The pontiff and the heads of the nine congregations and 11 pontifical councils that make up the administration of the Holy See will reflect on calls for ``dispensing with the obligation of celibacy'' and requests for ``readmission to the priesthood presented by married priests,'' a Vatican statement said.
Pope Benedict is facing a shortage of priests as the Catholic faith wanes in popularity in Europe and the U.S. amid unpopular stances on issues such as contraception, abortion, celibacy and the role of women in the Church. In the five years through 2002, the Catholic population increased 22 percent in Africa and 5 percent in Asia, contrasting with a 1 percent decline in Europe, according to Fides, a Vatican news agency.
The celibacy debate was triggered by Emmanuel Milingo, a former archbishop of the Zambian capital, Lusaka, who was excommunicated by Pope Benedict two months ago for ordaining four married men as bishops.
Milingo provoked controversy in 2001 by marrying a South Korean woman in a mass wedding conducted by Reverend Sun Myung Moon of the Unification Church. Milingo later renounced his marriage and in July formed a lobby group called ``Married Priests Now'' to try and convince the Catholic Church to drop the celibacy obligation.
``It is very clear that the Roman Catholic Church has a great need of priests,'' said Milingo on his Web Site. ``Currently on the sidelines, there are approximately 150,000 validly-ordained priests. But these priests are married. The majority of these priests are ready and willing to return to the sacred ministry of the altar.''
UPDATE 12:20 EST
From Reuters via Yahoo
The Vatican reaffirmed celibacy for priests during a meeting with Pope Benedict on Thursday that discussed requests by married priests who want to return to the active ministry.A tidbit on Milingo by Reuters:
A Vatican statement said "the value of the choice of celibacy according to Catholic tradition was reaffirmed as was the need for a solid human and Christian formation, be it for seminarians as well as priests who have already been ordained."
The meeting between the Pope and some 20 heads of Vatican departments had been called to debate a strategy to deal with an African archbishop who has founded a movement of men who left the active ministry to wed and want to return as married men.
It came two months after Zambian Archbishop Emanuel Milingo, a former Vatican official, raised the specter of a modern schism when he ordained four married men as priests in Washington D.C. He was excommunicated.
The meeting had been called to reflect on requests for dispensation from the obligation of celibacy and on requests for readmission to the priestly ministry by priests who had married.
According to Church law, a man who is allowed to leave the priesthood, under a procedure known as a laicization, must receive a separate dispensation from the vow of celibacy from the Pope.
Many men, however, have married without this dispensation and want to regularize their position in the Church.
Some men who left the priesthood to marry are now widowers or separated, their children are adults and they want to return to active ministry.
The statement said the meeting discussed "the possibility of readmission to the exercise of the ministry of priests who at present meet the conditions foreseen by the Church." It did not elaborate. More.
Milingo rejects his excommunication and is planning a convention for more than 1,000 married priests and their wives in New York for December 8-10.
UPDATE 12:39 PM EST
Check out this headline from the Telegraph, UK: Pope ponders U-turn on married priests
The cardinals and archbishops of the Roman Curia also considered specific cases of married priests who have asked to return to the fold. The Vatican receives around 300 of these requests a year.
The Vatican said the wider question of whether to permit marriage and drop the vows of celibacy had not been discussed.
Instead, one source said the issue of viri probati had been raised. The viri probati are married men who are perceived as pillars of the community and could be ordained in order to solve clergy shortages in remote communities.
Although their cause was discussed at the Synod of Bishops last year, it was dismissed, as was the idea of permitting married priests to return.
Mgr Milingo, by contrast, said the Catholic Church was not being true to Jesus by excluding 150,000 married priests. He is now planning a faith-healing tour of his native Zambia.
Although many in the Vatican openly joke about his case, the Roman Curia was rattled by his popularity. Mgr Milingo was succeeded last month by Archbishop George Mpundu, who immediately warned Zambians that any services conducted by his predecessor were "not Catholic".
UPDATE 12:45 PM
And another bated-breath headline from the Vancouver Sun: Hopes high papal rules on a celibate priesthood may be changing
Hundreds of Roman Catholic priests across Canada, who left their clerical ministries to get married, were expected to hold private prayer vigils Wednesday night on the eve of an extraordinary meeting at the Vatican, to discuss the church's centuries-old rule on celibacy.
Pope Benedict XVI has summoned senior Vatican officials today for a ''reflection'' on the traditional Catholic ban on priestly marriage, one of the most contentious issues facing the church.
The meeting, announced earlier this week, is raising the hopes of some Catholics in Canada who have long advocated allowing priests to marry.
While no-one expects the Pope to lift the ban anytime soon, some hold hope that change is in the air.
''This meeting could be a sign that attitudes are changing in the upper levels of the Vatican,'' says Jim Noonan, a member of the Ottawa chapter of Corpus, a North American organization of married Catholic priests who want their church to relax its rules on celibacy.
''I think the Pope is beginning to realize that with the extreme shortage of priests around the world, he has to do something,'' says Noonan. ''Many of us have been saying for years that if you accept married priests, you'll get many more people who are prepared to serve. It may be an answer to a very serious problem.''