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Pope Francis Might Consider Ordaining Married Priests. Here’s Why That’s Not Already a Thing

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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:

Jesus himself was not married; biblical scholars assume that most of his disciples were, since the Judaism of the time frowned upon bachelorhood. There is good reason to believe that the majority of priests and bishops during the first four centuries of Christianity were married; so were many Popes, the last of whom was Adrian II in the 9th century.

One reason that celibacy eventually became the rule for clerics was early Christianity’s puritanical view of sex, even within marriage, as an evil except for procreation. “I feel that nothing more turns the masculine mind from the heights,” wrote St. Augustine, the dominant voice of Christian theology until the Middle Ages, “than female blandishment and that contact of bodies without which a wife may not be had.” At the same time as this austere view took root, the church saw the growth of monastic communities for men and women in which chastity, along with poverty and obedience, was regarded as a virtue essential to those who would give their lives to God.

At the urging of Popes and councils, monastic austerity was gradually forced upon the clergy as a whole. Pope Benedict VIII in 1018 formally forbade priestly marriages; the prohibition was solemnly extended by the First Lateran Council of 1123. The rule, however, was not easy to enforce. Until the Reformation, parish priests frequently scandalized the faithful by taking wives, or at least keeping mistresses and concubines, as did Popes and cardinals. After Protestantism rejected celibacy for the ministry as unnatural and unnecessary, the Council of Trent declared it an “objectively superior state of life” and imposed excommunication on priests or nuns who violated the canon laws prohibiting marriage.

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.

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Write to Olivia B. Waxman at olivia.waxman@time.com