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Facing a growing shortage of priests, the Roman Catholic Church is turning to former priests who left their callings to get married.

While the “dispensed” priests won’t be allowed to take confessions or celebrate mass — they will be asked to serve as teachers and lay workers in such roles as helping serve communion to the congregation, roles already filled by lay members of local congregations.

“The Vatican has appealed to diocesan bishops to encourage priests who have left ministry in order to get married to play a more active role in parish life,” reports  Catholic Herald magazine, which reports that Cardinal Ivan Dias, the Prefect for the Evangelization of Peoples in Rome, has written a letter giving more discretionary power to bishops for involving a dispensed cleric in parish life:

The letter, dated February 2, 2011, was sent to a priest who had written to the congregation on behalf of an Australian missionary society that is seeking a relaxation of the prohibitions on dispensed clergy.

Cardinal Dias wrote of his confidence that the Vatican’s reforms would enable dispensed priests to lead a more active life in the Church as committed Catholics under their bishop’s guidance.

In the past, former priests were prohibited from celebrating mass, delivering homilies (sermons), administering communion, teaching or working in seminaries. They were also restricted on how much teaching on the faith they could do in Catholic schools and universities.

The cardinal’s letter means that the enforcement of half of those prohibitions now come under the discretion of the local bishop.

Is this a move in the direction of allowing married ex-priests to return to the priesthood? Married Episcopal Church ministers who switch to the Catholic Church are now allowed to serve in the full capacity as priests — and remain married.

In February, a Lutheran preacher and married father of two was ordained as a Catholic priest. Harm Klueting, 61, a professor of theology at universities in Cologne and Switzerland, also ordained as a Lutheran minister is now serving as a Catholic priest. His wife has become a nun in the Carmelite order — and neither was required to take the traditional vows of celibacy nor chastity.

“The Vatican has tried repeatedly in recent years to avoid giving any credence to speculation, especially in North America, that the church may have to end mandatory celibacy in order to remedy the growing shortage of priests,” reported John Dart in the Los Angeles Times.

Pope John Paul II, he noted, made it clear that a married priesthood and celibacy were not on the agenda. Pope Benedict is even more strict.

However, the topic continues to be discussed.

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