In 2005, at a Vatican synod on the Eucharist, Cardinal Angelo Scola floated a trial balloon. “To confront the issue of the shortage of priests,” the then Patriarch of Venice said, “some … have put forward the request to ordain married faithful of proven faith and virtue, the so-called viri probati.”

The cardinal’s balloon did not attract much attention. The final synod document said tersely: “this hypothesis was evaluated as a path not to follow”.

For the last decade, the phrase viri probati was only heard in a few circles. But last week, Pope Francis said the Church should reflect on whether the Holy Spirit is demanding viri probati. That doesn’t mean making celibacy optional, he says.

But the Pope believes it could help dioceses where a tiny number of priests have to serve a great number of Catholics.

Conversation about priestly celibacy is, of course, nothing new: it goes back much further than the 2005 synod. But the Pope has recharged the debate in two ways: first, by focusing it on the question of viri probati, and secondly, by introducing it at a time when the Church is remarkably divided over doctrine.

What would this look like in practice? The idea of viri probati is chiefly associated with retired German Bishop Fritz Lobinger, a leading voice in the campaign for a new kind of priestly ministry. Bishop Lobinger suggests that the Church could have “two different forms of priesthood”. Both would receive the sacrament of Holy Orders. But the married “elders” would take weekend courses rather than go to seminary. They would support themselves financially, wear ordinary clothes and, rather than being called “Father”, would be addressed like anybody else.

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