updated 11/16/2006 6:27:53 AM ET 2006-11-16T11:27:53

Pope Benedict met top advisers on Thursday to discuss the status of celibacy among Roman Catholic clergy and requests by married priests who want to return to the active ministry.

The meeting of more than 20 heads of Vatican departments was called to debate a Vatican strategy to deal with a renegade African archbishop who has founded a movement of men who left the active ministry to wed and want to return as married men.

The unprecedented gathering comes some two months after Archbishop Emanuel Milingo, a former Vatican official, raised the specter of a modern schism when he ordained four married men as priests in Washington D.C. He was excommunicated.

A Vatican statement this week said the Pope and aides would hold a “reflection on requests for dispensation from the obligation of celibacy and on requests for readmission to the priestly ministry by priests who had married”.

According to Church law, a man who is allowed to leave the priesthood, under a procedure known as a laicisation, must receive a separate dispensation from the vow of celibacy from the Pope.

Many men, however, have married without this dispensation and want to regularize their position in the Church.

Vatican officials have said no major decisions are expected to come immediately from the meeting, which one called “a study of the situation” that arose after Milingo’s “disobedience”.

Married priests' convention
Milingo rejects his excommunication and is planning a convention for more than 1,000 married priests -- and their wives -- in New York for Dec. 8-10.

The Roman Catholic Church insists that its priests remain celibate and has so far ruled out letting them marry.

Advocates of a married priesthood and optional celibacy say this would make some men more willing to join the priesthood and ease the shortage of priests in many parts of the world.

Priests were permitted to wed during the first millennium, but marriage was condemned by the Church at the Second Lateran Council in 1139.

In an open letter to the Pope issued two weeks ago, Milingo said “over 150,000 married priests stand waiting and willing to serve” the Church.

“These men are already trained and experienced in theology and ministry and have many years experience as married men. These are men who have loved their wives, and raised families. They ought to be called back to ministry immediately,” he said.

“The very life of the Church is at stake. Without priests, there is no Mass or Eucharist. The Eucharist is the center of the Catholic-Christian experience and faith. No Eucharist, no Church,” Milingo wrote.

Some men who left the priesthood to marry are now widowers or separated, their children are adults and they want to return to active ministry.

Milingo is not just a keen proponent of marriage, but tried it himself in 2001 at a mass ceremony held by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church. The union was never recognized by the Vatican and Milingo later rejoined the Catholic Church.

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