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Vatican's Secretary Of State Says Celibacy Is An Open Question

Pietro Parolin in 2009.
Hoang Dinh Nam
AFP/Getty Images
Pietro Parolin in 2009.

The Vatican's new secretary of state made some comments in an interview with a Venezuelan newspaper earlier this week that have surprised many.

Archbishop Pietro Parolin, whom Pope Francis appointed on Aug. 31, said the issue of priest celibacy is open to discussion.

"It is not a church dogma and it can be discussed because it is a church tradition," Parolin told El Universal, adding that changing a tradition does take a lot of thought.

"We cannot simply say that it is part of the past," he said. "It is a great challenge for the pope, because he is the one with the ministry of unity and all of those decisions must be made thinking about the unity of the church and not about its division. Therefore we can talk, reflect on these subjects that are not definite, and we can think about some modifications, but always with the consideration of unity, and all according to the will of God. It is not about what I would like but what God wants for His church."

As The Huffington Post reports, this is significant because priests have been asked to abstain from sex for centuries:

"Though it's not clear exactly when celibacy became mandatory for priests, the first written mandate for chastitydates back to 304 C.E., when Canon 33 of the Council of Elvira stated that all 'bishops, presbyters, and deacons and all other clerics' should 'abstain completely from their wives and not to have children.' A definitive ruling was handed down at the Second Lateran Council of 1139, which ruled that priests were forbidden to marry."

Of course, this comes on the heels of Pope Francis' comments that Catholics should not judge homosexuals. Francis, who became pope in March, has been widely viewed as bringing a fresh and more liberal view to the Vatican.

But what any of this means is up for debate.

The National Catholic Reporter, for example, says that Parolin's comments simply represent "the standard moderate Catholic line." That is:

"... priestly celibacy is a discipline, not a dogma, and can therefore be revised, but it nonetheless has value, and the church is not a democracy but it can and should be more collegial.

"Those points have been made many times by many different voices, and they don't necessarily point to any specific policy decisions. If anything, Parolin seems to want to temper expectations that Francis will turn the church on its ear, stressing the theme of continuity."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.