VATICAN CITY -- A senior cardinal warned yesterday that relaxing the Roman Catholic Church's rule on celibacy for priests would be a ''serious error," countering calls by reformers that allowing them to marry would help resolve a shortage of clergymen.
Cardinal George Pell, archbishop of Sydney, delivered the strongest defense of celibacy yet to the Synod of Bishops, a meeting that gives Pope Benedict XVI recommendations on running the church.
Pell praised what he called the ''ancient tradition and life-giving discipline of mandatory celibacy."
''To loosen this tradition now would be a serious error, which would provoke confusion in the mission areas and would not strengthen spiritual vitality" in the developed world, Pell said.
''It would be a departure from the practice of the Lord himself, bring significant practical disadvantages to the work of the church," he said in remarks from the closed-door meeting distributed to reporters.
The priest shortage has been a major topic at the synod, but there have been no explicit recommendations to relax the celibacy requirement for priests to combat it, the Rev. John Bartunek, a synod spokesman, said yesterday.
Some liberal Catholics and church reform groups say removing the celibacy rule for priests would encourage more men to join the priesthood and alleviate the shortage, which has forced the closure of hundreds of churches and clustering together of others.
At the synod, most of the bishops who have raised the shortage have suggested that the church better redistribute the priests it has.
Some Eastern rite Catholic prelates -- who are allowed to marry -- have told the synod that a married priesthood introduced different problems, such as the financial strain on dioceses providing for a priest's family.
In another major issue, ecumenical delegates to the meeting of bishops urged the church to more readily allow non-Catholic Christians to receive Holy Communion, saying it could help foster unity. Catholic teaching says Communion can only be given to non-Catholic Christians under certain circumstances.