Vatican: Celibacy in Catholic Church open for discussion

The Vatican's new secretary of state said this week that clerical celibacy is open to discussion, signaling a shift in approach for the Roman Catholic Church under Pope Francis.

"Celibacy is not an institution but look, it is also true that you can discuss (it) because as you say this is not a dogma, a dogma of the church," Archbishop Pietro Parolin said in an interview with Venezuelan newspaper El Universal. "The efforts that the church made to keep ecclesiastical celibacy, to impose ecclesiastical celibacy, have to be taken into consideration. One cannot say simply that this belongs in the past."

Parolin, who was named Cardinal Secretary of State late last month, is considered the most powerful official at the Vatican after Pope Francis.

According to the National Catholic Reporter, Parolin's comments "are raising eyebrows" in Rome, "with some wondering if they herald looming changes in Catholic teaching and practice."

But Father Federico Lombardi, the director of the Holy See’s press office, told NBC News the comments were "in line with the teachings of the church."

It's not clear when celibacy became mandatory for priests, HuffPost Religion notes, but the first written mandate for chastity dates to 304 C.E., when Canon 33 of the Council of Elvira stated that all "bishops, presbyters, and deacons and all other clerics" should "abstain completely from their wives and not to have children."

And "a definitive ruling was handed down at the Second Lateran Council of 1139, which ruled that priests were forbidden to marry."

Parolin's admitted question of priestly celibacy represents “a great challenge for the pope."

In 2012, before becoming pontiff, Francis addressed the issue, saying he was in favor of maintaining the tradition "for the moment."

"It is a matter of discipline, not of faith," he said. "It can change."