In an interview with a German newspaper last week, Pope Francis said that he might be open to married men becoming priests in order for the church to deal with the shortage of clergy.
Speaking with a reporter from Die Zeit, the pope said that it may be time to consider “viri probati”, which is Latin for “proven men”. Viri probati is the church’s not-currently-active Canon Law which allows for deacons, priests, and bishops to be married, provided that they are married before they are ordained. Because I guess God is fine with a priest being married as long as he got married before pinky-swearing to be a good, faithful priest.
So why is this significant? Well, in the years since World War II, there have been fewer and fewer priests per capita in the Roman Catholic Church. From 1970 to 2012, the number of Catholic priests declined from 419,728 to 414,313, while the number of Catholics worldwide increased. In 2014, there were 49,153 parishes in the world with no resident pastor.
One of the reasons cited for this decline in priests’ numbers is the rule of celibacy. Some studies have shown that the church’s imposing of celibacy upon its priests is a major barrier to younger men joining the clergy. Dean Hoge conducted a survey in 1985 of Catholic college students and the majority of them cited this as their reason for not pursuing priesthood (This article by Hoge briefly discusses his results).
But the Roman Catholic Church sure is inventive. Coming up with loopholes and reinterpretations is something they excel at. And it is through their inventiveness that we have viri probati, which claims its origins in the First Epistle of Clement (although it is worth noting that Clement’s use of the phrase is in a completely different context than what the church now uses it for). The First Epistle of Clement is supposedly written by Clement of Rome (though the author never identifies himself within the letter) in the late 1st century and was addressed to the congregation at Corinth. Viri probati has been debated within the church now for decades as a possible means to help combat the decline of priests. But so far it has not been put into effect.
St. Paul, who has 13 epistles attributed to him in the Bible (although modern scholars believe he actually only wrote 7 of those) wrote about his own celibacy in some of his letters, but he also acknowledged that other church leaders, including some of the other apostles, were married. It was not until later in the church’s development, with the Council of Elvira, the Councils of Carthage, and other church rulings in later centuries that the Catholic Church began to enforce celibacy on priests. The church maintains that this is to preserve some kind of pure spiritual continence within the priests and because the priests need to emulate the life of Jesus, who, according to the Bible, was celibate.
I tend to view this as another example of the Roman Catholic Church coming up with after-the-fact excuses to get out of their own self-imposed rules. In this case the idea of a celibate clergy is becoming increasingly inconvenient for them, and so they need to find a justifiable reason for bypassing it. But their reasoning is just as bankrupt as ever. They use an obscure passage from an epistle that did not even make it into the biblical canon, and more importantly, they use the passage completely out-of-context in order to justify why they no longer need to adhere to this tradition.
Most people would simply call that bullshit.