Did Pope Francis open the door to married priests?

Lots of buzz on this topic today in Catholic media circles, coming right about the same moment as the fourth anniversary of Pope Francis’ election approaches on Monday. Like much of what happens with interviews involving this pontiff, however, the full context might be needed for clarity on exactly what he means when it comes to solving the shortage of priests in the Catholic Church. Crux reports on a still-to-be-fully-published interview in which Pope Francis suggests that the church might begin ordaining married men to the priesthood — in a very limited way:

Pope Francis has expressed openness to a renewed consideration of married priests in the Catholic Church, especially the possibility of ordaining the so-called viri probati, meaning tested married men, who could be called into clerical service.

“Then we have to consider what tasks they could perform, for instance in isolated communities,” the pontiff said.

While the question put to Francis specifically referred to ordaining viri probati as deacons, many theologians and some bishops have also suggested they could be considered for priestly service.

For those who are not familiar with the history of this point, the commitment to priestly celibacy is a practice rather than a doctrine within the Latin Rite, one which goes back as a requirement for at least a thousand years. Other rites within the Catholic Church do allow for married priests, but the determination of rite membership depends on baptism. A handful of married Anglican priests have converted to Catholicism and remained married (Fr. Dwight Longenecker is one who blogs on this issue), but within the Latin Rite, celibacy is the rule. It is not, however, a doctrine, as is the requirement for priests to be male, which means the episcopate could change the rule if called to do so by the Holy Spirit in concert with a pope. (Francis, it should be noted, reinforced the immutability of the male-only doctrine in November.)

But is Pope Francis calling for the end of a thousand years of practice in relation to married priests? A more careful reading of the Crux report, in advance of the full text of the interview, suggests that the pontiff is calling for exceptions rather than a new rule. Francis wants more emphasis on vocational recruitment rather than a revolution in practice, and in fact appears to expressly reject the latter:

At the same time, Francis appeared to rule [out] simply making priestly celibacy optional, saying that approach “is not a solution.”

So what did the pontiff suggest? The viri probati refers to deacons, men ordained already but for a different form of service. Not all deacons are married men, but all of them (at least for now) are men — about which more in a moment. The full context of the remarks as reported in advance of publication seems to suggest using deacons to fill in for priests in all sacraments, including Mass, when extraordinary circumstances exist that would otherwise keep people from the sacraments. That would necessarily be temporary, not a redefinition of the ordination to the diaconate. The Church teaches, as I can attest from personal experience, that the charism of deacon is unique unto itself and not a junior-priest position, even if deacons can perform some of the tasks of priests.

That may have some unintended consequences for women seeking approval of access to ordination in the diaconate, however. Pope Francis has signaled an openness to discussing that possibility, and discussions at the Vatican today in honor of International Women’s Day likely included that topic. But what happens if the episcopate and Pope Francis decide that deacons can fill in under emergency circumstances and effect the transubstantiation during Mass and hear confessions? Will that produce more resistance to women entering the diaconate, or will a two-level form of the diaconate be required under those circumstances?

For now, it appears that the pope is still brainstorming about unusual circumstances related to a general problem with generating priestly vocations within the practice of the Latin Rite. The solution still seems to be inspiring more vocations than changing them, and that married priests are still not in the future in this pontificate — or other future pontificates, for that matter.