Pope Francis has said ordaining married men is a “possibility” as the Church grapples with the “enormous problem” of a global shortage of priests, a situation that is most acute in the Argentinian pontiff’s home continent of Latin America.

In an interview with German newspaper Die Zeit Francis said “we have to think about” whether to allow married men of proven character, known as “viri probati”, to enter the ranks of the priesthood, stressing that the Church must not be imprisoned by fear in the face of challenges.

“We must also determine which tasks they can undertake, for example in remote communities,” the Pope said. A report of the interview was released yesterday.  

But Francis stressed “voluntary celibacy” is not the answer to the vocations crisis and the first response must be prayer along with a focus on “working with young people who are seeking orientation”.

Since the 12th century, the Catholic Church has required priests to be celibate but in recent decades has ordained clergy from other Christian denominations - such as former Anglicans - many of who are married. Their numbers have swelled the ranks of priests in England and Wales with research suggesting that up to one in ten Catholic clerics were formerly ordained in the Church of England. Meanwhile, the Eastern-rite Churches allow for the ordination of men as priests but like the Latin-Rite western Church do not allow men to marry once they are priests. 

In 2014 The Tablet reported on the Pope’s willingness to consider ordaining “viri probati” with Francis reportedly telling a now retired bishop from Brazil who led a priest-starved area of the Amazon rainforest that it was up to bishops to take the initiative. 

At the same time, he is also reported to have backed away from the idea while in an interview with French newspaper La Croix said the priest shortage should be solved by lay people taking a more prominent role. 

In the Die Ziet interview the newspaper reports that the Pope has been lobbied by “multiple voices” from Germany on opening up the priesthood to married men, including the the auxiliary bishop of Munster, Dieter Geerlings and Thomas Sternberg, who runs the Central Committee of German Catholics, arguing that compulsory priestly celibacy has “lost plausibility.”

Proponents for change argue ordaining married men would boost priest numbers and help large parts of the Church who are experiencing a sharp decline in priests, forcing bishops to close churches and leaving parishes without access to the sacraments. And it is dioceses in Latin and Central America where the shortage is most serious. 

Erwin Kräutler, the bishop who discussed ordaining married men with Francis, has explained that in his province of Xingu there were just 27 priests to serve 800 local communities and 700,000 Catholics, while in Mexico there is one priest for roughly every 6,500 Catholics. During a visit to Mexico last year the Pope went to the diocese in Chiapas where hundreds of married deacons from indigenous communities had been ordained in contrast to just a handful of celibate priests. 

The number of married permanent deacons, who can perform all the functions of a priest apart from say Mass and hear confessions, has been growing steadily over the last 40 years particularly in areas where there is a shortage of priests, such as Europe and the United States.  

In the Vatican there is a growing awareness of the priest shortage problem with Cardinal Pietro Parolin, a close adviser of Pope Francis, describing the situation as a “sacramental emergency” in some areas.  

In a speech last year at Rome’s Pontifical Gregorian University, the Cardinal pointed out that celibacy was not required by the “very nature of the priesthood” but had special advantages such as the “freedom to serve” and the ability for priests to “travel light.” 

The possibility of ordaining married men would not mean an end to the celibate priesthood while bishops would remain unmarried, as is the practice of Eastern churches. 

Elsewhere in the Die Zeit interview, the Pope talks about the possibility of a visit to Egypt and stressed that he does not view Cardinal Raymond Burke as an “adversary.” The cardinal clashed with the Pope over a row involving the Knights of Malta while Burke has threatened to issue a formal “act of correction” against Francis for giving the green light for remarried divorcees to receive communion. 

In the interview Francis says the cardinal is an “excellent lawyer” and was grateful to him travelling to the Pacific Island of Guam to deal with the “terrible” clerical sexual abuse that had taken place there.