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Pope opens debate on allowing married Catholic priests in Amazon region

Pope Francis.
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