On his flight back to the Vatican on January 27, 2019, the Holy Father said he is personally opposed to optional celibacy for the clergy but declared that ordaining married men remains a possibility in regions lacking priests.
The in-flight press conference on his return flights from apostolic journeys has become a ritual that journalists once again honored after the end of the WYD in Panama.
When questioned on the situation of a young man who would like to enter the seminary but hesitates because of priestly celibacy, Francis confirmed that he “does not agree with permitting optional celibacy.”
“I would not do it. And this remains clear. Am I narrow-minded, maybe? I do not want to put myself before God with this decision,” added the sovereign pontiff, making it clear that his decision is firm.
In the rest of his answer, however, the pope declared that the question of ordaining married men “should be open in this sense: where there is a pastoral problem due to the lack of priests.”
These remarks created quite a stir: some see them as qualified, others as contradictory. How is this apparent “neither-nor” to be interpreted?
One possible hypothesis is to place these remarks in the context of a pope who is trying to deal with the various episcopal conferences that do not all unanimously approve of him; if we are to believe Sandro Magister, the only episcopates on which Francis can really count are those of Germany, Austria and Belgium, that is to say, nations in which the Church is experiencing the most dramatic decline.
This is perhaps the explanation for the pope’s allusion—during this press conference on January 27—to the position of Fr. Fritz Lobinger, a close friend of Cardinal Reinhard Marx, president of the German Bishops’ Conference, who co-authored one of his books. Fr. Lobinger advocates ordaining married men only for the celebration of Mass and administration of the sacraments in priestly “deserts”.
A way of pleasing an episcopate whose financial influence remains very important in the Church and whose support had best be kept?
This support is not coming from the flourishing Churches of Africa that have stood together against the innovations desired by the pope in the two controversial synods on the family.
And if we consider America, both North and South, the episcopal climate is just as unfavorable to the pope, be it on the theme of marriage morals, dealing with abuse of minors, or Francis’ more or less open political support for controversial figures in their respective countries, Evo Morales in Bolivia for example, or Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela.
In this context, his personal opposition to optional priestly celibacy can be understood as a way to avoid increasing the fracture that is already present between the pope and the more conservative episcopates on discipline and morality.
From a Higher Viewpoint
In any case, it is important to keep in mind the supernatural nature of the Church founded by Christ upon Peter and his successors in the sovereign pontificate. This is the course the Superior General of the Society is determined to follow, as he recalled in the conclusion of an interview on December 28, 2018:
It is paradoxical, but only the Society can help the Church, in reminding the popes and the bishops that Our Blessed Lord founded a monarchical Church and not a chaotic modern assembly. The day will come when this message will be heard. But, for the moment, it is our duty to keep this deep sense of the Church and its hierarchy, despite the battlefield and ruins that lay before our eyes.