His comments came in response to a question on the matter from Cardinal Claudio Hummes, the president of the Episcopal Commission for the Amazon, according to the newspaper Il Messaggero.
The comments have been broadly interpreted in media outlets to mean that Pope Francis is considering opening the door for priests throughout the Roman Catholic Church to get married.
The pope’s comments in response to Cardinal Hummes, however, were specifically about whether “viri probati” or “proven men” could be ordained to the priesthood. Such men, who have displayed virtue and prudence, are thought by some to be a possible solution to a shortage of priestly vocations in Brazil.
Dr. Kurt Martens, a canon lawyer and professor at the Catholic University of America, said there is no reason to think that the Pope’s comments mean he is open to the married priesthood throughout the church.
“Even if the synod would recommend or ask for the ordination of viri probati in the Pan-Amazon area, it is important to note that the pope still would have to accept the request and make it into law, and it would most likely be limited to that area,” Martens told CNA in e-mail comments.
“So we are not talking about changing the law on celibacy for the whole Church: it would be the ordination of viri probati for only that region,” he added.
The ratio of Catholics to priests in the Amazon is region is 10,000 to one, about three times the worldwide ratio of Catholics to priests throughout the world, and more than five times the ratio in the United States.
The pope has raised the possibility of the married priesthood in previous interviews, although usually in response to direct questions about the subject.
Earlier this year, Pope Francis answered a question about the priest shortage in a March 8 interview published in the German weekly Die Zeit. The pontiff offered a variety of possible solutions to the priest shortage, but did not mention the married priesthood until he was asked about it specifically.
In response, the pope spoke about the possibility of ordaining viri probati, especially in areas “where priests are needed. But optional celibacy is not the solution,” he said.
The celibate priesthood has long been a tradition of the Roman (or Latin-rite) Catholic Church, with exceptions made only in the cases of married ministers of other denominations who convert to Catholicism and then become priests.
Married men and celibate men traditionally have been ordained in Eastern-rite Catholic Churches.
Early on in the church, bishops were selected from among celibate priests, a tradition that stood before the mandatory celibate priesthood. As the “culture of celibacy” in the church became more established, it increasingly became the norm, until married men who applied for ordinations had to appeal to the pope for special permission.
In the 11th century, Pope St. Gregory VII issued a decree requiring all priests to be celibate and asked his bishops to enforce it. Celibacy has been the norm ever since in the Latin Rite, with special exceptions made for some Anglican and other Protestant pastors who convert to Catholicism.
Father Gary Selin is a priest and professor at St. John Vianney Seminary in Denver. His research on the topic, “Priestly Celibacy: Theological Foundations” was published last year by CUA press.
The priest told CNA earlier this year that while the debate about married priesthood often centers on pragmatics, it usually ignores the rich theological reasons behind the celibate priesthood.
“Jesus Christ himself never married, and there’s something about imitating the life our Lord in full that is very attractive,” Father Selin said. “Interestingly, Jesus is never mentioned as a reason for celibacy. The next time you read about celibacy, try to see if they mention our Lord; oftentimes he is left out of the picture.”
Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI also once told priests that celibacy agitates the world so much because it is a sign of the kingdom to come.
“It is true that for the agnostic world, the world in which God does not enter, celibacy is a great scandal, because it shows exactly that God is considered and experienced as reality. With the eschatological dimension of celibacy, the future world of God enters into the reality of our time. And should this disappear?” Benedict XVI said in 2010.
Christ himself said that no one would be married or given in marriage in heaven, and therefore celibacy is a sign of the beatific vision, Father Selin has pointed out.
“Married life will pass away when we behold God face to face and all of us become part of the bridal Church,” Father Selin said. “The celibate is more of a direct symbol of that.”