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Bishops reaffirm celibacy among priests

Vatican gathering to give 50 points to Pope Benedict

VATICAN CITY -- While acknowledging the acute shortage of priests, bishops from around the world reaffirmed the stance on celibacy for priests yesterday.

The Roman Catholic priests included the celibacy recommendation in 50 recommendations they will submit to Pope Benedict XVI.

The proposals, meant for the pope to consider for a document on the Eucharist, also dealt with whether Communion should be denied to politicians who support laws that contradict church teaching, such as abortion, as well as Catholics who divorce and remarry without getting an annulment.

The estimated 250 bishops who gathered for the three-week Synod of Bishops voted behind closed doors on the recommendations, which disappointed some church reform groups by hewing closely to church teaching. The synod, which began Oct. 2, formally ends today with a Mass celebrated by Benedict.

Cardinal George Pell, archbishop of Sydney, Australia, spoke at a press conference after the vote.

He said that the proposals were a ''massive restatement" of the church's celibacy rule for priests and other church traditions.

He also defended the meeting amid questions about why it was necessary to bring prelates from around the world to Rome to essentially approve the status quo.

''If you restate what are the central doctrinal positions of the church, with a massive unanimity on the nature of the Eucharist, that's something," Pell said.

''And if you reaffirm a particular discipline, or two or three disciplines, that's also something," he added.

Debate about the priest shortage dominated the synod, with bishops complaining that Catholics sometimes have to go weeks or months without having a priest to celebrate Mass because there are too few to go around.

Some liberal Catholics and church reform groups say that more men would join the priesthood if they were allowed to marry, and several bishops at the synod raised the issue of whether so-called ''viri probati," or married men of proven virtue, could be ordained. There is a precedent, of former Episcopal priests, who are married, being reordained in the Roman Catholic church.

But the final recommendation reaffirmed the ''inestimable gift of ecclesiastical celibacy" and said the idea of ordaining ''viri probati" was a ''path not to follow," according to the list of the propositions released by the Vatican.

The proposition also called for Catholics to pray for new priests, for pastors to encourage young people to go into the priesthood, and for bishops to be more willing to share their priests with dioceses in need if they have a surplus.

Several reform groups praised the openness of the discussion on the problem but said they were disappointed with the outcome.

''They opened the issue, talked solutions, then ran as fast as they could in the other directions," said Sister Christine Schenk, of the reform groups FutureChurch and Call to Action.

We Are Church, another group that said it was committed to reform group, said in a statement it regretted the bishops' ''lack of courage" to make any concrete changes.

Among their other recommendations, the bishops said Catholic politicians should realize their ''grave social responsibility" and not support laws that contrast with church teaching.

But no blanket recommendation was made on whether the politicians should be denied Communion, with a final proposal saying local bishops ''should exercise the virtues of firmness and prudence taking into account concrete local situations."

The issue gained attention during the 2004 presidential campaign, when Archbishop Raymond Burke of St. Louis said he would deny the Eucharist to the Democratic presidential nominee, John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, a Catholic who supports abortion rights. Other church leaders said they were not comfortable denying Communion; the US bishops' conference is studying the issue.

Another major issue of the synod was how to deal with Catholics who divorce and remarry without getting an annulment.

Church teaching says that such Catholics cannot get Communion because their situation ''objectively contrasts with God's law."

The bishops reaffirmed church policy, but called for these people to make ''every possible effort" to have their marriages annulled.

If the marriages cannot be declared invalid, the couple should celebrate their new marriage as a ''loyal and trustworthy friendship" -- meaning they shouldn't consummate it.

Other propositions reaffirmed the liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council, called for priests to prepare better homilies and suggested some changes to particular Mass rituals, such as the placement of the ''sign of peace" during Mass.

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