chief advocate for the abolition of celibacy among the promotors of the Synod on the Amazon.

Pope Francis knows this of course, and yet he refers to Lobinger, and only him, in great detail. It is hard to believe he has not thought about it. He knows the theories of Lobinger very well and shows unequivocal approbation for them, calling them ‘interesting’ several times. (…) Once again, we see that Pope Francis’ reading choices lean towards authors from the progressive and leftist wing. One would probably seek in vain for one orthodox author amongst all those that he quotes.

Francis does not want—and this we learn from his entire pontificate—to be caught flying openly in the face of tradition. He washes his hands in innocence. The impulse and the authorization come from him, but not in a really discernable way. Communion for the divorced and remarried is founded on one footnote in Amoris Laetitia, couched in obscure jargon. It is only the interpretation by the bishops—as tolerated and encouraged by Francis—that transforms this footnote into a novelty that breaks with tradition.

The same thing happened with Communion for Lutheran spouses. He provided the impulsion and pointed out the way. The majority of the German bishops caught the opportunity on the fly. Francis, although a minority of bishops asked him about the matter, remained silent; in this way he covered for the majority, who was able to impose and introduce into official practice the granting of Communion to non-Catholics. Francis made this possible, without signing a single document authorizing it.

And now, with the Synod on the Amazon, they are preparing for the same thing: the third little trick. The organizers of the synod, first of all Cardinal Claudio Hummes and the missionary bishop emeritus Erwin Kraütler, of Austrian origin, both supporters of Lobinger’s and opposed to priestly celibacy, have been preparing the attack on celibacy for years. It will take place in a “remote” region: the Amazon. Lobinger’s thesis will serve as a foundation. Francis convokes a synod. Without him, nothing would succeed, absolutely nothing. The synod will emphasize a “state of pastoral emergency,” citing the penury of priests. Francis will respond to this supposed “cry of the people” for the Eucharist, and no: he will not authorize any abolition of celibacy, but he will once again find an obscure formulation that will allow those bishops close to him, that wish it, to ordain married priests. The bishops will bear the responsibility, and here again, no official document of authorization will have the pope’s signature on it.

Bishop Fritz Lobinger

The priesthood divided into thirds

In conclusion, Giuseppe Nardi wonders what Francis’ response reveals about his understanding of the priesthood. “Several times in the course of this pontificate, the question of Pope Francis’ understanding of the Church and of the priest has been raised. The question troubles many Catholics today. It becomes more pressing as the Synod on the Amazon rapidly approaches.

The pope attempts to stupefy his audience with a flow of dialectical words, attempting to transform the three munera (functions) of the priesthood into a tri-part priesthood, acting as if married priests could receive only a “third of the priesthood.” Therein lies the tranquilizer that Francis administers to dozing conservatives. “It is not, in fact, the fulness of the priesthood,” will be the line. All those for whom nothing matters more than their peace will swallow it with joy, and will welcome with thankfulness any argument, no matter how stupid, that Francis tosses them, as long as it dispenses them from action.

Yesterday, in the airplane bringing him back from Panama, Pope Francis de facto gave the green light to married priests. The pastoral “state of emergency” will be decreed tomorrow, not only in the distant islands of the Pacific, but also in Germany, in Austria, in Switzerland (…), and much more quickly than many think or wish. It is only a step away now.

Francis and his closest advisers have defined his pontificate as a time of changes that must be accomplished in an irreversible way. This is what Francis is trying to achieve. Now it is the turn of the Sacrament of Orders.

To those who might wonder who the author of Pope Francis’ “interesting book” on married priests is, Bishop Fritz Lobinger, bishop emeritus of Aliwal (South Africa), coined the expression “community priests,” in 2007 in his book Teams of Elders. Moving Beyond Viri Probati, in which he proposed the introduction of two types of priests into the Church: diocesan priests and community priests, the first celibate and full time, the second married with families, at the service of the community in which they live and work. The heterodox thesis of Bishop Lobinger is exposed in French in his book Qui ordonner? Vers une nouvelle figure de prêtres. (Lumen vitae, 2008)