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Vatican official: Celibacy should be optional for priests

The Archbishop of Malta, who works in the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, made the comments in a new interview with his country's top daily.

Archbishop Charles "C.J." Scicluna of Malta (left) and journalist Mark Laurence Zammit during a new Malta Times interview. (Malta Times/Karl Andrew Micallef)

A senior Vatican official has voiced his approval for the option of Catholic priests to marry, part of a new wide-ranging interview with the Times of Malta published this week in the tiny island country.

Archbishop Charles “C.J.” Scicluna of Malta, who has served as a secretary for the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith (DDF) since 2018, said he believes the Latin (Western) Catholic Church should return to its former practice of optional celibacy—as seen among Eastern Christians.

“If it were up to me, I would revise the requirement that priests have to be celibate… Experience has shown me that this is something we need to seriously think about,” he said during a half-hour exchange with Times correspondent Mark Laurence Zammit.

“This is probably the first time I’m saying it publicly and it will sound heretical to some people.”

The interview, conducted in the Maltese language and released in full on Monday, covers a number of hot topics—from the new DDF directive on same-sex blessings to who would make a good next pope. It begins, however, with the topic of celibacy, which has long roiled Catholics and unaffiliated onlookers alike.

In the wake of the Church’s clergy child sex abuse crisis, which reached a head near the turn of the millennium, many thinkers renewed ages-old calls for priests to be able to marry. It is thought by some that their ability to engage in romantic relationships would stem the tide of pedophilia, though there is scant evidence for the theory.

Scicluna, who has for a half-decade helped lead the Holy See’s response to the abuse crisis, did not cite it as a reason to drop the celibacy rule. Instead, he notes that “good” men should not have to choose between marriage and the priesthood.

“In the first millennium of the Church, [celibacy] was optional,” Scicluna says, referring to the era before the Great Schism, which produced the division of Western Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy in the mainstream Christian world. 

Eastern Catholic Churches would begin to emerge soon after, and largely maintain the ancient practice of allowing married men to be ordained as priests. Western exceptions to the celibacy rule arose in the 20th century, with Vatican approval.

In this week’s interview, though, Scicluna appears to suggest that men who are already ordained Catholic priests should themselves be able to marry—a practice not allowed in the Eastern Orthodox or Eastern Catholic churches.

“We’ve lost many great priests because they chose marriage. Why should I lose a priest to marriage?” he asks, apparently referring to priests who resign the clerical state for love.

“This is something I speak about openly, even in Rome.”

The phenomenon has been seen in prominent cases recently in the U.S., such as Fox News journalist Jonathan Morris (who left the priesthood in 2019) and Fr Albert Cutié (who left the Church in 2009). Some others, like the noted activist priests Philip Berrigan, SSJ and James Groppi, married while still in holy orders, eventually incurring excommunication and laicization. 

The nation’s first Black Catholic archbishop, another Josephite in Eugene Marino of Atlanta, was alleged to have secretly married his lover in 1988 but was not defrocked. Her affair with another priest was said to have led to a lovechild—another topic covered by Scicluna with the Times.

“This is a global reality,” he said of Catholic priests who have fathered children out of wedlock.

“We’re talking of priests around the world, so I think it happens in Malta as well.”

The archbishop’s interview comes less than a month after a married (Western) Catholic was ordained in the United States, the Black former Methodist pastor Jean-Claude Duncan, a father of nine with his wife. His ordination, for the Diocese of Saint Cloud, was a historic occasion for the diocese and for African-American Catholics.

As to whether such a practice could realistically expand within the Latin Church, Scicluna appeared noncommittal.

“The decision doesn’t depend on me… There is a place for celibacy in the Church and so far, the Lord has blessed the people he called upon with the gift of celibacy,” he told Zammit.

“However, people mature, enter relationships, love a woman, another person. And they have to make a choice. Right now, they have to make a choice.”

Nate Tinner-Williams is co-founder and editor of Black Catholic Messenger.

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