Despite the Catholic Church’s longstanding prohibition on married men becoming priests, Pope Francis said he might consider making exceptions to ordain married men who are already heavily involved in the Roman Catholic Church in certain circumstances. The idea would be that they could work in rural areas that suffer from a shortage of clergy, according to his interview with the German newspaper Die Zeit published Thursday.
“[We] must determine what tasks they can perform, for example, in remote communities,” he said, according to the Associated Press.
But why were married men prevented from becoming priests in the first place?
The chastity requirement is spelled out in the church’s Code of Canon Law as such: “Clerics are obliged to observe perfect and perpetual continence for the sake of the kingdom of heaven and therefore are bound to celibacy which is a special gift of God by which sacred ministers can adhere more easily to Christ with an undivided heart and are able to dedicate themselves more freely to the service of God and humanity.”
But abstaining from marriage hasn’t always been a requirement for the sacrament of holy orders, according to America, the leading Catholic news magazine. Things were looser in the early church, although married clergy were often asked not to have sex with their wives, “in part due to prevailing attitudes about sex and its impact on the minister’s readiness for sacred duty.” It wasn’t until the 11th century that, based on the growing influence of and admiration for celibate monks, widespread celibacy requirements were adopted.
In 1970, at another moment when the Vatican addressed the topic, TIME explained how the evolution occurred:
Nowadays, there are some married men who are priests: Episcopal priests who converted to Catholicism, as shown in the book Keeping the Vow: The Untold Story of Married Catholic Priests, which features interviews with 72 married priests and their wives.
The Pope’s feelings on married priests aren’t likely to apply to expanding ordination to include women, however, for he told reporters in November 2016 that the church’s restriction on female priests will likely remain in place indefinitely.