Issues Divide Catholic Leaders Gathered in Rome

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More than 200 bishops from 118 countries are in Rome for a three-week-long meeting, or synod. Officially, they are discussing issues related to the Mass. But divisions have already appeared over hot-button issues like the worldwide shortage of priests and celibacy for priests.


Bishops of the Catholic Church are in Rome for a three-week meeting. Officially, the topic of the synod is the sacrament of the Eucharist, or Holy Communion. But as NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports, many bishops want to talk about the shortage of priests and celibacy.


The synod began with a speech in Latin that focused on theology, but it was hard, worldly statistics that dominated the first sessions. Throughout the world, a growing number of Catholics are unable to receive Holy Communion due to the lack of priests. For example, a Honduran bishop said he has one priest for every 16,000 Catholics in his diocese.

Nevertheless, at a Vatican press conference Monday, Cardinal Angelo Scola, the synod's key moderator, questioned whether it was even correct to talk about a lack of priests. He said priesthood is a gift from God, and the Eucharist is not a right.

Cardinal ANGELO SCOLA: (Through Translator) The church is not a corporation that needs a certain number of managers. When can you say that more priests are needed? Who can say how many priests there should be?

POGGIOLI: In a public display of dissent rarely seen at a Vatican press conference, Bishop Luis Antonio Tagle of the Philippines gave this rebuttal.

Bishop LUIS ANTONIO TAGLE (Philippines): In the absence of the priest, there is no Eucharist. And so we should face squarely the issue of the shortage of priests. Because without the ordained, then what type of church do we have?

POGGIOLI: A few hours later, in one of the bishops' discussions held behind closed doors, Cardinal Scola was challenged on the dogma of priestly celibacy. A Vatican briefer told the media that Lebanon's Melkite patriarch Gregoire Laham said celibacy has no theological foundation. In the Eastern Church, married priests are admitted, he said, and marriage is a symbol of the union between Christ and the church. In response, the briefer said Cardinal Scola insisted theological reasons do exist, but did not elaborate.

International and American Catholic movements issued an appeal to the bishops to discuss issues such as married priests, allowing divorced Catholics to receive Communion and the possibility of sharing Communion with other Christian denominations. Sister Christine Schenk, a leader of the US movement FutureChurch, said a survey sent to 15,000 US priests showed that 67 percent agree that celibacy should be discussed at the synod.

Sister CHRISTINE SCHENK (FutureChurch): I think we have the solutions. It's not that we have a shortage of priests; we have a shortage of vision. We have many women and men who are called to priestly ministry. They are not also called to celibacy. So we need to open the doors. We need to let the Spirit open our vision to who can be ordained.

POGGIOLI: Another controversial issue was raised by the Vatican's top doctrinal watchdog, American Archbishop William Levada. Levada reminded his colleagues of the controversy in the last US presidential campaign, and asked his fellow bishops to discuss whether Catholic politicians who support abortion rights should receive Communion. The synod's discussion documents says it's a sin for Catholics to support a candidate who is openly in favor of abortion.

Extensive media coverage of the controversial topics raised in the first two days of discussions apparently caused concern. Today, the Vatican decided to limit information given reporters. They will be briefed only on the thematic highlights of the bishops' debate, not the details. Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome.

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