The Catholic Church should consider allowing married men to become priests, Pope Francis said, in what would be a radical departure from current Vatican teaching.
The lifting of the ban on married men being ordained would apply only in specific circumstances, for instance in remote areas of the world where priests are in short supply, the Pope said. But it would effectively reverse the centuries-old principle that Roman Catholic priests must be celibate.
In an interview with Germany's Die Zeit newspaper, the pontiff said he was open to the idea of so-called "viri probati" - married men of deep faith who are already involved in the Church – being allowed to become priests.
"We must consider if viri probati is a possibility. Then we must determine what tasks they can perform, for example, in remote communities," he said.
Francis’s greater flexibility towards some of the Catholic Church’s thorniest contemporary problems has been a pillar of his four-year papacy.
The compassion he has brought to bear on issues such as whether Catholics who divorce and then remarry should be allowed to take Communion has earned him rock star status among liberals but earned the opprobrium of many conservatives, especially in the United States.
As the Church’s first Latin American Pope, Francis is acutely aware that large countries like Brazil suffer from a lack of priests. In the Amazon region, for instance, there is just one priest for every 10,000 Catholics. Loosening the rules on who can be ordained could help solve that problem.
There are already a limited number of married priests within the Catholic Church, including married Anglican ministers who defected to Rome, some Coptic Catholics and members of some Eastern rite Catholic churches.
Pope Francis has said in the past that while he remains in favour of celibacy for priests, the principle is part of the discipline of the Church, rather than dogma, meaning that it can be discussed.
As part of a wide-ranging interview, the Pope said he sometimes suffers from a crisis of faith in which he doubted God’s existence. “I, too, know moments of emptiness,” he said.
He said he had experienced “spiritual dark moments”, times when he did not understand God’s intentions. To recover his faith, he appeals to God. “I ask, and He responds. Sooner or later, eh? But at times, you have to wait, in a crisis.”
Referring to long-standing reports that his reforming zeal is meeting trenchant opposition within the Vatican, he said: “From the moment I was elected Pope I have never lost my peace. I understand that someone might not like [my] way of acting, and I even justify it: there are so many ways of thinking; it is licit, it is human, and it is even a richness.”
He jokingly complimented the “cultured” language used in highly critical posters that recently appeared on billboards around Rome, which portrayed a photograph of him looking stern and the words: “Where’s your mercy?”
The posters were written in Roman street dialect rather than standard Italian and accused the Pope of attacking conservatives within the Church. The Pope said he prayed every day that he could retain his sense of humour over such sleights.
He also outlined the foreign travel he hopes to undertake this year, including visits to Portugal, India, Bangladesh and Colombia.