The Catholic Church could strike down its celibacy requirement for priests following new comments from Pope Francis.
The Church has struggled with a shortage of priests in recent years and the change may attract more young men to religious life.
“There is no contradiction for a priest to marry. Celibacy in the western Church is a temporary prescription,” said Francis during an interview with Argentina’s Infobae. “It is not eternal like priestly ordination, which is forever, whether you like it or not. Whether you leave or not is another matter, but it is forever. On the other hand, celibacy is a discipline.”
In 2020, Francis rejected a request from the Catholic Churches of the Amazon to allow married men to be ordained in order to supplement the shortage of priests in the region. The lack of priests means Catholic communities in the Amazon could go long periods of time – months or years – without a mass.
“This urgent need leads me to urge all bishops, especially those in Latin America, not only to promote prayer for priestly vocations, but also to be more generous in encouraging those who display a missionary vocation to opt for the Amazon region,” Francis wrote in a letter responding to the request, per Fox News.
Data from the Vatican indicated in 2020 that there were 3,210 Catholics for every priest.
Catholic Churches in the United States have dealt with the priest shortage by recruiting clergymen from Africa.
“As fewer American-born men and women enter seminaries and convents, U.S. dioceses and Catholic institutions have turned to international recruitment to fill their vacancies,” noted US News and World Report in December 2021. “Africa is the Catholic church’s fastest-growing region. … It’s different in the U.S. where the Catholic church faces significant hurdles in recruiting home-grown clergy following decades of declining church attendance and the damaging effects of widespread clergy sex abuse scandals.”
Like his predecessors, Francis has called celibacy a gift to the church.
The German Catholic Church formally voted in March to ask the Pope to repeal the celibacy requirement.
The Church made celibacy for members of the clergy a requirement in the 11th century by the First Lateran Council. According to ABPLive, the Church saw a monetary benefit to the practice as priests who died without children were more likely to leave their money to the church.
Others have said celibacy is a practice of self-sacrifice that is necessary for those who feel called to religious life.
“When a priest enters into service to God, the church becomes his highest calling,” reports The Economist. “If he were to have a family there would be the potential for conflict between his spiritual and familial duties. The Vatican regards it as being easier for unattached men to commit to the church, as they have more time for devotion and fewer distractions.”
Pope Francis noted the priests in the region’s Eastern Church have the choice to get married before becoming ordained or to remain celibate. He also acknowledged an increase in divorce rates and suggested young people who get married do not fully understand the commitment.
“Sometimes one goes to a wedding and it seems more like it’s a social reception and not a sacrament,” he said during the interview. “When young people say forever, who knows what they mean by forever.”