Pope Francis says he is open to the possibility of permitting married men to become priests to address the serious shortage of Catholic priests in some countries.
The pope raised the idea in an interview with the German newspaper Die Zeit.
He ruled out the prospect of allowing single men who are already priests to marry, but was open to the idea of allowing unmarried laymen or men already married to be ordained.
The pope raised the prospect in the context of allowing "viri probati," Latin for "tested men," to be ordained in places with a scarcity of priests.
He told the newspaper the lack of Catholic priests was an "enormous problem" for the church.
"We need to think about whether 'viri probati' could be a possibility," he told the German weekly. "If so, we would need to determine what duties they could undertake, for example, in remote communities."
However, Francis said allowing priests in training to choose whether or not to be celibate was “not the solution.”
The idea of permitting married priests has been simmering at lower levels in the church in recent years.
In 2014, Bishop Erwin Krautler, bishop of Xingu in the Brazilian rainforest, told the Austrian newspaper Salzburger Nachrichten that he spoke to the pope about the desperate shortage of priests in his region.
The Austrian-born bishop noted that in his diocese, Brazil's largest with 800 church communities and 700,000 faithful, there were only 27 priests.
The bishop said the pope made it clear he would be open to ideas from the bishops as to how to address the problem, including ordaining married men, according to The Tablet, an international Catholic newsweekly.
In his latest interview, the pope also discussed the possibility of female deacons, saying that theologians should study the example of Scripture, according to the Catholic Herald. “What did this mean at that time (of the Bible)? What does it mean today?” He added: “Don’t be afraid! That makes us free.”
The idea that Roman Catholic Church priests should not be married is based on certain Biblical passages and a belief that a priest acts "in persona Christi" (in the person of Christ) and should therefore be celibate, like Christ.
The Vatican, however, accepts married priests in certain circumstances, such as those in the Eastern Rite sects of the church, and married members of the Anglican or Episcopal churches who convert to Catholicism.