German speaking theologians have already held their Conclave. Their letter, which in many respects appears very plausible, represents a nuanced undermining of Catholic life:
We turn to all those who have not yet given up hope for a new beginning in the Church and who work for this. We build upon the signals of departure and dialogue which some bishops have given in recent months in speeches, homilies, and interviews. .... The faithful stay away when they are not trusted to share responsibility and to participate in democratic structures in the leadership of their communities. Church office must serve the life of communities – not the other way around. The Church also needs married priests and women in church ministry. .... The Church’s esteem for marriage and unmarried forms of life goes without saying. But this does not require that we exclude people who responsibly live out love, faithfulness, and mutual care in same-sex partnerships or in a remarriage after divorce.As an agenda for the future of the Church, the theologians letter should not be given credence. It does not discern clearly between what is of the essence of Catholic life and belief and what is open to prudential pastoral decision.
Cardinal O'Brien's interview for the BBC is rather better in that he does clearly distinguish between what is of permanence and therefore unchangeable and what is open to prudential pastoral decision, the law of celibacy for priests being the example of the latter that has caught the attention of the media. I do think Cardinal O'Brien is quite right to point out that there are areas of the Roman Catholic Church where there are married priests. In England this is feature that has resulted from the permission of married former Anglican clergy to be ordained as Catholic priests. My own view of the situation, and I recognise that it is a situation that varies from Diocese to Diocese, is that we have de facto in England and Wales a situation of mixed practice, with both celibate and married clergy. One can have some sympathy for those men bound to the rule of celibacy who see the ready ordination of other men not so bound. But we should be precise here - it is the ordination of men who are already married, and not the marriage of men who are already ordained that is allowed (and the Cardinal does not seem to have been quite clear about this, if he is quoted correctly on the BBC website). I also wonder whether there is a certain amount of "the grass appearing greener in vocations other than one's own" for those priests who find fidelity to the promise of celibacy challenging. Fidelity to the vows of marriage also has challenges, and it might well prove for the priests involved to be a case of swapping challenges rather than doing away with them.
What does this mean for what a future Pope might do? Juridically, the Catholic Church upholds the law of celibacy for priests - cf Code of Canon Law c.1037 and 277 (though subject to dispensation by the Apostolic See c.1047, a dispensation which appears to be practiced in favour of married former Anglican clergy, but could be practiced in favour of others as well). Of particular interest in this regard are the provisions for Ordinariates for former Anglicans, which are also expected to uphold the law of celibacy for priests - cf Anglicanorum Coetibus VI.2:
§2. The Ordinary, in full observance of the discipline of celibate clergy in the Latin Church, as a rule (pro regula) will admit only celibate men to the order of presbyter. He may also petition the Roman Pontiff, as a derogation from can. 277, §1, for the admission of married men to the order of presbyter on a case by case basis, according to objective criteria approved by the Holy See.Though there might appear to be a demand for married priests - somewhat worryingly, a demand often associated with the quite different question of the ordination of women and therefore betraying a poor ecclesial sense - that might also need to be balanced against the not-so-visible valuing of the evangelical counsels among the new movements and communities, many of which recognise the fuller living of their charisms in community life lived under vows or promises of the counsels.
The present situation seems to enshrine one principle in law and then compromise it in a systemic way in practice. This seems to me unsustainable in the long run. It would be more coherent to have a common basis for dispensation from the law of celibacy that is applied to all men, and not just to convert Anglican clergy. But this is not quite the same as Cardinal O'Brien's suggestion that men should be able to consider whether or not they should or could get married and, at the same time, be priests.
Change? Unlikely, whoever the next Pope is. And I think it would be a mistake to see Cardinal O'Brien's remarks as having been made in any spirit of pressing for change. And, as for the German theologians .... the less said the better.