PROVIDENCE — As part of a recent wide-ranging interview in the German newspaper Die Zeit, Pope Francis displayed an openness to examining the possibility of ordaining married men to the priesthood in some circumstances to help ease the shortage of priests.
But despite the headlines around the world suggesting that the pontiff was ready to amend the Roman Catholic tradition by allowing priests to marry, Bishop Thomas J. Tobin is encouraging the faithful to view Francis’ overall message in its entirety.
“Like many things Pope Francis says, you do have to drill a little deeper and get beyond the headlines, and that’s happened on many occasions,” he said.
While advocating for an increase in prayer and outreach to youth in an effort to draw them closer to the Church and the possibility of inspiring young men to pursue priestly vocations, the pontiff said in response to the interviewer’s question that it may be possible for theologians to consider the ordination of married men, so-called “viri probati” — those whose virtue has been tested and proven over time.
“The problem is the lack of vocations, a problem the church must solve,” Pope Francis said, in an English translation of the interview.
“We must think about whether viri probati are one possibility, but that also means discussing what tasks they could take on in remote communities. In many communities at the moment, committed women are preserving Sunday as a day of worship by holding services of the Word. But a church without the Eucharist has no strength.”
While many media outlets were quick to report on a perceived seismic shift in Church tradition to address the declining ranks of priests brought about by lower seminary enrollments coupled with a steady stream of existing priests reaching retirement age at 70, the bishop said that what the pope is talking about is nothing new.
“There are already some married priests in the Church, certainly in the Eastern Rite and in a more limited way in the Latin Rite as well, so it’s more of the exception than the norm,” Bishop Tobin said.
In the Diocese of Providence, Father David Stokes, a former Episcopal cleric who was married and later became incardinated as a diocesan Catholic priest served his ministry primarily as a professor at Providence College. He retired from active ministry three years ago.
The service for any married men who might one day be called to serve as Roman Catholic priests would be limited in scope.
Such viri probati would serve a very specific ministry in some of the most remote places on Earth to allow the faithful in such regions regular access to the sacraments.
“Those circumstances certainly don’t apply to our situation in Rhode Island and they certainly don’t apply I think to anywhere in our country,” the bishop said.
“[The pope] is talking about a very specific pastoral need in which I think he’s concerned about, and rightly so, people who cannot receive the sacraments because there is absolutely no availability of priestly ministry.”
Barbara Petrucci, a parishioner at St. Kevin Parish in Warwick, said she supports the idea of allowing at some point all priests to marry.
“I don’t see why they shouldn’t be married. They do it in the Protestant and the Lutheran [forms of Christianity], what’s the difference, really?
“That’s a man-made law, it’s not God’s law. I don’t see anything wrong with it. That doesn’t mean that you’re not still holy and humble and doing the job that God gave them,” she said.
Barbara Ward, a parishioner at St. Timothy Parish in Warwick agrees.
“I do think it’s something they should consider. I think it would help the Church,” she said, noting how a Catholic priest with a family might serve as a source of inspiration for other young people and adults to more vigorously pursue their faith and attend Mass.
As part of the same interview with Die Zeit, Pope Francis also noted that “optional celibacy isn’t the solution” to the priest shortage problem, which Bishop Tobin says shows that while Francis is trying to address a very specific pastoral need, he’s not opening the door to married priests in general.
“He’s talking about not so much of a theological change as a change in discipline to meet this important sacramental need,” he said.
A takeaway from this for Catholics in the US, especially those here in Rhode Island, should be a greater appreciation for the resources they already have in place.
“We are very casual about approaching the sacraments,” the bishop said. “We just presume they are always available to us. With the priests we do have and the sacraments that we have available to us, we have a real blessing.”