Leading German bishops back end to priestly celibacy obligation

Celibacy of priests a biblically-attested form of following Jesus ... but not only one, says senior prelate

Leading German Catholic bishops have come out in favour of loosening their church’s celibacy requirement and opening the priesthood to married men.

Bishop Georg Bätzing, head of the German Bishops’ Conference, welcomed calls to reform celibacy rules from two other senior clerics, Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich and Berlin archbishop Heiner Koch.

Dr Bätzing said “the celibacy of priests is a biblically-attested form of following Jesus . . . but not the only form, at least not in the Catholic church”.

“The Catholic churches of the East have married priests,” he said. “I can’t see how marriage and the priesthood aren’t a common enrichment for this priestly service and for the common life of spouses.”


His forthright remarks came ahead of a crucial sitting of the synodal reform process in the German church, where 230 delegates are discussing issues including priestly celibacy, sexual teaching and the role of women.

Before this latest session – scheduled to run until Saturday – Munich’s Cardinal Marx said it “would be better” if some priest were married and that “things cannot continue as they are”.

One of Germany’s most senior church leaders and an influential adviser to Pope Francis, Cardinal Marx questioned on Thursday whether celibacy “should be a basic requirement for every priest”.

“I think that things as they are cannot continue like this,” he told the Süddeutsche Zeitung daily . “If some say: ‘without the obligation of celibacy, they will all get married!’, my answer is: so what? If they all marry, it would at least be a sign that things are not currently working.”

Similar  remarks from other leading church figures have brought fresh momentum to debates that divide liberal reformers and conservative traditionalists in the Catholic church in Germany – and worldwide.

The obligation for Catholic priests to live celibate and chaste lives has roots going back to the fourth century. In canon law, the Catholic church obliges clerics to “observe perfect and perpetual continence for the sake of the kingdom of heaven”.

Leading lay co-organisers and participants in Germany’s synodal process have welcomed the bishops’ remarks, arguing that the decision to live a celibate and chaste life should be a choice, not an obligation, for becoming a priest.

The latest session of the synodal process is taking place in Frankfurt in the shadow of last month’s report from the archdiocese of Munich-Freising, detailing nearly 500 cases of clerical sexual abuse from 1945-2019.

This session’s paper calls for far-reaching overhaul of existing organisational structures that are “shielded from criticism and decoupled from control” and “cause and encourage an abuse of power”.

Germany’s Committee of Catholics (ZdK), the country’s leading lay organisation, said it was optimistic that a majority of bishops would back resolutions for reform “not in a few years . . . but now”.

Other proposals in the paper call for “regional solutions” to key reform issues, including the ordination of women, and an “open dialogue” on these reforms with Rome

Yet to sound out Rome

ZdK president Irme Stetter-Karp warned that lay members of the synodal process would suspend their participation unless two-thirds of participating bishops backed the current paper.

She said the synodal committee had yet to sound out Rome, which has the final word on far-reaching church teachings, but that there were other issues that could be dealt with locally, such as the church’s stance on homosexuality.

The church views homosexual acts as “intrinsically disordered” because they “close the sexual act to the gift of life”.

Last week 125 German priests and church employees came out publicly and demanded an end to discrimination against them in church teaching and church labour law.

Among those who have backed the “Out in Church” campaign is Cardinal Marx. He said last week that, for him, homosexuality poses “no limitation on the possibility of becoming a priest”.

Church rules that homosexual men should not be ordained from 1961 were tightened in 2005 when Pope Benedict clarified that men with “deeply rooted homosexual tendencies” cannot be ordained priests.

He later issued a directive for psychological screening of prospective candidates that allowed for exclusion of people with “uncertain sexual identity” and “deep-seated homosexual tendencies”.