Pope Francis closed the door Jan. 27 on his making celibacy optional for all Catholic priests, but also expressed openness to allowing older married men to be ordained to the priesthood where there is a “pastoral necessity.”
In a press conference aboard the papal flight back to Rome after a five-day visit to Panama, the pontiff first stated firmly: “I am not in agreement with making celibacy optional.”
But the Pope then noted that there are areas of the world where Catholics are deprived of the Eucharist — mentioning specifically the Pacific Islands and the Amazon region — and said “it is a thing to think [about] when there is a pastoral necessity.”
“I believe that the issue must be open in this sense: where there is a pastoral problem because of the lack of priests,” said Francis. “I will not say that it must be done. Because I have not reflected, I have not prayed sufficiently over this. But the theologians must study.”
Francis spoke about priestly celibacy in a 47-minute press conference in which he also sought to downplay expectations for an upcoming February Vatican summit on clergy sexual abuse with the presidents of the world’s Catholic bishops’ conferences.
On celibacy, the pontiff was asked if he could imagine a future in which the Catholic Church would adopt the practice of Orthodox Churches, which allow priest candidates to choose during their formation period whether to marry or remain celibate.
The Pope referred to a phrase he attributed to Pope Paul VI: “I would prefer to give my life before changing the law of celibacy.” He noted that in the Orthodox tradition, priestly candidates must choose whether they will marry before they are ordained deacons.
“My decision is: optional celibacy before the diaconate, no,” said Francis.
“It’s personal, but I will not do it,” he said. “Maybe I am closed-minded, but I do not feel that I can place myself before God with this decision.”
“But where there is not the Eucharist … who will make the Eucharist?” Francis asked.