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Vatican reaffirms celibacy for priests

VATICAN CITY -- A Vatican summit led by Pope Benedict XVI reaffirmed mandatory celibacy for priests yesterday, rebuffing a high-profile crusade by a married African archbishop who has been excommunicated from the Roman Catholic Church.

In a statement after the three-hour meeting, the Vatican said: "The value of the choice of priestly celibacy, according to Catholic tradition, has been reaffirmed."

In announcing the summit earlier this week, the Vatican said it would examine "the situation created by the disobedience of Monsignor Emmanuel Milingo."

Milingo, of Zambia, incurred automatic excommunication in September when he ordained four married American men as bishops in defiance of the Vatican. He already had drawn the Vatican's ire in 2001, when he took a South Korean woman as his wife in a group wedding ceremony of the Unification Church of the Rev. Sun Myung Moon.

As he steps up his campaign, Milingo is hoping hundreds of married priests will join him in celebrating Mass in a hotel near Newark, N.J., in early December, said one of the married men he ordained, the Rev. George Augustus Stallings Jr., of Washington.

Priests' spouses are also invited to the gathering, Stallings said.

"Unfortunately our prayers were not answered in that our hopes that [the Vatican] would begin to see the way to allow for a married priesthood," Stallings said in a telephone interview.

"We're more determined than ever," Stalling said, insisting that Milingo did not want to "rupture the unity of the church."

When Milingo was excommunicated, several Vatican watchers said the Holy See was worried about the possibility the charismatic archbishop, with the power to ordain bishops and priests, could start a schism.

Milingo sent a letter to Benedict two weeks ago to appeal for openness from the Vatican on married priests, Stallings said.

The Vatican said summit participants were briefed "on the requests to receive dispensation from the obligation of celibacy that have been made in recent years and on the possibility of being readmitted to the exercise of the ministry of priests who now meet the conditions required by the church."

The Vatican's spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said that those "conditions" could refer to such situations as a married priest who is now a widower and wants to be readmitted to the exercise of his priestly functions.

The summit yielded "no change in the current discipline" of the church on the celibacy requirement, Lombardi said.

The Vatican did not cite any figures, but there are estimated to be at least 100,000 married priests worldwide, with about 25,000 of them in the United States.

The summit statement also stressed "the need for solid human and Christian training for seminarians as well as already ordained priests."

The Rev. Joseph Fessio, provost of Ave Maria University in Naples, Fla., and editor of Ignatius Press, Benedict's US publisher, said it was to be expected that the summit would reaffirm the celibacy requirement.

Asked whether the Vatican's use of the word "value" of celibacy instead of "requirement" in the statement meant a shift on its stance, Fessio said: "I think there is some ambiguity which is probably intended so that the Church's position, which is firm and not going to change, will not appear to be simply an authoritarian response."

Fessio said the statement's style was "characteristic" of Benedict.

"He is very clear, and he is very firm, and he's very gentle and very sensitive," Fessio said.

Proponents of easing the celibacy requirement say it could help ease the shortage of clergy in many parts of the world.

The Vatican requires celibacy of priests ordained under the Latin rite, although married men can become priests in the Eastern rite. The Vatican has also accepted some married Anglican priests who came over to the Catholic fold.

A Vatican meeting of bishops from around the world last year rejected suggestions that the celibacy requirement be dropped for priests.

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