Archbishop Pietro Parolin, the new Secretary of State of the Vatican, made some surprisingly frank remarks about priestly celibacy that may indicate a new openness to "the democratic spirit of the times." Pope Francis' plans to reform the Vatican and "shake up the church" have received a lot of attention, but he has not yet publicly addressed the issue of mandatory celibacy for priests.
Parolin said in an interview with Venezuelan newspaper El Universal that the tradition of priestly celibacy is not dogma, or a law of divine origin, and is therefore open to discussion. He went on to note that while the church is not a democratic institution, it needs to "reflect the democratic spirit of the times and adopt a collegial way of governing."
While previous popes have declared some topics closed off from discussion, Parolin's remarks may be indicative of the possibility of a greater conversation about an ancient Church tradition.
Though it's not clear exactly when celibacy became mandatory for priests, the first written mandate for chastity dates back to 304 C.E., when Canon 33 of the Council of Elvira stated that all "bishops, presbyters, and deacons and all other clerics" should "abstain completely from their wives and not to have children." A definitive ruling was handed down at the Second Lateran Council of 1139, which ruled that priests were forbidden to marry.
Parolin said, "it is possible to discuss and reflect on these topics that are not defined faith, and consider some modifications, but always in the service of unity and according to God’s will.”
Canon 277 of the Vatican legal code states, "Clerics are obliged to observe perfect and perpetual continence for the sake of the kingdom of heaven and therefore are bound to celibacy which is a special gift of God by which sacred ministers can adhere more easily to Christ with an undivided heart and are able to dedicate themselves more freely to the service of God and humanity."
Pope Francis frankly discussed the celibacy issue when he was still Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio of Argentina, speaking candidly about his own struggles and recognizing the fact that there are good priests in other denominations that are not celibate. Regarding celibacy, he said in a 2012 interview, "It is a matter of discipline, not of faith. It can change."
Removing the celibacy requirement could possibly breathe new life into a church that is already suffering a shortage of priests. However, Rev. Robert Gahl, an Opus Dei moral theologian at the Pontifical Holy Cross University in Rome, thinks that Pope Francis is unlikely to allow married priests during his pontificate. He noted that advocates for option celibacy claim "priesthood is too hard; why don't we make it easier? But what the pope is saying is, 'If you make this sacrifice, it would bring you pure joy.'"
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