Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly translated a remark by Pope Francis. He was referring to a “temporal” tradition, not a “temporary” tradition.
Pope Francis stated in a new interview that the Catholic Church in the West could theoretically consider lifting its ban on priests marrying, calling the tradition of celibacy for priests a “temporal” discipline rather than an eternal dictate.
According to the Code of Canon Law of the Catholic Church, “Clerics are obliged to observe perfect and perpetual continence for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven, and are therefore bound to celibacy. Celibacy is a special gift of God by which sacred ministers can more easily remain close to Christ with an undivided heart, and can dedicate themselves more freely to the service of God and their neighbor.”
This “temporal” tradition, as the Pope called it during his extensive interview with Argentine publication Infobae, was passed down through the centuries within the Latin Rite, for all ordained clergy. In the Eastern Rites, the tradition of celibacy would develop as an option for priests, but remain mandatory for monks and Bishops.
“There is no contradiction for a priest to marry,” Francis, 86, told reporters. “Celibacy in the western Church is a temporal prescription. I do not know if it is settled in one way or another, but it is temporal in this sense. … It is not eternal like priestly ordination, which is forever whether you like it or not. Whether you leave … is another matter, but (priesthood) is forever. Celibacy, on the other hand, is a discipline.”
Asked if the obligation of celibacy could be revisited in the Latin Rite, Francis referenced the Eastern Church, declaring, “Yes, yes, In fact, everyone in the Eastern Church is married, or those who want to. There they make a choice. Before ordination there is the choice to marry or to be celibate,” according to a transcript provided in Spanish by Infobae.
In 2019, Francis offered a slightly different approach of explaining priestly celibacy, asserting, “Personally, I think that celibacy is a gift to the Church. I would say that I do not agree with allowing optional celibacy, no.” Although Francis said exceptions could be made for married clergy in the Latin rite “when there is a pastoral necessity” (as in the case of the Anglican Ordinariate established by Pope Benedict XVI), he also quoted Pope Paul VI, saying: “I prefer to give my life before changing the law of celibacy.”
As early as 1,800 years ago, the Synod of Elvira stated, “It is decided that marriage be altogether prohibited to bishops, priests, and deacons, or to all clerics placed in the ministry, and that they keep away from their wives and not beget children; whoever does this shall be deprived of the honor of the clerical office.”