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An October meeting of Roman Catholic bishops from Brazil and nearby countries could prove historic. The Vatican today gave the bishops permission to discuss whether married men in the Amazon region might join the priesthood. Here's NPR's Tom Gjelten.
TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: All that happened today is that the Vatican said the agenda for the bishops' meeting in the fall can include discussion of whether some married men, in an emergency, can serve as priests. The bishops still have to debate the question, and Pope Francis would have to approve any change in the church's celibacy requirement. But just allowing the bishops to discuss it is a shift from the previous attitude in Rome.
ROCCO PALMO: The Vatican would crack down on any bishop, any major figure in the church who dared to say that priests could possibly get married.
GJELTEN: Rocco Palmo is editor of the website, Whispers in the Loggia. He is speaking via Skype.
PALMO: Here you have a Vatican document basically saying, green light, you can talk about it.
GJELTEN: The reason being there's a critical shortage of priests in the region, only about one for every 10,000 Catholics. Bishops in the Amazon region for years have said something has to be done to reach more people. Palmo says Catholics who care for the salvation of souls should be concerned about the plight of people living in these remote areas.
PALMO: They can't have a priest for weeks or months, which, if they can't have a priest, that means they can't have Mass. If they can't have Mass, they can't have the Eucharist, Holy Communion, the thing that Catholics consider to be the bread of life, the thing that keeps us alive spiritually.
GJELTEN: Some Catholic activists have advocated an end to celibacy in the Catholic priesthood. But John Gehring, the Catholic program director at the Faith in Public Life Organization, says this situation is unrelated to that push.
JOHN GEHRING: This is coming from the church leaders of the region, Catholics on the ground in the Amazon saying, this is an urgent crisis, and we need to rethink, in this particular context, how we respond to it. I mean, this is not an advocacy group saying, let's push this agenda.
GJELTEN: Another point, this would not be the first time there'd be married priests. Some married clergy have left the Anglican Church and joined the Catholic priesthood with their wives. That was approved nearly 40 years ago by Pope John Paul II and reaffirmed by Pope Benedict.
Still, allowing married priests in the Amazon region because of an emergency there could set a precedent. Massimo Faggioli, a theologian at Villanova University, notes that priest shortages are developing in other places as well.
MASSIMO FAGGIOLI: Which means that every church in the world can request this - in Europe, in North America, in Africa, Asia. So that could be the beginning of a general overhaul of the Catholic Church's dealing with celibacy of the priesthood.
GJELTEN: A final point, for hundreds of years in the early church, priests were allowed to marry. Celibacy in the priesthood is what Catholics call a discipline, not a doctrine. Tom Gjelten, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.