A senior cardinal in the Catholic Church has raised the possibility that priests may be allowed to get married. Claudio Hummes, 72, Archbishop of Sao Paulo in Brazil and a strong candidate for pope in the event of a vacancy, gave his views to a Brazilian newspaper on the eve of taking up a top post in Rome that will give him charge over Catholic priests everywhere.
"Celibacy is a discipline, not a dogma of the Church," he told the Folha de S Paulo newspaper. "Certainly, the majority of the apostles were married. In this modern age, the Church must observe these things, it has to advance with history."
But yesterday, only hours before taking up his post as Prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy, the cardinal was forced into a U-turn. In a statement issued by the Vatican's press office, he repeated his point that celibacy was "a discipline not a dogma", but went on: "In any case, the norm of celibacy for priests in the Latin church is very ancient and rests on a consolidated tradition and on strong reasons, of a character both theological-spiritual and pastoral, confirmed also by popes."
The Vatican correspondent of Corriere della Sera newspaper described it as "extraordinary and without precedent ... [that] the official who will have authority over the life and discipline of priests" should release such a statement "on the eve of his installation".
Clearly someone high up in the Vatican felt the same way, hence the climbdown. "They are afraid of opening up a Pandora's box," said one seasoned Vatican observer. "If you admit married priests, for example, what would you do about priests who get divorced? The Pope has no appetite for this sort of reform."
Nevertheless, Cardinal Hummes, who is on the liberal wing of the Church, has signalled his commitment to explore the issue. Even the Vatican diehards may not be able to shut him up indefinitely.
The cardinal's bombshell came just a fortnight after a special Vatican council convened by the Pope confirmed the Church's commitment to celibacy.
The council met to decide what to do about Archbishop Emilio Milingo, the African cleric excommunicated for marrying a woman chosen by the Rev Sun Myung Moon.
In September Archbishop Milingo installed four married men as bishops, in defiance of the Church. One of the four, Peter Paul Brennan of New York, claimed that 150,000 men around the world, including 30,000 Americans, had left the priesthood because of the marriage bar.
In theory, priests may obtain permission to marry from the Pope, and Pope Paul VI often handed them out. But since the accession of John Paul II in 1978 such dispensations have become ever rarer and harder to obtain.
Married priests were once the norm: the New Testament has a reference to the mother-in-law of St Peter. Celibacy was introduced by Pope Gregory VII in the 11th century to keep the papacy at a distance from the aristocracy - and, later, from the Lutherans.Reuse content