The Vatican has opened its door to the possibility of married priests, a move that would go against centuries-old Church tradition.
Archbishop Pietro Parolin, who will be No.2 in the Roman Catholic Church when be becomes secretary of state next month, declared that the priestly vow of celibacy derived from an age-old rule, but was not Catholic dogma.
"It's not a dogma of the Church and it can be discussed because it's an ecclesiastical tradition," Archbishop Parolin told El Universal newspaper in Venezuela, where he is completing his term as Papal Nuncio.
"It is a great challenge for the Pope because he has a mission to unite and all these decisions must be taken in a way that unites the Church, rather than dividing it," he said. "At that point, you can talk and reflect and go deeper into these issues that are not defined by faith and think about some changes, but always in the service of unity and as the will of God. It's not what I want [that matters] but to be faithful to what God wants for his Church."
Archbishop Parolin's comments come at a time of upheaval in the Church, which has been beset by scandals over sex abuse by priests, following the resignation of Benedict XVI and the election of the Argentine Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio as Pope Francis.
Francis has made waves by calling for a "poor Church for the poor". He has said he wants to boost the role of women in the Church, although he has noted that Pope John Paul II ruled out the ordination of women.
He has also taken a more tolerant stance on homosexuality, declaring: "Who am I to judge?"
Yesterday, he reached out to nonbelievers in an unprecedented letter to Italy's leading left-wing paper La Repubblica to answer a columnist who declared that he did not believe in God. The leader of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics told Eugenio Scalfari, the newspaper's co-founder and former editor, that non-believers did not commit a sin as long as they followed their consciences.
"The question for people who do not believe in God is to listen to their consciences. Also for those without faith, sin is going against your conscience. Listening to it and obeying it means making up one's mind about what is good and evil."
The Catholic insistence on the celibacy of priests dates back to the first centuries of the Church. The first Church law mandating celibacy was Canon 33, enacted at the Synod of Elvira, now the Spanish city of Granada, around 305-306 AD. The discipline was definitively reaffirmed at the Council of Trent in the mid-16th century.
The Orthodox Church and some Eastern Catholic churches, however, allow married priests.
Francis, in an interview in 2012 before becoming Pope, said: "For the moment, I am in favour of maintaining celibacy, with all its pros and cons … It is a matter of discipline, not of faith. It can change. Personally, it never crossed my mind to marry.