Pope Francis seemed to open the door a little bit to ending the rule of celibacy for the priesthood in an interview with an Argentinean news agency Infobae published on March 10. 

He said, “There is no contradiction for a priest to marry. Celibacy in the western church is a temporary prescription.

"It is not eternal like priestly ordination, which is forever, whether you like it or not. Whether you leave or not is another matter, but it is forever.

"On the other hand, celibacy is a discipline.”

Francis’ remarks created immediate controversy, with those on the right wing of the Catholic Church refusing to countenance any change on the celibacy rule which has held for nearly 1,000 years.

However, the church has been far from perfect in enforcing those rules. For instance, Pope Leo XII, in the 1820s, was rumored to have had an affair with the wife of a Swiss guard and to have fathered three children while he was a nuncio in Germany.

There is no question the Catholic Church would expand greatly in terms of vocations if the rule on celibacy was removed. Liberals say this must happen if the church is to have a future. But conservatives are adamant that celibacy is the firm law and must not be changed for any reason.

But the stark reality is that even with a return to no celibacy, the Catholic Church would still find itself in dreadful shape. That is because parishioners have left in huge numbers and are unlikely to come back no matter whether priests are celibate or not.

Pope Francis is actually bolting the stable door after the horse has left. The plethora of sex scandals that have overwhelmed the church over the past few decades have ensured that church pews are emptying at record rates, likely to never be filled again.

The right-wingers in the Catholic Church claim that the ultimate aim should be the creation of a group of true faith believers who will abide by the laws that have stood for thousands of years, and keep a strong but much smaller church.

However, Francis has rejected that view. He prefers a pastoral type of priest more concerned with people rather than process.

There will almost certainly be a schism in the church if Francis goes ahead with any decision to remove celibacy. And for sure, there is no rush on from the Vatican to do so.

The reality is the Catholic Church is deeply split on this issue. Francis clearly has the upper hand as by 2025, he will have appointed about 70 percent of all bishops and archbishops throughout the world.

On the other hand, the church’s right-wingers have become identified, especially in the US, with a range of conservative issues that leave little room for pastoral work. 

To be perfectly honest, Francis has talked a big game about issues such as LGBT concerns, and now celibacy, but has refused to be drawn into any substantive advocacy role about those matters.

He remains a very popular pope, a man of the people who clearly has goodwill and good deeds in his heart. But his failure to tackle the issues that are undermining the church could ultimately cost his reputation.

The Catholic Church is crying out for leadership on this issue, and also that of allowing women to play a greater part in the church.

What will the institution look like in the future if action is not taken? It will be a shadow of itself, and that’s a fact.

*This editorial first appeared in the March 22 edition of the weekly Irish Voice newspaper, sister publication to IrishCentral.