The Pope Lays Down the Law on Celibacy

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Pope Benedict XVI believes Catholicism is growing sick in its historic birthplace of Western Europe, where a shortage of priests is both a symptom and an aggravating condition. But the 79-year-old pope made clear Thursday that he does not think opening up the Church to a married priesthood is the cure. After a roundtable with top Roman Curia cardinals to discuss the case of renegade Zambian archbishop Emanuel Milingo, who was excommunicated in September for having ordained four married men, the Vatican publicly reaffirmed "the value of the choice of priestly celibacy."

In normal circumstances, Milingo's taste for the spotlight might cause the Vatican to simply ignore him. But the fact that the Pope called the meeting in the first place is telling. The question of specific dispensations and the broader question of celibacy is not a matter of fixed church doctrine, but has long been a tradition in the Latin church, while Eastern rite churches allow married men to become priests. Church insiders say that a small core of progressive Cardinals have been trying to open up discussion of the rules going well back into John Paul's papacy. Some observers even speak of the risk of a new schism with Milingo's departure, though he is largely considered an unpredictable and isolated figure who's lost much of his original following.

His becoming a de facto public spokesman for those opposing the Church's centuries-old tradition of priestly celibacy, however, may have offered Benedict a unique opportunity to clearly state his position on this hot-button request early in his papacy, as John Paul II did in his second year in office. Vatican sources note that there are several prominent Cardinals who want to at least fine tune the policy on celibacy. "I don't think the Pope cares about Milingo," says one senior Vatican official. "But he wants to give the Cardinals a chance to have their say. It's better to respond head-on."

The plot of the African Archbishop's soap opera, which could be dubbed "As Milingo turns," has been twisting for years. Attentive viewers may remember that Milingo, who'd built a loyal international following for his passionate sermons and purported faith-healing prowess, shocked the Catholic Church in 2001 by suddenly marrying a South Korean woman in Rev. Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church. Milingo later patched things up with the Vatican, which simply never recognized his marriage to his handpicked bride, who held a weeks-long sit-in protest in St. Peter's Square, demanding her husband back. Milingo later published a book in which he repented his marital vows, and was eventually placed in a backwater Italian diocese where Church officials could keep an eye on him. But two months ago, Milingo, 76, burst back on the scene, ordaining four married American men as bishops in defiance of the Vatican. He was automatically excommunicated. He says he doesn't recognize the excommunication, and has organized a convention for more than 1,000 married priests — and their wives — in New York for December 8-10.

That show of support, however, isn't likely to sway the Vatican's thinking. Regardless of the shortage of future ranks for the priesthood, most Cardinals do not see allowing married men into the priesthood as the solution. "The value of the choice of priestly celibacy, according Catholic tradition, has been reaffirmed, and the need for solid human and Christian training, for seminarians as well as already ordained priests, has been reiterated," the Vatican said in its statement released Thursday afternoon, which did not mention Milingo. The note also cited discussion in the meeting of the requests of dispensation from the obligation of celibacy by those who leave the priesthood, as well as the rare readmission to their ministries for formerly married priests whose wives may have died and "who now meet the conditions required by the church," the statement said.

The debate is unlikely to take on much steam under the current reign, though supporters of loosening the celibacy vows say that Benedict officially addressing the issue helps keep it alive for the future. One Vatican source told TIME that a surprising sign of support for the progressives on this issue may be coming from one of Benedict's most loyal deputies and a noted traditionalist, Vienna's Cardinal Cristoph Schonborn. Austria, coincidentally or not, is one of the countries most sorely in need of priests. So while the latest Milingo chapter may be over, there may be more plot twists to come.