Pope Francis has promised to shake up the Catholic Church, and his new secretary of state did just that this week, saying that the tradition of priestly celibacy should be open to debate.
Italian Archbishop Pietro Parolin, the Vatican's second-in-command, told Venezuela's El Universal newspaper that celibacy is not dogma, meaning divine law, so it could theoretically be changed to "reflect the democratic spirit of the times." However, he cautioned, "One cannot say simply that this belongs in the past."
The remark ignited speculation that Pope Francis might be seriously considering letting priests get married. As The Huffington Post puts it, "Removing the celibacy requirement could possibly breathe new life into a church that is already suffering a shortage of priests." Their ranks in the U.S. fell to 39,600 in 2013, from nearly 60,000 in 1965.
Thomas Groome, a professor of theology at Boston College, notes that there are roughly 30,000 former priests in the U.S. who say they left to pursue a relationship, and many Catholics are eager for reform. "I think it would be an enormously welcome conversation," Groome tells NBC News.
Proponents of the change point out that romance wasn't always off-limits for Catholic priests. The first written chastity mandate dates to the early fourth century, and the definitive ruling forbidding priests from marrying didn't come until the Second Lateran Council of 1139. Groome points out that "all of the apostles were married, with the possible exception of John."
Pope Francis has already loosened up the papacy in his four months as head of the Catholic Church, eschewing many of the formal trappings of his office and saying he would not judge gay priests. Does that mean he might really roll back centuries of tradition on priestly celibacy?
Not necessarily. Elliott Hannon at Slate notes that in 2012 Pope Francis, then-Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, said, "I am in favor of maintaining celibacy, with all its pros and cons, because we have ten centuries of good experiences rather than failures." However, he also conceded that celibacy "is a matter of discipline, not of faith. It can change."
Before pro-reform Catholics get their hopes up, it's important to note that Parolin's comments aren't necessarily groundbreaking. John L. Allen Jr. at National Catholic Reporter says they are essentially consistent with "what might be termed the standard moderate Catholic line — priestly celibacy is a discipline, not a dogma, and can therefore be revised."
Those points have been made many times by many different voices, and they don't necessarily point to any specific policy decisions. If anything, Parolin seems to want to temper expectations that Francis will turn the church on its ear, stressing the theme of continuity. [National Catholic Reporter]
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