Pope Francis’ remarks during the in-flight presser after World Youth Day on the way to Rome from Panama, regarding the discipline of clerical celibacy in the Latin American Church have received a good deal of attention over the past few days. Analysis, commentary, and several explanatory news pieces have appeared, many of which have heard the pope saying more or less what the authors want or expect him to say about the subject.
His answer to the question had a little bit for everybody, but there was a discernible logic to what he said. His answer is worth a patient unpacking.
“I prefer to give my life before changing the law of celibacy,” Francis offered, quoting Pope St. Paul VI on the point. He could have left it there, but he didn’t. “This came to me and I want to say it because it is a courageous phrase,” Francis continued, “[spoken] in a moment more difficult than this – it was in the years 1968-1970.”
“Personally,” Francis continued, “I think that celibacy is a gift to the Church. Secondly, I would say that I do not agree with permitting optional celibacy, no.”
“There remains,” Pope Francis went on to say, “only some possibility for very far-away places.” Then, he said, “I think of the Pacific islands, when there is a pastoral necessity.” He continued, “the pastor should think of the faithful.”
There followed two paragraphs discussing the thesis of Bishop Fritz Lobinger, emeritus of Aliwal, South Africa, according to whom certain viri probati (tested married men) might be chosen from among the faithful of remote and pastorally unprovided areas for ordination to the priesthood. Only, their license to exercise the teaching and governing powers inherent in the priestly degree of Holy Orders would be restricted. They would be permitted to exercise only the munus sanctificandi: in essence, to celebrate the sacraments.
Before he went into that, Francis had been careful to reiterate his personal opposition to the idea. “My decision is: optional celibacy before the diaconate, no,” he said. “It is my thought, personally, but I would not do it. And this remains clear. It is only my personal thought. Am I narrow-minded, maybe? I do not want to put myself before God with this decision.”
[The candidate for priestly ordination on the Lobinger hypothesis] is already a mature man. I make this example to show the places where it should be done. I was speaking with an official of the Secretary of State, a bishop, that had worked in a communist country at the beginning of the revolution. When he had seen the crisis of the Revolution arrive it was the 1950s. The bishops secretly ordained peasants, of good religious faith. The crisis passed and 30 years later the thing was resolved. And he told me the emotion that he had when during a concelebration of the Mass he saw these farmers with their farmer hands put on their albs to concelebrate with the bishops. This has been given in the history of the Church. It is something to study, think, rethink, and pray about.
*Photo: Pope Francis answers reporters’ questions on the plane from Panama City to Rome with Alessandro Gisotti, of the Holy See Press Office [Alessandra Tarantino/AP]