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Photo: Franco Origlia/Getty Images

Pope Francis on Sunday formally opened a 3-week Vatican meeting of bishops that will debate whether the Catholic Church should allow married men in South America's Amazon region to be ordained, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Why it matters: A change to the Church's 1,000-year-old requirement of celibacy for priests could help fill a shortage of priests in the Amazon. Critics say it would "undermine the distinctive character of the priesthood," per WSJ.

By the numbers: There are 7,200 Catholics per priest in South America — almost 4 times the ratio as in North America, according to Vatican statistics.

  • In parts of the Amazon, the ratio is as high as 8,000+ Catholics for every 1 priest. The global ratio has risen sharply in recent decades, from 1,900 to 1 in 1980 to about 3,200 to 1 today.
  • Some remote parishes go months without a visit from a priest.

Context: In June, Pope Francis asked the Church to consider ordaining married elders who are respected by their communities to serve as priests in remote parts of South America.

  • A 3-week Vatican meeting of bishops will consider environmental and religious issues in the Amazon region in general, but priestly celibacy is one of the more contentious items up for debate.

What they're saying: In his homily on Sunday, the pope did not reference the celibacy debate directly, but asked the church to consider innovation: "If everything continues as it was, if we spend our days content that ‘this is the way things have always been done,’ then the gift vanishes, smothered by the ashes of fear and concern for defending the status quo."

  • American Cardinal Raymond Burke and Bishop Athanasius Schneider of Kazakhstan asked Catholics to hold prayer vigils and fast for 40 days throughout the meeting in protest of the debate.

Go deeper: Pope Francis meets with Jesuit criticized for LGBTQ outreach

Go deeper

Mike Pence calls Kamala Harris to offer congratulations and help

Mike Pence. Photo: Chip Somodevilla via Getty

Vice President Mike Pence called Vice President-elect Kamala Harris on Thursday to congratulate her and offer assistance in the transition, the New York Times first reported.

Why it matters: The belated conversation came six days before the inauguration after a contentious post-election stretch. President Trump has neither spoken with President-elect Joe Biden, nor explicitly conceded the 2020 election.

Updated 2 hours ago - Health

The coronavirus variants: What you need to know

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

New variants of the coronavirus circulating globally appear to increase transmission and are being closely monitored by scientists.

Driving the news: The highly contagious variant B.1.1.7 originally detected in the U.K. could become the dominant strain in the U.S. by March if no measures are taken to control the spread of the virus, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Friday.

2 hours ago - World

Abbas announces first Palestinian elections in 15 years

Abbas is 85 and in the 15th year of a 4-year term. Abbas Momani/AFP via Getty

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas published a decree on Friday announcing the dates for parliamentary and presidential elections in the Palestinian Authority.

Why it matters: This is the first time in 15 years that such a decree has been published. The last presidential elections took place in 2005, with Abbas winning, and the last parliamentary elections took place in 2006, with Hamas winning.