(Photo: Reuters/Stefano Rellandini)
The Roman Catholic Church may be open to discussing its long held requirement for priests to lead a celibate life as it prepares for a new chapter with the coming election of Pope Benedict XVI's successor, some church leaders have said.
"It startles me sometimes [when people] say why doesn't the church talk about married priests," New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan told CNN. "I think we talk about it; I can't get my hair cut without my barber asking me about it. [But] I don't think there would be that kind of change."
Many church leaders are wondering what changes, if any, will unfold when the new pope comes to power.
Celibacy has been an issue that has divided Christians among denominational lines – Anglican and Protestant clergy are allowed to marry, and keep their marriages even if they choose to convert to Catholicism. All Catholic seminarians, however, are required to remain celibate, which serves as a model of Christ's own celibacy.
"For a pope, the mission statement is to conserve in the best sense of the word ... preserve the spiritual patrimony of the church, the timeless teaching that's taught to us from Jesus to his apostles through 2,000 years of the Church," Dolan added, who will be one of the cardinals voting for a new pope at the Vatican.
"Now that doesn't mean he might not change the way it's presented."
Outside observers have pointed out that the increasingly sexualized modern life makes celibacy harder to hold on to, with some in the medical profession even calling it an abnormality and questioning if it is biologically possible for one to abstain from all sexual activity.
Critics have also blamed celibacy for creating unrealistic expectations of priests, leading some down the road of sexual abuse.
The problem is not something new for the Catholic Church, however, and even back in the 1960s Pope Paul VI published an open letter reminding the faithful of why the tradition of celibacy is so important and why it is a superior way of achieving grace.
"In any case, the church of the West cannot weaken her faithful observance of her own tradition," Pope Paul VI wrote at the time.
Cardinal Keith O'Brien, the recently retired British cleric who admitted to engaging in inappropriate sexual relations in the 80s, revealed to the BBC in February that for many priests, celibacy is a pretty big challenge. O'Brien offered that the requirement should be lifted to provide priests with choice on the matter.
"I'd be very happy if others had the opportunity of considering whether or not they could or should be married. It's a free world and I realize many priests have found it very difficult to cope with celibacy as they lived out their priesthood, and felt the need of a companion, of a woman, to whom they could get married and raise a family," the retired cardinal said.
Other Catholics, however, insist that with the proper discipline it is possible to live a celibate life regardless of the pressures placed on by society.
"It's possible when people have an inner maturity and the faith and support structures are in place," Father Stephen Wang, dean of studies at Allen Hall Seminary, told BBC.